Hopeful past presidents speak out

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President George W. Bush set down his paintbrushes this week to issue a very public assessment of U.S. politics. Let’s hope everyone was listening.

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them,” Bush said at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City on Thursday.

I doubt I would have believed anyone who told me back in 2003 that I’d one day praise Bush for his eloquence at the podium, but here we are. The sins of a few garbled idioms or made-up words pale in comparison to what Bush calls out as “casual cruelty” and “outright fabrication.”

“We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism,” Bush said, adding the hard truth that globalization cannot be wished away “any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution.”

On the same day, President Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail to remark on ongoing political debates. He specifically derided policies “we thought we put to bed.”

Neither of these former leaders mentioned President Donald Trump by name. There were no big condemnations of this or that policy decision, but an overall stark assessment of how the sum of day-to-day actions at the highest level of government are undermining core values and turning citizens against each other.

It’s a natural space for them to fill. Bush kept a freedom agenda at the heart of his presidency; Obama stood for hope.

“The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue, and the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand,” Bush said. “We know that when we lose sight of these ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”

His speech coincided with release of a paper by the Bush Institute’s Peter Wehner and Thomas Melia, which provides a plan for restarting Bush’s freedom agenda: strengthening defense against external threats, reinvigorating promotion of American values abroad, educating Americans about the history of democracy, and providing support to democratic institutions around the globe.

This isn’t a rewrite of history. I remain as appalled today as I was more than a decade ago about Bush’s successful push to funnel public dollars into religious institutions, and his administration’s reliance on torture. I remain concerned about the economic policies under Bush, and continued by Obama, that have fed the nation’s persistent erasure of the middle class. Please don’t get me started about leaders who eagerly pursue war and nation building without a plan to caretake their warriors. No recent presidents have peeled away decades of built-up film that obscures our view of government, regardless of what they’ve said from the stump.

But in the face of federal policies hellbent on lies and discrimination, when standing at the foot of a leader born of our worst fears instead of our greatest hopes, reversible policy decisions appear far less menacing. Were you listening?

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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