By Ronie Berggren
In 2004, I was interviewed by Associated Press simply because I was considered to be something exclusively exotic: a Swede who actually supported George W. Bush, and then traveled to the United States together with a friend to campaign for him.
And that indeed was something exotic coming from a Swede.
The summer of 2001, President Bush honored Sweden by being the first sitting American president to visit our country. But in Gothenburg thousands of demonstrators greeted him with signs like: “Bush not welcome”, and: “Bush little boy, the world is not your toy!”
And far worse was how our political leaders talked about him. In 2003 our then Aid and Migration Minister Jan O. Karlsson, said about Bush: “That F-ing Texas boy” (freely translated from Swedish). And he wasn’t even talking about Iraq (a war our then PM Göran Persson described as morally and legally unrighteous) – he talked about Bush’s opposition to abortion, support for sexual abstinence in the fight against —- AIDS in Africa.
Even though news broke that president Bush actually had Swedish ancestors – there was no interest in fair reporting, and even today, most Swedes still do not know anything about PEPFAR.
A Swedish journalist commented on Karlssons remarks about Bush, and wrote that he was just saying what everyone else was thinking. She probably included herself in that category, but she was right. In 2006, there was a poll carried out in Sweden, where my fellow countrymen considered the United States to be the greatest threat to world peace – more dangerous than North Korea and Iran. No wonder that when the American women soccer team won the Olympics in 2008 and were invited by President Bush to the White House, their Swedish coach Pia Sundhage declined to attend. “I just won’t do it”, she said. The same year our former UN Ambassador Pierre Schori said on radio that “what’s needed after these terrible years with Bush is a radical regime change in Washington”. In 2011, our Swedish state television aired a six-hour live coverage of the tenth memorial for 9/11 where our former Ambassador to the United States Jan Eliasson (these days Deputy Secretary-General at the United Nations), kept repeating how disconnected Bush was to the public that day, flying from one place to another – almost cowardly.
To put it simply: there was no love for George W. Bush here in Sweden.
With one exception. Me.
During the presidential election of 2000 I saw some glimpses of Bush on TV – and I immediately liked him. After that, through this fantastic thing (you know, that invention) called the Internet – I started to read and watch hundreds of Bush’s speeches through the White House website. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him – and the clearer it became that the image of Bush constantly painted in Swedish – and European – media, was very untrue.
Many considered Bush’s America to be a America against the world. But in reality it was a America for the world: Bush formulated the American ideals of freedom, for a global world in a new century. And involved in something as dirty as politics, Bush was honest, he did not play political games – he stayed clean.
One of the best memories from all those speeches I watched, was when a man at a town hall meeting declared how ashamed he was of his president for this and that reason. Bush did not interrupt him, until he stumbled and Bush then quickly put in: “I’m not your favorite guy?” The audience burst out in laughter and later on the guy actually thanked Bush for letting a guy like him speak his mind.
In 2005, when Bush spoke in Brussels, he began with a story about how Benjamin Franklin arrived in Europe and how everyone adored him. Bush quoted an observer, who wrote:
“His reputation was more universal than Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them. There was scarcely a peasant or a citizen who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.”
When finished, Bush said with a smile: “I have been hoping for a similar reception” – and he actually succeeded in the impossible task of making the Brussels eurocrats laugh.
At the Bush Center Dedication ceremony on April 25, President Obama formulated this ability in an excellent way:
“He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously”
Simply said: Bush was awesome.
But it was far more than his personality. In an early campaign speech in 1999, he explained the necessary balance of the political concept he launched – Compassionate Conservatism:
“It is conservative to cut taxes. It is compassionate to help people save and give and build.
It is conservative to reform welfare by insisting on work. It is compassionate to take the side of charities and churches that confront the suffering which remains.
It is conservative to confront illegitimacy. It is compassionate to offer practical help to women and children in crisis.”
Here in Europe we have socialists and other parties that claim to be compassionate, but have no sense of either financial responsibility or an accurate understanding of the lessons of history. As a consequence we have European economies in chaos – and a European Union that presents centralised power as the solution. Both are very dangerous.
We also have right-wing parties, who in their conviction that desperate times require desperate action, lose sight of the fact that love and human dignity have no borders. As a consequence ethnic hatred and extreme nationalism are once again on the rise. That is also very dangerous.
The remedy to these problems is a healthy dose of American conservatism. But conservatism will never be accepted in Europe by my generation – a generation raised in welfare and with a very short-sighted understanding of history – unless it is accompanied by genuine compassion.
For that reason Compassionate Conservatism should be a guiding light in the 21th century – in Europe as well as in America. Because I have seen no better path to save the western world from failing its ideals, or falling from its strong position in the world, than the concept George W. Bush launched, as well as embodied, in the beginning of this century: the combination of compassion and conservatism.
That is also why two Swedes saved money and launched a personalised campaign for George W. Bush almost ten years ago. A decision I have never regretted. And when thinking of the narrow-minded politicians and journalists in my own country, the words of Greg Sheridan (another non-American observer) from 2008, comes to mind, when he said about President Bush:
“This President, infinitely more complex than his reviews would suggest, will have a better place in history than most of his critics.”
Ronie Berggren lives in Sweden, studies religious history and blogs daily about American politics (in Swedish) at American News Analysis and is currently working on a Swedish book about the presidency of George W. Bush.