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Jon Meacham: What Bush Could Learn from Churchill

Jon Meacham, in Newsweek (May 31, 2004):

In the first days of the Bush Restoration in 2001, Karl Rove, the new president's senior adviser and in-house history buff, was dining at the British Embassy in Washington with the then ambassador, Christopher Meyer. In the grand building up on Massachusetts Avenue, Rove mentioned George W. Bush's fascination with Churchill. "He was a man who saved the world," Rove said of Churchill, "a wartime leader who charted his own course, and did it with wit and personal morality and courage." Meyer called Rove a few days later. "The P.M. has a spare bust or two of Churchill," Meyer said. Would the president like one? Absolutely, came the reply. Bush, who tells Oval Office visitors that he works at a desk once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, loved the idea of adding the Churchill.

And so there the Last Lion sits, in bronze, next to the fireplace beneath a West Texas painting. Bush likes the juxtaposition. Churchill, the president said in accepting the bust, "knew what he believed, and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me... He charged ahead, and the world is better for it." Churchill's visage sometimes appears to take in the whole room. "He watches everything I do," Bush has joked.

What would Churchill make of what he's seeing? What would FDR think of the man sitting at his desk? By drawing on the drama of World War II in talking about his own war, Bush himself has invited the questions—and the comparisons. Charging ahead, we are learning, does not automatically make the world better. Given the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that justified the Iraq war, the peculiarities of the pre-emptive strike against Saddam's regime, the casualties in the aftermath and the poor planning for a post-Saddam order, invoking the Great Men of World War II is fraught, for their legacies are so large Bush risks seeming small in their long shadow.

Yet at a gathering to open a Library of Congress exhibit on Churchill this winter, Bush explicitly linked World War II to Iraq and the war on terror. "In their worship of power, their deep hatreds, their blindness to innocence, the terrorists are successors to the murderous ideologies of the 20th century," Bush said. "And we are the heirs of the tradition of liberty, defenders of the freedom, the conscience and the dignity of every person. Others before us have shown bravery and moral clarity in this cause. The same is now asked of us, and we accept the responsibilities of history." The "we" includes Tony Blair. "A majority of decent and well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler and that those —who did were warmongers," Blair told the Guardian in March 2003.

Now, amid dark days for the American effort in Iraq, a wave of World War II commemoration is about to break over us. On Memorial Day comes the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall, where Bush will speak. Then, a week later, the president travels to Normandy to give an addreess marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings that began the liberation of Europe. Bush's appearances at the ceremonies will, for many, raise a fundamental question about that most elusive and essential of gifts: war leadership. How does Bush measure up against the giants of old? What can he—and we—learn from the road to D-Day?

On substantive grounds, the analogy is an enormous stretch. Bush's war against Al Qaeda and the battle for Iraq—the president thinks of them as parts of a whole—are not comparable to World War II in scope or scale. Roughly 60 million people, soldiers and civilians, died in that conflict. Churchill and Roosevelt were leading a global hot war in which states, driven by ideology and avarice, were embarked on conquest; great armies and navies massed against one another in ways that would have been recognizable to the ancients. Fighting terrorists and their sympathizers is, we know, a different kind of war, one more like President Kennedy's "long twilight struggle" against communism, a battle fought in an atmosphere of anxiety with flashes of combat.

Trying to find the right historical frame for our current conflict has become a consuming intellectual exercise. Some—including NEWSWEEK, in a cover story in April—have sought clarity in comparing and contrasting Iraq to Vietnam. Others think of the French fight for Algiers; still others point to the aftermath of the Great War and Versailles, which created Iraq in the first place. No parallel is exact, but turning to history is the only way we can make sense of the present. "The farther backward you can look," Churchill once said, "the farther forward you can see."

Governing always looks easier from the visitor's side of the desk in the Oval Office, from the press room or from the historian's perspective in the archives. But there is no doubt that the early returns on Bush's war leadership are troubling. Despite the administration's claims, there is still no convincing evidence of Iraqi ties to terrorism; no weapons of mass destruction have been found; we have not been greeted as liberators, and more Americans have died in Iraq since Bush prematurely declared victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln a year ago than had died there before. So the president has a learning curve to master, and he should start with the Great Men of the Greatest Generation—or else he may face Churchill's political fate, defeat at the polls in the wake of a war. Bush has read the right books, from Martin Gilbert and William Manchester on Churchill to Michael Beschloss, James MacGregor Burns and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on Roosevelt. Whether he has absorbed the lessons of such works is another question.

Bush eschews complexity; FDR and Churchill embraced it. Bush prefers to decide, not go into details or revisit issues; FDR and Churchill were constantly examining their own assumptions and immersing themselves in postwar planning. Bush is largely incurious about the world; FDR and Churchill wanted to know everything. It is not too late, however, for the president to reach back into their lives for guidance—they are not inaccessible figures. Steely and subtle, hawkish and gentle, fierce and forgiving, they were men before they were monuments. And in the debate over D-Day (or Overlord, as the cross-channel invasion was called), all of their gifts and quirks, genius and weaknesses, came into sharpest focus....

[Click on the link at the top to read comparisons with DeGaulle.]