Dubya: The Surreal Afterlife of an Ex-President

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The Independent/UK

Dubya: The Surreal Afterlife of an Ex-President

What has the most unpopular US President of all time been doing during his first year of retirement? Telling bad jokes – and defending his reputation in Texas

by
Alex Hannaford

George W Bush with President Obama after his 2009 swearing-in. (AFP)

George W Bush is clearly enjoying himself. Alone
on the stage, mic in hand, he tells a story about a moment earlier this
year when he was walking his dog, Barney, around the Dallas suburb he
now calls home. "I wanted to say hello to my neighbours," says Bush,
"because I was worried we'd inconvenienced them when word was out that
George Bush was moving where they lived. I hadn't walked in a
neighbourhood in eight years. Ain't that interesting? Barney had never
walked in a neighbourhood either ... he only knew the lawn of the White
House; he only knew Crawford, Texas, he only knew Camp David."

He decided to go up to a neighbour and say hello, Bush tells us. But just as
he goes to shake the neighbour's hand, Bush realises that he still has a
plastic poop bag covering his hand like a glove.

The image of Dubya holding a poop-scoop mitt settles on the audience who have
come to see him speak at a stadium in San Antonio, Texas. Then he launches
into another anecdote - an old favourite about the time Laura asked him to
go out and buy a battery from the local hardware store and someone asked
whether anyone had ever told him he looked just like the former President.
It happens all the time, he'd replied. "The guy then takes a couple of
steps away then turns round and says, 'That must make you mad'."

He soaks up the applause from his position on a stage in the centre of the
stadium. I can see Bush fairly clearly from my seat, although his voice is
occasionally drowned out, not just by the cheers of the crowd, but by four
middle-aged women who are yelling "war criminal" at him at the top
of their lungs. He can't hear them though, and after a while they're
escorted out of the venue by security guards. Bush looks at ease with this
crowd as he strides from one corner to the other. He is wearing a sharp grey
suit, and smiles regularly as he regales us, a mostly adoring audience, with
tales of how, at 63, he is now adjusting to life as a 'regular guy'.

This is the 'Get Motivated' business seminar, and Bush is top billing to a
host of other speakers. Around 15,000 people have paid just $10 each, in
some cases less, to be here. With tactical scheduling, Bush is one of the
last on stage - at around 3pm. Most of us have been here since 6.45am.
Motivational talks have been the hallmark of Bush's retirement (he is
reported to charge a fee of $150,000, or around £92,000, for each
appearance) - which so far hasn't amounted to much more than a gentle
schedule of low-key appearances in the safety of the South.

His new life isn't just a far cry from the Oval Office, it's a world apart
from the activities of other former Presidents, including his father (the
Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, for example, raised over $130m for victims of the
hurricane).

So is Bush Jr content with his lot on the can't-complain trail? Two weeks
before he left office, he told Fox News he was looking forward to going back
to Texas. "I love Texas," he said. "I love my wife. And you
know, I'm excited about the next chapter in my life."

After what Norman Ornstein, writing in the International Herald Tribune,
described as a "gentlemanly-goodbye exit" from the White House in
January ("presidential transitions are always difficult, but beginning
well before the election, Bush ... removed many of the usual obstacles,
fostering co-operation and harmony"), Bush and the former First Lady
moved into a modest house in a Dallas suburb and promptly disappeared. Has
the world's most notorious Texan become the Lone Lounger?

***

Daria Place is a cul-de-sac in the pleasant Preston Hollow neighbourhood north
of Dallas. The Bushes' single-storey 8,500 sq ft house apparently sits on an
acre plot here, and was bought by the couple for $2.7m. Just before the
Bushes arrived in January, Dallas City Council approved their request to
erect a security gate at the junction of nearby Meaders Lane - the only
access to Daria Place.

Today, pink pansies sit in a little flower garden beside the gate, and if you
look carefully you can see a discreet camera positioned to one side of the
entrance. But apart from the new gate, there's really nothing special about
Daria Place or its adjoining streets. Actually, it's all fairly drab by
Dallas standards. Modest single-storey bungalows stand side-by-side with
more elaborate Tuscan-style villas (the really big mansions are elsewhere in
Preston Hollow). It just looks like any other middle-class Dallas street.
It's quiet too. Leaves clutter the gutters of houses in the next street, and
a couple of children play on a small blue scooter outside their home.

