May 7, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Re: ‘Trump Could Learn a Thing or Two from Bush’

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We can aspire to have President Trump look up to better crisis managers than George W. Bush, as is urged by the Sun’s recent opinion piece.

When former President Bush released his video statement on the coronavirus, I appreciated it; why not? He said something thought out, smart and agreeable. But as awesome as unifying rhetoric may be and as necessary as it is from the President of the United States, it’s a low bar to meet. Crisis management isn’t just putting out a good statement — it’s taking real action. And throughout his tenure as President, Bush failed time and time again to do so effectively.

George W. Bush’s post-9/11 message of unity was indeed powerful, as the article describes it. As a New Yorker, I still get chills thinking about his first pitch at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the World Series that fall. Just a few weeks after the attacks, wearing an FDNY sweatshirt and throwing the ball right down the middle, it still feels inspiring. But President Bush’s actual response to 9/11 was to use it as justification for endless wars in the Middle East that have ravaged the lands and accomplished next to nothing, if that.

Less than a month after 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, starting a war older than some current Cornell students. In December, the Washington Post released a series of previously classified government documents that show that U.S. officials have had no proper plan of action for the war; they quote three-star Army General Douglas Lute as saying, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.” According to the New York Times, the war has cost over 3,000 American lives and $2 trillion for American taxpayers, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghani civilian casualties. Does President Bush deserve credit for crisis management if his response to 9/11 was to start such a mess of a war?

Let’s not pretend as if 9/11 was the only major crisis President Bush dealt with during his presidency. His administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina wasn’t just delayed and ineffective, but heartbreaking. Local, state and federal officials were slow in helping many  poverty-stricken Louisianans evacuate the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas, and as a result poor and minority communities were disproportionately affected by flooding and destruction. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was deeply criticized for indecision, wasting supplies and poor communication with department oversight. Under President Bush’s administration, FEMA was collapsed into the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, adding a layer of bureaucracy some viewed unnecessary. Due to bad management, almost 2,000 people died.

Katrina was a disaster nearly impossible to handle, but Bush’s leadership was nonetheless absent. He was often criticized for being out of touch with the public, whether because he had been vacationing for nearly a month when the storm hit or because he praised FEMA director Michael Brown not long before he was fired by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

George W. Bush had and still has some inspiring moments, but in times of crisis, his “moral leadership” does not deserve to be praised, as it is in The Sun’s recent article.

This piece shouldn’t be misconstrued as condemning President Bush’s video response to the COVID-19 crisis or its message. “Let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery,” is a strong line from the video that anyone can appreciate. But it’s also not that unique of a message. The video was released by a non-profit, The Call to Unite, which also worked with Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Indeed, Carter, Clinton, and former President Barack Obama have all been promoting similar ideas. The Sun’s article says that by releasing this video, it’s “undeniable that Bush stepped up to the plate.” Sure, I agree, he came forward and acknowledged the problem, but that doesn’t mean he took a swing or got on base — he didn’t do anything special.

Presidential leadership requires action alongside inspiring speeches, and President Bush’s actions throughout history failed to meet the moment. When it comes to telling our current president (and he definitely needs a hand) or even future presidents who to look up to, George W. Bush is the wrong choice.

Daniel Bernstein is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.