Russell ShawThe 'Catholic sensibility' of George W. Bush

Does George W. Bush have a “Catholic sensibility?” Tim Goeglein thinks so, and he’s better situated than most people to know. For seven-and-a-half years Goeglein was deputy director of the public liaison office of the Bush White House, with frequent opportunities to observe the president up close.

The results can be seen in his memoir “The Man in the Middle” (B&H Books) – a volume that might be called “Bush and I.” When revisionist historians come to the Bush presidency, Goeglein’s admiring portrait will need to be taken into account.

Bush left office in January 2009 on the crest of a tsunami of unpopularity. Two grinding wars, a botched response to Hurricane Katrina, an ill-timed tax cut, soaring deficits, and a deep recession were viewed as his legacy.

In his new book “Bad Religion,” (Free Press) Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic columnist for The New York Times, maintains that  Bush administration mis-steps combined with the president’s own very visible religiousness damaged the Evangelical cause through a kind of guilt by association.

But in Goeglein’s eyes Bush could do no wrong. “Despite [the critics’] venal attacks on his integrity,” he writes, “George W. Bush is in fact a man with a great soul whose internal moral compass made him a gifted leader.”

Leaving aside policy issues, Bush really does emerge in these pages as a decent man of strong religious faith. Goeglein, deeply religious himself, was at home in a White House where – in striking contrast with today – the boss often prayed in public and wore his Evangelical faith on his sleeve.

What Goeglein calls Bush’s “Catholic sensibility” may have to do with his relationship with Pope John Paul II. Pope and president met three times, and the experience seems to have made a deep impression on Bush. Says Goeglein: “His personal regard for John Paul II was probably higher than for any other world leader of the Bush presidency, their worldviews rooted deeply in the ancient faith that was the lifeblood of each.”

The author sees John Paul’s persuasive powers at work in Bush’s policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Bush limited it to already existing cell lines rather than allowing for new ones created by destroying human embryos. That cautious approach was discarded by President Obama.

Goeglein acknowledges “serious concerns and differences” between the White House and the Vatican over Iraq. But he doesn’t mention that on the eve of the U.S. invasion John Paul took the unusual step of sending Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal nuncio, to America, to Washington to try to talk President Bush out of war.

The episode that opens “Man in the Middle” may also shed light on Bush’s Catholic sensibility since it concerns his capacity for extending forgiveness – in this case, to Goeglein. Well into his White House years, it came to light that Goeglein had plagiarized material for columns he wrote for his hometown paper back in Indiana. As Washington scandals go, this was small potatoes, but Goeglein bit the bullet and resigned.

Summoned to the Oval Office for what he supposed would be a terminal chewing-out,  he got a “miracle” instead. “Tim,” said the president, who years before had kicked a drinking habit, “I have known mercy and grace in my own life, and I am offering it to you now. You are forgiven.”

This was George Bush at his best. It’s easy to see why Goeglein admires him. How those revisionist historians will view him in the future will be for them to decide.

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