The Bushes' home is close to a busy tollway and Dallas Love Field airport, so
travel is easy. He has been spotted mountain biking (followed by a Secret
Service detail) in Rochester Park a few miles up the road, and just south is
the Southern Methodist University (SMU) where his Presidential Library will
be built. Beyond that is the Highland Park United Methodist Church which he
and Laura occasionally attend. Until recently the Dallas Police Department
had posted an officer outside their house, but not any longer: budget cuts
have meant the Bushes have to rely solely on Secret Service protection now.

Do Americans prefer their former Presidents to maintain a presence on the
world stage, or, like Gerald Ford, do they expect them to just play golf in "retirement"?

Leaving office with a presidential approval rating of 22 per cent - the lowest
in 60 years - two unfinished wars and the deepest recession since the Great
Depression is no excuse for laziness.

Nixon, whose presidency was unceremoniously ended by Watergate, worked hard at
rehabilitating himself for years into his retirement, writing books and
counselling on foreign policy issues that commentators say were regarded by
parties on both sides of the divide as being reasoned and thorough. It took
time, but Nixon proved it could be done.

When Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 he launched into an ambitious
second career attempting to broker peace in the Middle East, monitoring
elections and helping to bring about conflict resolution. His Carter Centre
worked at bringing agricultural self-sufficiency to sub-Saharan Africa,
while its health programmes in Africa and Asia have helped try to eradicate
a parasite afflicting 10 million people, also addressing diseases such as
river blindness and trachoma.

Bill's Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) was set up in 2005 to help eradicate
poverty, combat the spread of AIDS, curb childhood obesity and fight global
warming.

Sure, George W Bush will have his presidential library for posterity, in a
tradition which began in 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal
and public documents to the federal government, and which has now become a
network of repositories for preserving all presidential papers.

Bush has said publicly that he wants to use his George W Bush Institute - part
of the George W Bush Presidential Centre in Dallas, which will include his
archives and library - to "promote human freedom" and search
for "practical solutions to important public policy problems, guided by
the principles of freedom, responsibility, opportunity and compassion."

But although Bush tried to make democracy a theme of his presidency (in his
2005 inaugural address he said "It is the policy of the United States
to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in
every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our
world"), he has very little credibility on the issues of freedom,
opportunity and compassion.

"It may be a genuine aspiration, but I don't know how he can do it,"
says Jacob Weisberg, journalist and author of The Bush Tragedy. Bush is
simply paying lip service to the tradition of a post-office public role,
says Weisberg.

"There's no single template for an ex-President. I think Carter redefined
the role in a significant way and that he has been a tremendously effective
ex-President - in a lot of ways a much more successful ex-President than
President. But he has set a fairly high bar. Clinton, while not following it
to the letter, has tried to emulate Carter's best qualities. And I think the
first Bush did, too, to some extent, with his international humanitarian
work."

But since he left office on 20 January, humanitarian work hasn't taken up too
much of Bush's schedule. Just one week after walking out of the White House,
he and Laura went to a women's basketball game between Baylor and Oklahoma
in Waco, where he received a "prolonged standing ovation" from
fans.

In February, he paid a surprise visit to 30 students at a political science
class at the Southern Methodist University, or SMU, in Dallas. When he
walked in "the students applauded but you could tell they were just
shocked", said SMU President R. Gerald Turner.

So what has he been doing? In March it was announced that Bush would be
writing his memoirs. Publishers Crown, part of the Random House group, paid
a reported $7m ($5m less than Clinton's advance for My Life) for a book
entitled Decision Points, which is scheduled to launch at the end of 2010.

Instead of telling his life-story, Bush will concentrate on explaining
approximately a dozen choices he has made throughout his life - from the
decision to quit drinking to sending troops to Iraq. "I want people to
understand the environment in which I was making decisions," he told
journalists earlier this year. "I want people to get a sense of how
decisions were made, and I want people to understand the options that were
placed before me."

But it is this year's schedule of low-key ex-presidential glad-handing that
has raised eyebrows. This summer Bush and the former First Lady surprised
residents of the small town of Woodward, Oklahoma by turning up to their 4th
July celebrations. "It's nice of you to give a retired guy something to
do," he told them. Johnny McMahon, editor of the local Woodward News
tells me the couple was well-received. "He met a few dignitaries in
town. He's very popular here. He gave a fine speech but it wasn't political
- it was more about the 4th July. It's an extremely conservative area."

Then, in October, Bush gave the keynote address at the "Celebrators"
conference in Sevierville, Tennessee - an evangelical Christian outreach
event for "seniors" organised by Phil Waldrep Ministries. "Around
8,500 people came and it was sold out," Waldrep, a Southern Baptist
evangelist, says. "We could have had 20,000, but that was all the
facility would hold."

