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.