‘Life is service to the end.” At the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library, the former president said this in a video lead-in to his live remarks. While most of the analysts on television news shows were talking about President Bush’s “legacy” as a past-tense matter, and former staff were nostalgic and emotional, he was looking forward. And whatever your politics, it’s worth downloading some of the wisdom of one man’s executive experience, formed by faith and family.
The day’s celebration had largely, and appropriately, a library-like atmosphere. Bush’s words were reflective, and had the advantage of not being received in a hyperpolitical context.
Bush talked about the “purpose of public office” in a democracy. It’s “not to fulfill personal ambition,” he said. “Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right. Polls rise and fall. Supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold.”
Then he talked about freedom. “The United States of America,” he said, “must strive to expand the reach of freedom,” which “is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart. Freedom inspired our founders and preserved our union through civil war and secured the promise of civil rights. Freedom sustains dissidents bound by chains, believers huddled in underground churches, and voters who risk their lives to cast their ballots. Freedom unleashes creativity, rewards innovation, and replaces poverty with prosperity. And ultimately, freedom lights the path to peace.”
And he talked about the responsibilities we have for one another as well. “Freedom brings responsibility. Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors and the strong protect the weak and public policies promote private compassion. As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular.”
As a matter of daily life it isn’t always either — easy or popular.
The opening of the library could have been a civic holiday. I wish it had been. But anyone who didn’t see the ceremony live and who wants to be a good citizen and a good neighbor might take a look at it on YouTube. It stood as a reminder, a lesson, a pep talk, a rally, even a beacon. When a president says such things during a second inaugural address, they are controversial because of the immediate policy implications. But here, they help us reflect on where we have been and consider who we are and where we are going. I wish we all had an opportunity to stop and join in this political retreat. Unfortunately President Obama didn’t even do so fully. He quickly fell into his campaign mode, calling John Boehner out to do his will on immigration.
But this is a crucial discussion we must engage in: How can the federal government best serve justice and humanity? How can we be good stewards? How can we be just? How can we best help freedom flourish? We’ll come to different conclusions. There will be some trial and error. But we must try to ask the right questions.
Freedom, I am convinced, is everything. Honoring it. Respecting it. Being good stewards of it. Modeling it virtuously. Sharing the fruits of it.
Politics can have its way with words. We tend to abuse them to such an extent that they have little to no meaning in our political discourse. We too often assume people know what we’re talking about when we have never actually established that. Living in a day when things like the very meaning of the word marriage are up for grabs, we cannot safely make assumptions. But instead of helping us make sure we’re on the same page, our media culture leads us to err on the side of scaring people. What do we mean by freedom? The morning at the Bush helped.
“Ultimately, the success of a nation depends on the character of its citizens,” President Bush said. Even in the midst of terrorist attacks, we saw some people with beautiful characters. Like the Marine whose legs had been blown off in combat, who showed up in the hospital rooms of victims of the Boston Marathon bombing to help them find hope.
When the news broke that Margaret Thatcher had died, an insightful interview with her resurfaced, in which she talked about her faith and mission. In the course of it, she said, “no faith is only a faith for Sundays.” How is that relevant to politics? She explained: “Christianity is about more than doing good works. It is a deep faith which expresses itself in your relationship to God. It is a sanctity, and no politician is entitled to take that away from you or to have what I call corporate State activities which only look at interests as a whole.”
She also said: “Governments aren’t Big Brother. . . . If you treat people as so many pawns on a chessboard you have no Christian base, no religious base, no religion at all. It’s as if the whole of religion had come to: ‘What can governments do about these things?’”
As we struggle with fear and violence and hopes for human flourishing, it is important to focus on these things. We are called to protect freedom — and to infuse our politics with purpose greater than our own brilliant strategies, ideologies, and personal ambitions. Knowing that our politics reflects the character of our citizens ought to keep us from giving up on it.