I was struck by two reactions, from the left and the right:
From the left, I got incensed e-mails from Bush-hating elements refusing to concede that Bush did what he did. They said the craziest things, insisting not a dime had been spent and that the program effectively did not even exist. They could not find it within their power to grant that Bush could do something so kind, which they should naturally embrace.
I’ve been most disappointed by my fellow Christians in the “social justice” wing – Catholics and Protestants alike – who have been deafeningly silent on a campaign that ought to serve as a poster child for precisely what they advocate.
To be fair, some have stepped up to thank Bush, including no less than Bill Clinton, as well as musician-activist Bob Geldof. But they are the exception. (In a piece for Time magazine, Geldof wrote about the moment he personally asked Bush about the lack of awareness of the AIDS initiative: “Why doesn’t America know about this?” Bush answered: “I tried to tell them. But the press weren’t much interested.”)
From the right, I still get angry e-mails explaining that what Bush did for Africans is not a “core function” of government, certainly not enumerated anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. Fiscal conservatives asserted that America could not afford this huge expenditure at a time of post-9/11 recession, burgeoning budget deficits, on the heels of a massive operation in Afghanistan, and as military spending was about to go through the roof as U.S. troops headed for Baghdad.
Technically, or perhaps fiscally, much of this is true.
Yet, to be sure, George W. Bush understood the financial cost – and said so explicitly. Nonetheless, he judged that only America could carry out this “act of compassion” at that critical juncture. He also judged, apparently, that only he, as a Western leader, had the will to do this.
So, he did it. He absorbed the cost to try to save lives.
Well, we now know that the policy has worked – just as, yes, we know it contributed to a record deficit. Still, it is rare when history can so directly, indisputably credit a president for a specific, undeniable policy achievement – a genuinely generous one that clearly emerged from his personal doing, from his heart. Millions of lives have been spared or bettered due to Bush’s intervention.
But while the policy helped, it never did anything to help George W. Bush’s terrible disapproval rating – and still will not, given the lack of attention paid to it.
Well, George W. Bush, the much-ridiculed man of faith – ridiculed often because of his faith – always said he never expected rewards in this lifetime. Here’s one that apparently will need to wait.