History And The Bushes

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The President: I’ll tell you an interesting story. We were having dinner with Prime Minister Koizumi in Tokyo, and during the conversation, we discussed how the world should best deal with Kim Jong Il, and how best we can work together to make sure that the Korean Peninsula is nuclear-weapons-free.

And it reminded me that because my predecessors had gotten the peace right with Japan, I was able to have this discussion about how best to keep the peace. During that conversation I also realized that when we get it right in Iraq, and we will, at some point an American President is going to be talking to a duly elected Iraqi official working on how to solve a current problem—perhaps in the Middle East, or elsewhere.

And hopefully at some point in time somebody will say, Well, thank goodness George W. Bush held firm to his belief that Iraq could be free. So, yes, at times I do think about what somebody might be thinking.

But I don’t think there is a true portrait of a President in the short run. I don’t think historians are able to gauge the effects of a Presidency until well down the road, until people can take an objective look back at the decision-making process and the effects of policy. Particularly if you are a President who sets big goals. Because it takes time for a big goal to have its positive effect.

I think I’ve got a good perspective about history. I’m not worried about what short-term historians might say about me because I don’t think they’re going to get it right. And when people who take the long view of history write about me, it won’t matter, because I’m not going to be around to read it. [Laughter.]

I’m wondering if you both could speak a little about your own introductions to history, not only in school but through personal experiences?

Mrs. Bush: Well, I will say that Texans are so proud of their history that we went to schools that were named for the state’s heroic figures. George went to Sam Houston Elementary, and I went to James Bowie Elementary. You learn about this heritage as a young student; you take Texas history in the fourth grade and then again in the seventh. So, I think always, from the day we started school, we were aware of those Texas heroes. We also had families who were interested, who read biography and who read history, and, in fact, took American Heritage magazine. My mother did when it was the white-covered hardback. And it stayed on the bookshelves. She didn’t recycle those magazines or pack them away. That was a huge benefit for us, with our interest in history. George’s degree at Yale was in history.

The President: Laura is right. Most Texas kids are very interested in the history of our state. That’s why there is such a strong tradition in Texas of state pride. Also, I had a fantastic history teacher at Andover, a guy named Tom Lyons. He was great. I mean, he really was the person who got me interested in studying history. He was just one of these people that was able to make us see that if you understood history, you have a better chance of dealing with the future.

Another thing that’s interesting is that my grandfather was a United States senator. And I vividly remember visiting him as a little guy. He lived in Georgetown. And I can remember him taking me to a cocktail party where he introduced me to Lyndon Baines Johnson. And I got to see other political figures of the time up close. I was awed by these names, but I was also reminded that they were all human beings. In other words, you’re able to get more comfortable with history when you get to see people up close. I wouldn’t call that party a defining moment. On the other hand, it’s a moment that for some reason still sticks in my mind.

When you look at American heroes and heroines, some people think they should all be knights in shining armor. But we know that Benjamin Franklin, for example, who did so many great things, didn’t always have a perfect life. Do you think it’s better for us to meet historical figures on a pedestal or see them as they are?

Mrs. Bush: I think it’s better to see people as a whole—

The President: Yes.

Mrs. Bush: Their brilliance and their achievements along with their faults, not in a revisionist sense where you go back and dig up things that you might not know about people, but—

The President: It’s one thing to be factual about a person, but it’s another thing to imply or assume in order to denigrate their contributions. I agree it’s very important to look at the whole, but I also think we should be confident enough about our nation and what we stand for not to denigrate achievement. We should focus on success. Kids need to see that success is possible. Children learning history have to say, “Gosh, maybe I can do that too.” People need to aspire to an ideal, without being Pollyanna-ish about the life of the person.

Mrs. Bush, how should we teach our nation’s history to an increasingly diverse population? As a former teacher, how do you connect with kids who maybe weren’t even born here?