Former President George W. Bush delivered a speech on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday in which he reflected on the America he knew as president in the days after terrorist attacks rocked this nation to its core. He spoke at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville in southwestern Pennsylvania.
If you want to remember what the Republican Party was like before it disregarded science, trafficked in conspiracy theories and remade itself in the image of former President Donald Trump, you should read or watch a video of President Bush’s 9/11 speech.
On hallowed ground, where courageous Americans died after thwarting another terrorist attack on the nation’s capital, Bush spoke poignantly and eloquently of Americans possessing “a core of strength that survives the worst that life can bring.”
“On America’s day of trial and grief,” Bush recalled of Sept. 11, 2001, “I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.”
Imagine if we had reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic with the unity we experienced in the wake of 9/11. Imagine if we supported health care workers not just in the early months of the pandemic, but 18 months into it, as we continue to honor the 9/11 first responders. Imagine if we had rallied to the cause of defeating COVID-19 before it killed more than 663,000 Americans.
Instead, what we’ve gotten are politics appealing, in Bush’s words, to “anger, fear and resentment.”
The 43rd president made terrible mistakes. His administration misled the nation into war in Iraq and sanctioned torture. He grievously failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, the son of a World War II Navy pilot and the 41st president is a patriot. And he’s clearly mourning the country he once knew.
Bush said “we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
He was speaking, of course, of domestic terrorists of the sort who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, who waved Confederate flags, wielded other flags to brutally beat police officers and otherwise desecrated America’s citadel of democracy.
In pointing out “our continuing duty to confront” the Jan. 6 extremists, Bush rebuked the Republicans in Congress — U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County among them — who voted against an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Bush said that in “the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people.”
“When it comes to the unity of America,” he continued, “those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
It certainly leaves us worried.
When public health measures such as masking and vaccination become ginned-up political controversies, when lawmakers convene to halt the pandemic mitigation measures passed by a governor of the opposing party, when Americans scream and threaten school officials over those measures, our future as a nation is in doubt.
When lawmakers cast doubts on the integrity of an election long after it was proven to be fair and secure, when they launch a so-called election “audit” because their candidate lost, when they seek to subvert the fundamentals of our democracy — the sacred right to vote and to have one’s vote counted — they become the “malign force” of which Bush spoke.
No wonder that so many well-known Republicans have left the party. No wonder that two former leaders of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County — Ann S. Womble and Ethan Demme — have joined a party called the Serve America Movement that aims to mend our broken politics.
In an Aug. 8 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline op-ed, Womble and Demme, and co-author Phil Lapp, wrote of “the disintegration and debasement of the Republican Party, the party to which we all once gave allegiance and served with joy and gusto.” They pointed to the politicization of masks and COVID-19 vaccines, and “the continuing lies about the 2020 election,” as examples of how the GOP has lost its way.
“We have plenty of disagreements with the Democratic Party’s far left, too,” they wrote. “We disagree with their redistributionist economic policies, nanny-state tendencies and political priorities.”
But, they noted, “the Democratic Party is now the only major party in America standing up against authoritarianism and the Jan. 6 attack on our democracy,” and the Serve America Movement intends to join in that effort.
More Americans must.
We’d like to see the Republican Party find itself again and join the effort to bolster democracy, too.
We’re losing hope that the Republicans representing Lancaster County in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., might rediscover a commitment to democracy, truth and the public good.
But there’s a sliver of light coming from Lancaster Township, where 23-year-old Joe Mohler now serves as the county GOP’s area chair.
In a lengthy interview with LNP | LancasterOnline, Mohler spoke of his disdain for the “conspiratorial wing” of the Republican Party and “the brashness and impulsiveness” of former President Trump. He wants his party to return to its traditional conservative values, while becoming more welcoming toward Latino Americans, refugees and immigrants.
Mohler said he was moved to get involved in the county GOP not just when its leaders avoided reckoning with the Trump years, but when they debated whether to censure U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey for voting to find Trump guilty of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. (The censure motion was blocked.)
Mohler believes “Toomey had a right to vote his conscience.”
He now wants to recruit to his committee young and diverse individuals who are likely to be more interested in economic and educational issues than conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and opposition to pandemic mitigation measures. We hope he succeeds.
Former President Bush said Saturday that the America he saw after 9/11 was “the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again.”
We pray that he’s right.