When he first ran for president more than 10 years ago, George W. Bush talked a good deal about restoring honor to the Oval Office. He was never very specific, but he didn’t need to be. The name Monica Lewinsky was still on everyone’s lips, and on the subject of honor, Bush seemed to know what he was talking about. The man’s grandfather had been a senator and his father had been president, and his own Prince Hal story of rebellion and redemption suggested he had tested, and then more consciously embraced, the moral lessons of his aristocratic breeding. His competence was questioned in the 2000 campaign, but though his character came under fire as well—remember Karla Faye Tucker and the Texas Air National Guard—those attacks didn’t dent him.
“The Bush I knew was part scamp and part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and weekend napster,” wrote Frank Bruni in Ambling Into History, his knowing account of that campaign and the first eight months of Bush’s presidency. Yet Bruni also saw in Bush a sense of wonder about the office and “a profound sense of responsibility.”
On the morning Bush was reading The Pet Goat with a roomful of children in Florida, history so dramatically engulfed the president that scholars will surely debate for generations how America, and he, were transformed on his watch. But right now, that basic framework—dubious competence, decent character—looks to stand a chance of enduring. And if it does, George W. Bush could come to be seen in part as a tragic figure. His desire to do right—to fulfill the responsibilities of his office as he saw them, and to spread democracy around the world—was undermined by policies he set in motion in the hope of doing right.
“Our greatest export is freedom, and we have a moral obligation to champion it throughout the world,” Bush wrote in his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep. “This will be an age of liberty here and across the world,” he promised in his address to the Joint Session of Congress after the September 11 attacks. And later, as things became more complicated: “This government does not torture people.”
In this issue of The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan sets legalisms aside to give an unblinking tour of the Bush administration’s systematic torture program. He is not attacking the former president; he is reaching out to him, on the basis of their shared view of the threat posed by terrorism and their shared devotion to the principles of American democracy. He wants not to indict Bush (or to urge others to do so), but to persuade him of the scope of the torture program, of the damage that it did, and of the way forward, for Bush and for the country. An unambiguous statement from the former president that the policy was wrong would reassure the world that the United States is indeed committed to an age of liberty, and it would guard future administrations, in times of national pain, against the temptation or political compulsion to resort to the same tactics.
Mr. Bush, and some readers, may regard this appeal as presumptuous. But there is nothing cynical or glib about Andrew’s request: he knows he is not asking the former president to do an obvious or easy thing. Indeed, the difficulty of the step, if Bush took it, would give the measure of the man’s character, and of the sense of honor and public responsibility of the Bush family. “America is the land of the second chance,” Bush said once. Over to you, Mr. President.