When you write about American politics for a living, it’s easy to become cynical and unmoved by the latest political outrage. But every once in a while, a story breaks that makes you sit back and say “wow.’’
I’m not talking about Donald Trump. Rather, I refer to the report this week from ABC News that in 2012 former President George W. Bush asked for and received a $100,000 fee from the charitable organization Helping A Hero to speak at their annual fund-raiser for military veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush is hardly the first public figure to take money from a charity for giving a speech. Indeed, a prominent speaker like Bush often increases turnout and, in turn, the amount of money raised. One can debate about whether this is a good or bad thing — and whether former presidents should be profiting off of their former public service and, in particular, from charitable groups. Certainly, these criticisms have been lodged against the Clintons who made millions in speaking fees over the past decade and a half.
But here’s what is not debatable: the guy who used manipulated intelligence and played on popular fears of another 9/11 to launch the most disastrous war in modern American history should not be taking money from a charity dedicated to helping those maimed in that war.
Helping a Hero exists solely because of Bush’s terrible foreign policy choices. The charity was founded in 2006, three years after Bush declared “Mission Accomplished’’ in Iraq, to “provide support for military personnel severely injured in the war on terror.” It focuses on helping wounded veterans who lost limbs or suffered other severe injuries. The organization’s work is vitally important.
In his 20-minute remarks Bush told the audience, “There is no greater cause than supporting those who are willing to sacrifice on our behalf” — but only, it appears, if that cause is accompanied by a $100,000 speaking fee and a $20,000 flight on a private jet.
Bush apparently also said that while “no president wants to serve during a war” “everyone must play the hand he is dealt no matter how unexpected” – as if he were a passive participant in the two wars that he initiated as president.
If anything, Bush should attend an event like this and beg those gathered for forgiveness.
Even if one believes that the war in Iraq was justified or that it furthered US national security interests (both highly dubious notions), the idea that Bush would even accept personal financial benefit to help assist soldiers maimed because of his orders suggests an unimaginable level of moral detachment.
It’s also eerily reminiscent of Bush’s 2004 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, when Bush joked about looking for and not finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the White House. You might remember those WMDs; they were the rationale for a war that killed 4,500 Americans, wounded 32,000 others and didn’t actually exist.
That was one of the more appalling moments in Bush’s presidency — a disturbing reminder of his profound disconnect from those harmed by his decisions. In the years since, Bush has held fast to the view that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do. It’s not surprising; self-criticism can be difficult. But if this week’s revelations are any indication, so too is self-awareness.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter@speechboy71.