I have just finished reading the memoirs of two people I am not supposed to like: George W. Bush, because no one is meant to like him, and Tony Blair, because I am a Conservative and he kept us in opposition for 13 years. Yet their memoirs, respectively Decision Points and A Journey, are gripping, fascinating, well-written, and revealing of some of their lesser-known, more positive characteristics.
Both books are written thematically, and convey the two men's ideas, values and philosophies rather than simply a chronoligical record of experiences – and are much more interesting as a result. Both men governed through some momentous events, which of course are described in the books: the dominant themes of 9/11, 7/7, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also – in their respective countries – public service reform, social security and welfare, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and foot-and-mouth disease.
The two dominant themes in both books, at the heart of the Bush and Blair agendas, are freedom and faith. They share a profound Christian faith, which they articulate clearly in their memoirs, and they share a passionate commitment to freedom.
What is striking about Bush's book is how much more compassionate, reasonable, intelligent and bi-partisan he comes across compared with the caricature we have come to know. He recalls his unusual friendship with Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy, drawn together by a shared concern for school reform. The arch-liberal Democrat was one of the strongest supporters of Bush's No Child Left Behind education policy.
One of the most positive, and least known, aspects of Bush's presidency was his focus on poverty in Africa, and particularly HIV/AIDS. This was an agenda he shared with Blair. His administration more than doubled US funding to fight HIV/AIDS, and launched a major aid initiative to combat malaria. In doing so, he also changed the traditional aid model. He writes:
The traditional model of foreign aid was paternalistic: A wealthy donor nation wrote a check and told the recipient how to spend it. I decided to take a new approach in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. We would base our relationships on partnerships, not paternalism. We would trust developing countries to design their own strategies for using American taxpayers dollars. In return, they would measure their performance and be held accountable. The result would be that countries felt invested in their own success, while American taxpayers could see the impact of their generosity.
Crucially, Bush draws a direct link between national security concerns and fighting poverty and promoting freedom. In other words, providing aid and promoting human rights are not just altruistic, they are in our own self-interest:
It became clear to me that this was more than a mission of conscience. Our national security was tied to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists. By confronting suffering in places like Africa, America would strengthen its security and collective soul.
Although not widely reported, Bush's aid to Africa won plaudits from unlikely quarters. Former President Bill Clinton's top AIDS official described Bush's policy as "inspiring and clearly heartfelt". When the Tanzanian President was asked if he was excited about the prospect of Barack Obama becoming President, he replied: "For us, the most important thing is, let him be as good a friend of Africa as President Bush has been." When Bush visited Senegal and visited a place where slaves had been traded, he gave a speech in which he said:
At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commerical enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.
Freedom became a major and consistent theme. In one speech, Bush said:
For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom … The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world ….
Those who think Bush lacked interest in Palestine and unquestioningly supported Israel will be surprised to read this paragraph:
As I thought more about the turmoil in the Middle East, I concluded that the fundamental problem was the lack of freedom in the Palestinian Territories. With no state, Palestinians lacked their rightful place in the world. With no voice in their future, Palestinians were ripe for recruiting by extremists. And with no legitimately elected Palestinian leader committed to fighting terror, the Israelis had no reliable partner for peace. I believed the solution was a democratic Palestinian state, led by elected officials who would answer to their people, reject terror, and pursue peace with Israel.
Bush became the first US president to advocate a Palestinian state.
His commitment to freedom was not simply rhetorical. He met more than 100 dissidents during his presidency, including Burmese activist Charm Tong and North Korean dissident Kang Chol-hwan, whose book Aquariums of Pyongyang Bush calls "one of the most influential books I read". Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy was another. Bush made Burma a priority, even at the height of the war in Iraq, and his wife Laura became a particular champion of Burma's democracy movement.
He recognises, however, that his freedom agenda did not achieve all it set out to do. Russia, Egypt and Venezuela are highlighted as concerns, and he describes Hugo Chavez as "the Robert Mugabe of South America". He shows sensitivity to the charge of imposing values on others. "Freedom is not an American value," he writes. "It is a universal value. Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen. And when people are given a choice, they choose freedom."
Two other themes stand out. On stem cell research, Bush is painted as an extremist, ignorant of science and medical needs. Yet he devotes an entire chapter, carefully considered and surprisingly balanced, to exploring the issue and arguing, very rationally, the case for advancing medical research while at the same time protecting life and defining moral limits. And in his personal approach to politics, in contrast to the angry Texan cowboy we so often saw, what comes across in the book is a humble decency and graciousness. Speaking of Barack Obama, Bush writes: "I had decided to make it a priority to conduct a thorough, organised transition …. I felt a responsibility to give my sucessor the courtesy of a smooth entry into the White House. [The team] made sure the president-elect and his team received briefings, access to senior members of the administration, and office space in their new departments." You might say, so what, that's what is required – but it is in marked contrast to the partisan attitudes of the Clinton administration.
Bush shows humility in acknowledging some of his mistakes. He admits errors in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror, and the chaos of Hurricane Katrina. He also recognises his weakness in public relations:
I made an additional mistake by failing to adequately communicate my concern for victims of Katrina. This was a problem of perception, not reality. My heart broke at the sight of helpless people trapped on their rooftops waiting to be rescued. I was outraged by the fact that the most powerful country in the world could not deliver water to mothers holding their dehydrated babies under the baking sun. In my thirteen visits to New Orleans after the storm, I conveyed my sincere sympathy for the suffering and my determination to help residents rebuild. Yet many of our citizens, particularly in the African American community, came away convinced that their president didn't care about them.
I do not agree with Bush on everything. I am profoundly troubled by his inability to recognise water-boarding as torture, and his robust defence of its use. While his directness, forthrightness and exasperation with diplomacy were sometimes a refreshing alternative to smooth talk and spin, his public persona – and his linguistic gaffs - did not help America's image and its ability to fight terrorism and promote freedom. Nevertheless, I believe he was dramatically misunderstood and, to use a Bushism, 'misunderestimated'. His record, in general, on freedom, poverty, HIV/AIDS and education was encouraging, his Faith-Based Initiative worthwhile, and his integrity and decency far greater than his critics think.
Faith, freedom and poverty – and the challenges of Palestine, the Middle East and Africa – are all themes that occur in Blair's book too. I will not devote space here to Blair's memoirs, because so much of what is said above about Bush could simply be repeated. The criticisms are different, but the conclusions similar. When Blair first came to office I, like many Conservatives, thought he was simply driven by focus-groups and opinion polls, that he was a spinner and a public relations expert with few principles and little philosophy. By the time he left office, whether or not I agreed with him, I had to conclude that he had more values than I had given him credit for, and more determination to stick to them, in good times and bad, than I had expected. That comes through in the book. His ego, love of the rich and famous and luxury holidays, and his disregard for Parliament, tradition and history are all unappealing – but a sense of humour, humanity and purpose comes through in his book, and those are qualities I like.
Whatever one thinks of Bush and Blair, their books are worth reading – as records of key historic events, as thought-provoking reflections on major issues of our time, and as surprising revelations into some of the better qualities of both men, who for different reasons are now reviled. They both deserve more respect than they are given.