I admit, I have been one of those who, buried under some 15 layers of sweaters and hats and yet still shivering, standing beneath the shadow of the Washington Monument in the January cold and listening to the warm, drawling voice of the president who has just telephoned in to the March for Life (“Nellie, it’s good to be with you!”) – I have been one of those who have cynically thought, “If it’s so good to be with us, Mr. President, why aren’t you actually with us?”
George W. Bush never did personally come to the March for Life. And after a few years, those of us who attended the march on an annual basis could have written his remarks for him – the words of encouragement, the affirmations of the humanity of the unborn child and the references to the Constitution and then the list of the same handful of practical political achievements: the partial-birth abortion ban, the unborn victims of violence act, the Mexico City policy, the veto of the embryonic stem cell bill, etc.
Sometimes, especially in the midst of a dreary January afternoon, the list seemed a little threadbare. It can be difficult to rejoice enthusiastically that at long last the law makes clear that we oughtn’t to suck out the brains and crush the skulls of our children, or that we can’t abandon to die the infants that we failed to kill inside the womb.
Of course, every year the list grew a little longer, an item or two was tacked on here or there, and that was encouraging. This year, if Bush were still president, he would undoubtedly proudly mention the successful passing of the conscience protection regulations by Health and Human Services. And we would all enthusiastically cheer.
And why not?
It is easy, especially towards the tail-end of an eight-year-long and always controversial presidency, when familiarity so easily erodes into contempt, to give in to our cynicism. It is easy to give voice to our wounded expectations, which are so often merely our instinct to shift responsibility, and wonder why Bush did not do more.
For eight years we had a pro-life president; why, then, isn’t the U.S. a pro-life country? It is effortless to respond, “Because George Bush didn’t do as much as he could or should have, as much as we expected him to do.” It’s a lot harder to say, “Because we haven’t done as much as we could or ought to have.” And, as with many other things, you will find that the hard answer strikes at the heart of things, while the easier is mere evasion.
We sometimes like to think that our politicians have unlimited power to do as they please. In other words, we like to think that there is a dictator rather than a president. This gives us the comfort of feeling that, once we’ve put “our man” in power, we’ve done all that we can. But of course, that is the whole point of the elegant U.S. political structure – that no one has that power.
Bush himself was clearly aware of his own limitations, and the limitations of his fellow politicians. In his 2007 address to the March for Life, he observed: “As we move forward, we’ve all got to remember that a true culture of life cannot be built by changing laws alone. We’ve all got to work hard to change hearts. We will find areas where we can agree and, at the same time, work to persuade more of our fellow citizens to join this great cause.”
That’s good stuff. It reveals a practical, anti-utopian worldview that recognizes the real victory of good over evil won’t happen in the Oval Office, but in the hearts of every man, woman and child. The only successful movements are grassroots movements.
We are only deluding ourselves if we think that just getting the “right man” into the presidency is going to change everything. If you’re not convinced, just think about how difficult it was for Bush even to have passed the partial-birth abortion bill. We may complain that banning that gruesome procedure is hardly a victory – but for Bush it was a victory, and one that was hard come by. Three district courts and three appeals courts declared the thing unconstitutional before the Supreme Court finally upheld it, three and a half years after he signed it.
American Life League president Judie Brown summed up the Bush legacy like this: “President Bush has advanced the pro-life cause … somewhat.” Her praise for the president is so restrained that it might sound like a reproach. But she did not mean it as a reproach. If anything she meant it as a compliment. Like the others I spoke to, Brown said that if she had the chance, she would look the president in the eye and say, “Thank you for being pro-life.”
Catholic journalist and activist Deal Hudson went quite a bit further than Judie and said that “no president has accomplished more for the pro-life cause than George W. Bush.” He went on to explain that Bush’s “pro-life initiatives were not just legislative, not just policy-driven. They were personnel driven. When you look at the staff that was put in place in crucial departments like Health and Human Services, the Justice Department … the people (who) were put in these positions transformed the culture of the government that was left them by the Clintons.”
That’s a good point. And it is echoed by others. If, for instance, you were to speak to any of those who spend their days in the corridors of the UN, you would hear about how the country’s presence at the UN was transformed overnight, following the inauguration of Bush in 2001. Clinton’s people were out, and Bush’s in. And Bush’s people were exactly what Bush promised they would be – pro-life and pro-family. “Bush and his negotiators – particularly Ellen Sauerbrey – were among the bravest in the world,” Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute recently told the National Catholic Register. “At times, she stood up completely alone; she was hooted at, hissed at and booed.”
But even Ruse admitted that, despite being the “bravest in the world,” Bush and his people couldn’t, of themselves, change the world. “Honestly, there will be no lasting legacy (at the UN),” he said, “because the Bush administration was profoundly outnumbered … (the) victories are short-lived and will not last, but they were heroic while they did it.”
As we come to the end of an era, it seems a good idea to cast aside our cynicism and recognize former president Bush for what he was – a truly and sincerely pro-life president, who did what he could in the midst of difficult circumstances to put an end to what he clearly saw as a grave evil.
Take a moment, go back and read over some of Bush’s speeches about the life and family issues — even, for that matter, his addresses to the March for Life. We may have lamented his absence, and his phoned-in remarks may have come to seem stale over time, but in reading over them now, I see that they really ought not to have. In these addresses, Bush spoke in a way that you would expect only the most faithful Catholic bishops and the most orthodox evangelical preachers to. He spoke fearlessly, strongly, stirringly, about the need for a culture of life, about the right to life of all human beings, about the sanctity of life and he rooted the whole thing in a solid and unapologetic Christian theology.
There isn’t a hint of the politician to be found in his words. They are as straightforward as anything; no evasions; no ducking the point; no glossing over distinctions; no vague phrases that can cut both ways; no calls for an undefined “compromise”; no foolish talk about how we have to just “come together” in our differences and somehow the problem will go away. His was a voice of contradiction in a world that has rejected the good.
It’s not every day you hear that sort of talk from a politician. But we heard it day in and day out for eight years. It didn’t make him popular. Indeed, people hated him for it. But Bush never backed down. As Mark Steyn put it, “George W. Bush is who he is and he never pretended to be anything but. Do you know how rare that is? If you don’t, you surely will after six months of Barack Obama’s enigmatic cool.”
Which brings us to a final point. Obama is taking power. There will be no more telephone calls from the president of the United States to the March for Life. There will be no more National Sanctity of Life days (the last of which was proclaimed in his final days in office).
We will soon be pining for the “good ol’ days” when we had as president of the United States a man who was willing to take the difficult path, and to call out evil for what it was, and defend the good. And yet, we need not despair. Bush, for all of his goodness and sincerity, couldn’t save the country in eight years. Neither can Obama ruin it.
To despair about Obama is to give him too much credit, to overestimate his power. The true response to Obama is the Christian response and that is to shoulder the weight of the responsibility ourselves instead of looking to another fallen human being to save us; it is to step up our efforts to change the world within the limited sphere that has been given to us. And it is to labour under the knowledge that the final victory has already been won by Christ and all we’re doing is somehow tying up the loose ends. In this way only will the United States, and the whole world, be transformed; in this way only will a true culture of life triumph.
John Jalsevac is an editor at LifeSiteNews.com, where a version of this column first appeared on Jan. 16. It is reprinted here with permission.