Late in April the country was treated to a respite from the continuous bickering, back-biting, bluster and stalemate that characterizes Washington’s approach to solving the nation’s increasing list of problems.
The occasion was the dedication of the George W. Bush Library in Dallas and was marked by the historic gathering of five men who hold or held the highest office of the Republic.
I was struck by the spirit of congeniality, and probably mutual respect and admiration that sent such an uplifting message to a land whose people have been disappointed if not deceived by the inability of those sent to solve our country’s problems. They appear to be unable to deliver on promises made to get elected.
The matter of “legacy” seems to always come up before, during or after such events as the library dedication. I was fascinated that the only former president to focus on what I believe to be No. 43’s greatest accomplishment was President Jimmy Carter.
He talked about the Bush initiative to combat AIDS in Africa. The Iraq decision will be debated for a long time and in the president’s words, “time will tell” whether that historic decision fulfilled the vision he had.
But the AIDS’s decision is broadly respected, except for a relatively few critics who felt the sex abstinence until marriage admonition was “unfair.”
Let me give you a quick overview of what was accomplished with the $20 billion appropriated during his two terms:
In a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it estimated that 1.2 million lives were saved in 11 African countries.
The use of antiretroviral medicines provided by the United States reduced the death rate in the countries involved by 10 percent. And the contribution of Laura Bush should be recognized. She took three trips and stayed seven to 10 days each time—working with the health care providers.
There wasn’t much if any coverage because everyone who went with her was expected to go to work.
Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist and no great fan of President Bush, wrote a glowing piece citing the “foresight and compassion” of the president. He wrote that he never expected to write such a tribute but the AIDS initiative was a remarkable feat of leadership.
The effort has been widely acknowledged as the largest global health initiative by one country.
One more quick story about the character and graciousness of this man.
Dana Perino worked in the White House for seven years in the press secretary’s office, the last two with full responsibilities for the job. She had on occasion been invited to state dinners and her husband really enjoyed going with her.
She was given two tickets for a state dinner honoring the Italian premier and Perino told a disappointed husband she was taking her Dad who never had been in the White House.
Her Dad was thrilled and the night of the dinner after certain formalities and the guests were seated, President Bush came to her table and this is her recollection of what he said after shaking her Dad’s hand:
“Leo Perino — I heard you were coming tonight and it is about time you visited the White House. Have you met Dick Cheney, Condi Rice — come with me.”
And Dana Perino said her Dad got the super VIP treatment along with an introduction to the Italian premier and Laura.
That is a night that any of us would remember — regardless of political or philosophical leanings.
President Bush has been ridiculed for the way he mangled pronunciation of “nuclear.” I have the same problem with “prothonotary.”
But we had a caring man at the helm, one who has retired gracefully without commenting on burdens his successor faces each day or his successes or failures.
Peggy Noonan, commenting in The Wall Street Journal, wrote that the two men are opposites in personality traits in so many ways — Obama blaming the past and Bush looking to the future. But, she wrote, there are uncanny parallels in their respective administrations regarding peaks and valleys.
My view is the AIDS initiative was a peak for George W. Bush and I hope that it will be a keystone of his legacy.
Raymond L. Gover is the retired president and publisher of The Patriot-News Co. He writes from Bethany Village in Mechanicsburg.