As the country considers the inauguration of Barack Obama, I’m mindful of another inauguration that seems a long time ago, and which speaks volumes to the presidential transition we are about to witness.
It was a January day in 1999, two hours before George W. Bush was inaugurated into his second term as Texas governor. Bush sat in a pew at the First United Methodist Church in Austin and listened to Pastor Mark Craig. His family was there—Laura, the twins, his mother and father.
“Most lives have defining moments,” Bush later recalled. “Moments that forever change you. Moments that set you on a different course. Moments of recognition so vivid and so clear that everything later seems different.” Listening to Mark Craig’s sermon, said Bush, was one such moment.
Craig asked Bush and the others what they would do if he gave them each a check for $86,400. He set conditions: The entire sum must be spent that day. The lesson, of course, was to spend the money wisely; to be good stewards. Yet, the lesson was also to seize an opportunity.
Then, Craig changed the terms: Imagine if he gave them 86,400 seconds of time, rather than money. How would they best invest that time? The message was the same for Bush: seize the opportunity.
“The sermon was a rousing call,” the governor interpreted, “to make the most of every moment,” to “rise to the challenge.”
Then came another Craig zinger that jolted Bush. The pastor spoke of the reluctant Moses, uneasy over whether he was the one to lead the Israelites. Bush put it this way: “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt? Moses pleaded… The people won’t believe me. I’m not a very good speaker. Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”
Craig looked at Bush and said America was “starved for leadership.” The nation needed leaders with “ethical and moral courage,” who would “do good for the right reasons.”
Turning to her son just after the sermon, Barbara Bush pointedly explained, “He was talking to you.”
Bush had been contemplating a run for president. Craig’s sermon helped convince him. His life would “never be the same.”
I’ve thought of that incident many times over the last eight years. I don’t want to overdo the Bush-Moses analogy, or draw any theological lessons from that church in Austin. But a few things jump out:
Yes, it turned out that the 43rd president shared Moses’ conviction, moral courage, and faith in God. But he also, sadly, shared that lack of communication, a liability that doomed him. And it is that component of this story that strikes me.
Last year, President Bush hit the highest disapproval ratings in the history of Gallup polling. Not only did he fail to elect a Republican successor, but the Democrats took the presidency and Congress by huge majorities, with the judiciary set to follow. His failure to communicate was at the crux of the crisis.
Here’s a story I couldn’t tell during the Bush presidency: I had frequent contact with a White House official, who preferred to remain anonymous. I pressed upon him the need for this president to have a “Berlin Wall moment.” I still have the first email I sent to him. Here is an excerpt:
President Bush needs a Berlin Wall moment, comparable to Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” For Reagan, that line in that speech will forever connect him to the momentous events of 1989, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of communism. By that line alone, Reagan is linked to that great historical development of his presidency/generation.
If freedom and democracy do indeed begin to spread throughout the Middle East, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq, it would help President Bush’s legacy (tremendously so) if he had a Berlin Wall moment that forever ties him to that spread of liberty […]
The immediate goal would be to send a message to these people [in the Middle East]—to inspire them, as Reagan did for the captive peoples of Eastern Europe, who will always love Reagan for the bravery to call out to them and not forget them. Who knows, this kind of message might help transform 2005 into 1989. Is that unthinkable? Of course it is—just as the events of the fall of 1989 were unimaginable. In the long-run, history will remember a speech like this. It could be one of the high-water marks of the Bush presidency.
My friend responded immediately: Where could that moment be? What was the Middle East equivalent of the Berlin Wall? I gave some ideas, but mainly urged that the president’s staff run with the concept and fill in the blanks.
Nothing happened, even as I checked back. Needless to say, the Berlin Wall moment never came. It was symptomatic of the dreadful failure of this president and his staff to communicate his message—an inspiring message.
In the end, some day, George W. Bush’s presidency may prove a big success, especially if his extraordinary goals in the Middle East come to fruition, which would literally change the course of history. For now, though, his legacy faces a long, trying walk through the desert.