The stem cell debate was an introduction to a phenomenon I witnessed throughout my presidency: highly personal criticism. Partisan opponents and commentators questioned my legitiacy, my intelligence, and my sincerity. They mocked my appearance, my accent, and my religious beliefs. I was labeled a Nazi, a war criminal, and Satan himself. … One lawmaker called me both a loser and a liar. He became majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
In some ways, I wasn’t surprised. I had endured plenty of rough politics in Texas. I had seen Dad and Bill Clinton derided by their opponents and the media. Abraham Lincoln was compared to a baboon. Even George Washington became so unpopular that political cartoons showed the hero of the American Revolution being marched to a guillotine.
Yet the death spiral of decency during my time in office, exacerbated by the advent of twenty-four hour cable news and hyper-partisan political blogs, was deeply disappointing. The toxic athmosphere in American politics discourages good people from running for office.
Over time, the petty insults and name-calling hardened into conventional wisdom. Some have said I should have pushed back harder against the caricatures. But I felt it would debase the presidency to stoop to the critics’ level. I had run on a promise to change the tone in Washington. I took that vow seriously and tried to do my part, but I rarely succeeded.
The shrill debate never affected my decisions. I read a lot of history, and I was struck by how many presidents had endured harsh criticism. The measure of their character, and often their success, was how they responded. Those who based decisions on principle, not some snapshot of public opinion, were often vindicated over time.
George Washington once wrote that leading by conviction gave him «a consolation within that no earthly efforts can deprive me of.» He continued: «The arrows of malevolence, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me.»
I read those words in Presidential Courage, written by historian Michael Beschloss in 2007. As I told Laura, if they’re still assessing George Washington’s legacy more than two centuries after he left office, this George W. doesn’t have to worry about today’s headlines.
George W. Bush (2010) — Decision Points (s. 121-2).