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FIRST-PERSON: George W. Bush & the power of a presidential promise

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Like his father before him, George W. Bush became president on the power of his promises and the strength of his character. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss points out in his splendid volume, “Character Above All,” that the elder Bush “based his three campaigns for the presidency less on issues and ideology than on his persona as a leader of experience and character.”

A president’s character is demonstrated in innumerable ways — from his allegiance to his oath of office, to his personal deportment, to his foreign policy. Nowhere is the character of a president more evident than in fidelity to his promises.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, the elder Bush made what many observers believe was a politically fatal blunder. The Pacific war hero, the former ambassador to the United Nations, the man who held two of his country’s highest offices said during his nomination acceptance speech, “My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes, but I will. And Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes.”

Of course we know what happened — new taxes. Not a few pundits think that the elder Bush lost the 1992 presidential campaign because of the power of a broken promise, a broken promise now etched in history.

Proving that the apple did not fall far from the tree, George W. Bush was elected by the American people because many saw in him strength of character. Americans have been anxious for a White House that would not embarrass them by its flagrant abuse of the power of office and its tawdry secrets of sex and scandal.

Based on his record and his campaign promises, President Bush may be the most pro-life president of my lifetime. He has thus far demonstrated forthright resolve to respect the dignity of human life by working to protect nascent human lives. He has been stalwart in his defense of the unborn.

Now, the true test of character. Will he keep his promises? During his campaign, President Bush said that he opposed federal funding for research that would result in the destruction of human embryos. Months after his inauguration, on May 18, President Bush sent a letter to Robert A. Best of the Culture of Life Foundation stating, “I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos. I support innovative medical research on life-threatening and debilitating diseases, including promising research on stem cells from adult tissue.”

He all but said: “Read my lips. No federally funded embryonic stem cell research.”

One of the scenarios now being suggested calls for President Bush to strike a compromise with those who favor destructive human embryonic stem cell research. This compromise would federally fund research using existing stem cells from previously aborted babies, but would prohibit research involving the destruction of any additional human embryos, frozen or otherwise.

Such a compromise will not work for a number of reasons. First, any benefits coming out of that research would be morally contaminated. Researchers are trying to climb Mt. Everest on the backs of human embryos they have destroyed (and now in some cases, even created for the purposes of that research). If they reach the summit and succeed, we cannot applaud them. We can only lament the carnage they caused along the way. They will have planted the skull and crossbones of death on that summit.

Second, Mr. Bush has said he would not support such research. Nothing less than the credibility of his word is at stake. If he wiggles out of his promise, will he cease to be viewed as a pro-life president? Probably not. Will his moral credibility be damaged with his core supporters, perhaps irreparably? Without doubt.

Not only are the eyes of the nation on President Bush, but the eyes of the world as well. If he keeps faith with his promises and with the ideals that brought him to office, he will go down in history as a man of sterling character — a true statesman of conviction. If he caves in to the pressure, as enormous as it is, and compromises his promise on this most important issue, he will have lost the confidence of many of those who elected him. Through historical hindsight, we can predict what that may mean for his political future.
This article first appeared on www.beliefnet.com, a multifaith website on religion, spirituality and morality. Copyright 2001, Beliefnet.

    About the Author

  • Dr. Richard D. Land