George W. Bush is just normal, judging from his memoir Decision Points. He never aspired to save the planet like Al Gore. He doesn't have a messiah bent like Barack Obama. He wanted to be president because he thought he could lead well and had a plan to offer.
In appointees he wanted selflessness, modesty, and self-awareness. His Christian faith is normal in the sense that his conversion was gradual, not sudden, as he tells about it in the book. Several former Bush colleagues from my home state of Indiana have seen this side of the former president.
Dan Coats was Bush's ambassador to Germany and just won back the U.S. Senate seat from Indiana he held from 1989 to 1999.
"Bush is Texas Aggie," Coats said. "What you see is what you get. He's very straightforward, looks you in the eye, and tells you what he thinks. In the diplomatic world that is very refreshing."
According to Coats, Bush in person, like in the book, seems secure: "He has a real confidence that just being himself is all he needs to be. He doesn't need to put on airs."
Indianapolis businessman Al Hubbard was director of Bush's National Economic Council, but while in the White House, he never buddied up with his former Harvard Business School classmate. "When you're working for the president, he's the president and you're a staffer," Hubbard recalled. "He's under such intense pressure."
Hubbard has seen the insecurity and desperation for popular approval among many who run for high political office. But even while Bush was in office, Hubbard found him working outside that mold: "There is no pretension with George W. that he's somebody special. He is like a normal guy. He is remarkably modest."
Another former Bush staffer, Jay Hein, now runs the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute. He headed the former president's faith-based initiative from 2006 to 2008.
"The classic test in Washington is whether someone wants to be someone important, or do something," Hein said. "George Bush didn't need to seek high status or be pretentious. He wanted to do something. That's why he focuses the book on decisions."
Of modern presidents, Bush was the most public about his faith in Jesus Christ, except perhaps Jimmy Carter. Yet his conversion story has a normality about it. He did not march forward at a tent meeting. He did not repent of a life of heinous crimes. He went to church for the sake of his daughters, as he and his wife, Laura, were starting their family.
Bush heard Billy Graham explain the gospel clearly, that he fell short of God's best and Christ paid the penalty for his wrongs. He came to realize that Jesus Christ was more important than he was and he should give Him a larger place in his heart and soul.
The commitment was gradual. Bush had developed a drinking habit that was gradually getting worse. Yet he never hit bottom in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous. Then, after his conversion, he just quit, as an exercise of discipline.
Bush's commitment to Christ prepared him to bring faith into the public arena in a new way. He had seen how small Christian missions could resolve social problems. As president, he launched a controversial faith-based initiative, which turned into a debate over whether federal grants could go to faith-based groups in dealing with social problems like alcohol abuse or homelessness. But Hein sees a bigger blessing from the initiative, in shifting to a public consensus of greater appreciation for the social and cultural benefits of faith.
"We moved from a prevailing skepticism about faith in the public square to an acceptance that faith has a positive contribution," Hein said. "He would fly in Air Force One to visit a rescue mission and highlight its work, instead of just going to the local chamber of commerce."
Like the author, this memoir is straightforward. Bush-lovers will appreciate it. Bush-haters will be challenged. Those in the middle will want to hear his side of the story.