A great read from a good man

I have known George W. Bush for more than 45 years — since we were at Yale College in the mid-1960s together (he was a year behind me and we were fraternity brothers at Delta Kappa Epsilon). I am almost finished reading his memoir, Decision Points. And my overwhelming reaction is that Bush has changed little as a human being since back then — non-judgmental of others and possessed of an inner faith in himself that makes him comfortable with all kinds of people.

I am often asked whether I saw the possibility that George Bush might be president someday when we were friends at Yale. The quick answer, as my 12-year-old would say, is “not.” But as I read his book, I recall that I recognized the people skills he had back then, especially his ability to depersonalize political and policy differences.

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One “decision point” described in the book with which I had some tangential personal involvement was his decision to establish a terrorist surveillance program (“TSP”) shortly after 9/11. In 2005, Bush appointed me as the one Democrat on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by Congress in 2003 on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. In 2006, we were “read into” the TSP, i.e., fully briefed and allowed to witness it, in operation, in real time, under highly classified circumstances.

I was impressed with the program and the care people took to protect privacy rights while trying to prevent the bad guys from attacking us again. But I was concerned about whether the program was entirely legal under existing laws. I wondered whether Bush shared those concerns.

Thus, I was somewhat shocked when I read in his book that Bush was not at all aware that the upper echelons of his Justice Department all believed that at least one component of the program was illegal. That told me his presidency suffered a significant gap, at least at times, in his presidential decisionmaking process — i.e., that his senior staff (perhaps also the vice president) sometimes decided it was better for the boss not to know certain things.

He describes his surprise when his deputy attorney general, Jim Comey, and his FBI director, Robert Mueller, as well as other senior DoJ officials all threatened to resign if the program were allowed to continue. Fortunately, he rejected the advice of the dangerous ideologues surrounding him, who recommended that he assert his unilateral executive power and allow the mass resignation. The pragmatic George Bush I have known over the years decided to avoid another Watergate-type “Saturday night massacre” and change the program. But he also writes: “I was disturbed that this had happened at all” and “made clear to my advisers that I never wanted to be blindsided like that again.” He adds: “I did not suspect bad intentions on anyone’s part.”

When I read this sentence about not assuming bad intentions, I was reminded of an exchange he had one day in the spring of 2001 with former President Clinton. It was the occasion of the unveiling of the official portraits of President and Mrs. Clinton. “Welcome home,” President Bush said, looking at both Clintons. “You filled this house with energy and joy.” Bill Clinton responded shortly after from the same podium — looking directly at Bush — “I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.”

The two of them pointed at each other, a moment of mutual affirmation. The packed East Room audience rose as one — with a standing ovation.

Decision Points is a great read about a good man who did his best, rightly or wrongly, in two terms as president. It doesn’t surprise me that he and Bill Clinton have remained friends, despite their political differences. They share the common wisdom that civility and political disagreement can coexist. I just wish more people today could learn and practice that simple truth.

Lanny Davis is the principal in his Washington legal crisis management firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates LLC, and a partner in the strategic communications firm of Davis-Block LLC. He served as special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98 and a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan 2006).