Last Monday, former President George W. Bush came and visited Vanderbilt’s campus for a conversation with Vanderbilt’s Chancellor Zeppos and Professor Jon Meacham. As someone who has largely retired from public life, I had high hopes that he would offer a candid view of his legacy. I was somewhat disappointed in this regard as the interviewers seemed to avoid asking any tough questions, while President Bush continued with his admirable decision to refrain from commentary on his successor’s policies. Despite this, the evening was a great opportunity to interact with such an important figure even if it did leave something to be desired.
Walking in to the event, there were about twenty or so protestors who took it upon themselves to remind the crowd of Bush’s controversial decision to engage the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan following the devastating September 11th attacks. Their presence reminded those attending that recent history has not been kind to Bush. Although liberals and conservatives have very different views of 43, it’s worth remembering that many people, such as myself, remember Bush as a bit of a comic figure, famous for his ‘Bushisms.’ These funny “-isms” came about when the president couldn’t quite convey his point with the eloquence one might expect of a world leader. However, in the context of the symposium, his disposition manifested itself in a folksy rather than bumbling manner, and the audience packed up laughing several times as Bush recalled anecdotes from his time in office.
Altogether, the symposium felt like a humanizing experience for a man who has often been the butt of jokes and recipient of endless criticism. However, I do feel like this was a missed opportunity for the Vanderbilt community, and the nation at large, to gain insight into such an important figure. It would have been to everybody’s benefit had Zeppos and Meachem mounted a more thoughtful interview that challenged Bush’s legacy. This is not a call for partisan “gotcha questions” that are meant to make the recipient squirm, but rather fair queries that aim to help our public figures respond to the criticisms levied at them. Perhaps the best moment of the night was when Bush defended his record in the War on Terror. In his response, he reminded the audience that some of our greatest allies, namely Germany and Japan, were once some of our greatest enemies. It took time and sacrifices from our armed forces to bring about this transition, but today we count them as invaluable allies. Although Bush did not manage to convince me that the analogy lines up perfectly, it was a compelling argument that served as a decent defense of the war. The importance of civil discourse on the challenges of our time cannot be overstated, and I hope that academic leaders such as Zeppos and Mecham strive to take full advantage of opportunities like this one.