George W. Bush
The defining racial moment of George W. Bush’s tenure as president was undoubtedly when during a telecast to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina the rapper Kanye West announced to the audience that “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Even now, almost a decade later, the footage is unsettling. West writhes back and forth like he’s on the verge of tears. Mike Myers clutches his hands behind his back like a mortician and tries to pretend like nothing is happening. Unable to make his feelings into sentences, West tries one after another, falls silent, and then bursts.
Nor was Kanye West entirely wrong. Our society doesn’t value black and brown life as much as white life. To argue otherwise is preposterous. But no president, perhaps not even Lincoln, did more to save the literal lives of black people than George W. Bush. Not American black people, admittedly, but black people nonetheless.
Launched in 2003, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (or PEPFAR) was seen by many as being a terrible idea. They claimed that the program was too expensive, that AIDS in Africa was too far gone to be stopped, that the complicated retroviral treatments helping people in America and Europe could never be transplanted to Africa where the infrastructure was too poor and the people too uncivilized to take their medication properly.
But President Bush pushed ahead anyway, and despite all the naysaying, PEPFAR became what is probably the Bush Administration’s greatest success. There are some complaints you can make about PEPFAR — that it was targeted as well as it could have been, that it was too “abstinence only” in its sex education — but there’s no question that PEPFAR was a massive improvement on what world leaders had been doing about AIDS beforehand: next to nothing. When PEPFAR began, only 50,000 HIV-positive people a year were receiving treatment in the entire continent of Africa. By the time George Bush left office that number had increased to 2,000,000. By 2012, it was over 4,000,000. For the first time, Africans were getting the same high quality drugs as people in the western world. They were getting pre-natal care to help prevent the passage of HIV from mother to child. Instead of being left to die, those with full blown AIDS were treated and supported.
It’s hard to know how exactly how many lives PEPFAR saved but most estimates put the numbers in the millions. And millions more were offered longer, better lives because of the care George W. Bush brought to them. As reviled as Bush became in America and Europe and the Middle East, there is one place he’s still a hero even now: Africa.