Once again, Aggieland serves as a refuge for the Bush clan. Years after Pappy Bush located his presidential library here, Bush the Younger gives what could be the last college commencement speech of his presidency Friday. Texas A&M, once dubbed be the American university with the most nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, is one of the few civilian venues where Bush could expected to be received warmly by an academic convocation.
He needs us. His election-day approval rating stood at 25%, only one point higher than Richard Nixon at the depths of Watergate. Some 78% percent of Americans lack confidence in the economy, according to Gallup. Seven years after the 9/11 terrorists struck, the war in Afghanistan looks more bleak than ever, and despite some military success in Iraq, that adventure remains unpopular with the American public.
The campus where a student group threw raw eggs at a likeness of Barack Obama several weeks before the election seems perfectly tailored for a president who sexed up intelligence to justify invading Iraq, authorized kidnapping and torture after promising compassionate conservatism, and turned a balanced budget into a financial black hole. In the waning days of perhaps the most unsuccessful presidency in America’s history, President Bush found a university where he’s still admired.
What will Bush tell Aggie graduates?
With the national press fixated on President-elect Obama’s incoming administration, and the scandal involving the governor who tried to sell a senate seat to the highest bidder, don’t expect a large media contingent in College Station Friday. Texas A&M would provide an ideal venue for a farewell address containing some hard-learned and chastened words of wisdom, and a sympathetic audience. But attendees shouldn’t hope for the equivalent of Eisenhower’s admonition regarding the military-industrial complex nor, unfortunately, a mia culpa.
It’s not in George W. Bush’s character to apologize, not now, probably not ever.
For a template of what he could say, I turned to his commencement speech four years ago at LSU. Don’t recall that one? Bush passed up daughter Jenna’s graduation from the University of Texas, where the young miscreant was better known for under-age drinking than scholarship, for the politically friendlier environs of Baton Rouge.
So what can we expect, according to this pattern? First, he’ll make a joke about a local watering hole. In Tigerland, that was The Chimes; in Aggieland, one can expect a reference to the Dixie Chicken. He will follow with a self-deprecating statement about his “C”-student status in college. That drew boos at Yale but will be received understandably here.
Then he will praise the parents in attendance. In Baton Rouge, he paid homage to mothers. Here expect him to laud the fathers who have to pay the skyrocketing deregulated tuition which his defense secretary, Robert Gates, lobbied for and instituted during his tenure as Texas A&M’s president.
Then, incredibly, this paragon of virtue will urge graduates to remember the moral lessons taught by their parents. In Baton Rouge four years ago, Bush admonished students not to ascribe to “moral relativism,” characteristic right-wing Christian parlance that argues against against using one’s God-given intelligence to adapt traditional ethical values to today’s changing world.
At the time of the LSU speech, adherence to such an admonition could have meant discarding unused human embryos instead of using them to cure maladies ranging from paralysis to Alzheimer’s. As the Bush administration prepares to leave office, avoidance of moral relativism means a last-minute rule to protect religiously motivated pharmacists for refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after pills.
(Paradoxically, over the past eight years, Bush has seemed oblivious to charges of relativism when it comes to justifying warrantless wire-tapping, water-boarding, or suspension of that 12th century legal right, Habeas Corpus. But such things hardly ever come up in college commencement addresses, at least not at right-wing universities.)
Then he will play the war card, one more time.
Finally, noting Texas A&M’s record for producing military officers, Bush will praise the patriotism of Aggies who fought and bled on the battlefield, as he did in Baton Rouge regarding Tigers who wore our country’s colors. He will note that Texas A&M stands second only to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in the number of its graduates killed in the “war on terror.” To date, some 19 Aggies have fallen in Iraq, one at Ft. Hood on his way to Iraq, and one more in Afghanistan.
Completely disregarding the subterfuge used to justify the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and the diversion of attention from the war in Afghanistan, Bush will take credit for taking down Saddam Hussein and turning Iraq into a land ready for Jeffersonian democracy. At LSU four years ago, when our troops in Iraq were in the middle of a rip-roaring insurgency, he said:
We have an historic opportunity, the establishment of a peaceful and democratic Iraq at the heart of the Middle East, which will remove a danger, strike a blow against terrorism, and make America and the world more secure. We will complete the mission for which so many have served and sacrificed. And the world can be certain we will defend the freedom and security of this nation, whatever it takes.
Friday he will note the diminished levels of violence in Iraq, after we’ve lost more than 4,000 soldiers, hinting that the mission is finally within sight of being accomplished. Then Aggies will rise to give him a standing ovation.
What should President Bush say?
If I were President Bush, I would talk about Jonathan Rozier, Class of ’01.
Army First Lieutenant Rozier and his dismounted tank platoon were guarding a building in Baghdad in July of 2003, just three months after the United States invaded to make Iraq safe for democracy and western oil companies. His unit came under small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Jonathan probably hadn’t paid much attention to the debate over whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he care if the Iraqi leader had forged an alliance with Osama bid Laden. He left those issues to be decided by civilians and his superiors at the top of the military chain of command.
Jonathan was newly married. He had a child. He spoke to his wife by telephone the night before he became Aggieland’s first casualty of the war on terror.
I didn’t know Jonathan, his wife Jessica, nor his son Justin. But I knew his mother Barbara. She and I attended high school together in New Orleans. We dated a few times. Many years later, when Jonathan wore the hand-crafted leather boots of a Corps of Cadets senior at Texas A&M, and after I had moved to College Station, I enjoyed a reunion with Jonathan’s grandmother Gwen and his Aunt Vera. We met in the MSC flag room for a hour’s chat before they were scheduled to join Jonathan and his fiancee for dinner. Gwen had been the no-nonsense registrar and office manager at our Southern Baptist school, and Vera had been the typing a shorthand teacher that every student loved and respected.
That’s the last contact I had with the family until that fateful day, several years later, when I saw television coverage of Barbara and Jessica, mother and widow, being handed that triangular, folded American flag, the blue union and white stars reflecting a nation’s gratitude in their tear-stained faces.
All of this has been repeated, 19 more times in the case of Aggies, and 4,209 times with regard to our nation’s sons and daughters, because a headstrong president rushed hell-bent into a war he wanted to fight, not one he had to fight. If Jonathan had been killed in Afghanistan, which shielded our attackers when Iraq didn’t, would I feel differently? Perhaps, probably so. I know that for Barbara, Jessica, and Justin, the loss would be the same.
But that’s why I’d like President Bush to drop all talk of fighting a war on terror Friday, and just talk about Jonathan, the first Aggie killed in Iraq—or about 1st Lieutenant Timmothy W. Cunningham—who on April 23 of this year became the latest Aggie killed in Iraq. Or, he could pick out any Aggie who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
I’d rather our president talk about fallen Aggies, of whom he knows little, than about moral relativism, of which he unfortunately is a talented practitioner.