Dear President Bush:
I write to apologize. Your presidency was an awfully long eight years for me, but I read a newspaper column today that made me stop, think, and admit something to myself: From 2001 to 2009, I seldom looked at you with compassionate eyes. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into the mud of political frustration and rancor that has only gotten worse since you left office.
The column that prompts my letter is by Cokie and Steve Roberts, “What Clinton, Bush can teach us about leadership.” You and President Clinton, the Roberts report, are starting the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and “part of [your] mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.” I get the impression that you and President Clinton are comparing the political climate of your presidencies with that of President Obama and trying to push us out of the muddy cesspool that is only getting more toxic. And, the Roberts note, the libraries of Lyndon Johnson and your father are joining with you in this effort.
A photograph from the program’s launch shows you and President Clinton sharing a hearty laugh. More from the column: “By [Bush’s and Clinton’s] presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other. And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues.” Oh, my Lord, may it be so. Please know that I’m sending prayers and every good wish your way for success.
I’m pretty sure this spirit of collegiality and cooperation was alive and well in you during your presidency, and occasionally it would occur to me that your job was daunting, your challenges staggering. The trouble is, that sympathetic sentiment never made the southward journey from my head to my heart. Of course, now I watch the guy I voted for trying to get anything at all done, and sadness rests in my chest. I get it. For some time now, governing has been exceedingly difficult and often impossible. We’re stuck in mud. So I feel sad for you retroactively. Forgive me for being late.
I should mention that during your years in office my next-door-neighbor and I agreed you would be a great guy to have a beer with. It’s strange, even with my passionate opinions about all that occurred on your watch, I would rather talk to you about incidentals. For example, your gaffs are legendary. My favorite is from 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” As I read this, I laugh, but honestly, there’s no edge to it. My old frustration has softened. George W. Bush was President, but he was also a guy with a microphone in his face for hours each day. So I probably should cut him a break.
I also recently saw one of your paintings, the one with your feet—those are your feet, correct?—sticking out of bathwater. Again, I’m laughing, but if you were here with me this morning, you would understand at once that it comes from a loving place. You’re a fellow human being, and when you were in the Oval Office, I routinely forgot that.
The Roberts mentioned something about you in their report that I wish I had known years ago. “And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.” I can see now your humanity more clearly. A man who would paint his feet in the bathtub would have no qualms about calling the guy who worked the previous shift for help.
So, Mr. President, please accept my apology. It’s not fair to bemoan the intolerance and anger in Washington when I’m a willing participant. This letter may never reach you. If by chance it does, receive my good wishes for your Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and my thanks for what I now believe to be your sincere efforts to do what you thought best for our country.
Peace and blessings,