Waldrep says Bush didn't give a political speech but that it was a "patriotic
event celebrating our country and its war veterans". Bush told
attendees about pictures he had hanging in the Oval Office, and also most of
the usual anecdotes he likes to tout around the speaking circuit.

"He was extremely well-received," Waldrep says. "Particularly
when he talked about his love of our country and for his mum and dad. I had
the opportunity to spend some time with him privately beforehand. He's a
very engaging, gracious man. This is probably a phrase from the American
South, but we like to say, 'He's very down to earth'."

***

When Bush left office he said he wasn't going to criticise incoming President
Barack Obama. "He deserves my silence," he told guests at a
private event in Calgary in March. But some say that the attacks on his
policies from the Obama administration have been relentless (Obama recently
told a group of Democratic donors, "I don't mind cleaning up the mess
that some other folks made, but while I'm there mopping the floor I don't
want someone saying 'You're not mopping fast enough'"), and that it's
as if Bush no longer cares.

"I give him credit for being true to his word and butting out - but is it
indifference?" Jacob Weisberg asks. "There is something of a
tradition of not criticising your successors, but it's a tattered tradition.
And he has taken going silent on world affairs to the extreme. He has so
vanished from the scene that you could think, boy, he shouldn't have been
there in the first place, that he is simply not engaged in these subjects."

Weisberg wonders whether he is saving it for his memoirs. "Bush's genius
has been setting expectations low. I think Sarah Palin may have helped him
out here - the bar has just dropped to the basement."

According to Bruce Bartlett, former domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan
and a US Treasury official under George Bush senior, Bush Jr has left the
attacks on Obama to his former Vice President, Dick Cheney.

"I can't help but notice that Cheney has more than filled the gap in
terms of making obnoxious and irresponsible statements about the current
administration's foreign policy," Bartlett says. "Bush may simply
feel he has nothing to add to what Cheney is saying."

Bartlett suggests that Bush may be biding his time, and that his silence so
far will pay off. "It may be that the expectations for Bush are so low
that as long as he can walk and chew gum at the same time, he may find some
extremely modest little thing to do in the future that people will say, 'Oh,
he wasn't such a bad guy after all'."

Other commentators believe that Bush does care about criticism of his
presidential record, but is biting his tongue. Brian Roberts, a politics
professor at the University of Texas, describes attacks on the Bush by the
Obama administration as "gratuitous".

"They're very aggressively pointing to Bush administration policies - one
after the other - as being the root of all evil, and Bush hasn't risen to
the bait. If he was to engage that agenda it would not serve the country
well - and it wouldn't be becoming of a former President. But Cheney has -
and he's gone beyond in many instances.

Roberts points to the library project as the cornerstone of Bush's fightback. "Presidential
libraries often have public policy schools appended to them and tend to be
the focus of post- presidential fundraising. One of the things that Bush W
is doing is aggressively seeking that bricks-and-mortar legacy that other
Presidents have. He's not coming out of the gate and launching some
Carter-like human rights initiative. As with Clinton or his father or
Reagan, he's getting the library infrastructure in place because that
becomes the physical legacy of the presidency and the forum for setting the
record straight - or at least setting it in a certain way."

What do Bush's own people say about his post-presidency plans? In a telephone
call, his spokesman David Sherzer tells me that Bush believes he must allow
his successor to govern and not "weigh in on that".

"The role of a former President and former Vice President - or anyone
else who served in the administration - is vastly different. He appreciates
[former] Vice President Cheney's service very much and he appreciates him
and his strong advocacies of the policies he implemented," says
Sherzer.

As for retirement, Sherzer says Bush is "done with politics but not with
policy. He's a young man and feels like he has a lot of energy left. He and
Mrs Bush are excited about using the Institute as a force for peace, to
promote human freedom, global health, accountability in education and
economic growth.

"He's excited about continuing to promote these things at a policy
institute in the heartland of America." Sherzer points out that since
20 January, Bush has actually given 30 speeches (including the motivational
seminar in San Antonio), not only in the US but in India, Korea, China and
Japan. In Delhi he told an annual gathering of business leaders the
hardware-store anecdote - again - and flew to Korea to give a speech on
Seoul-Washington relations at the World Knowledge Forum. "He enjoys
sharing reflections from his presidency, his decision-making and management
style," Sherzer says.

And for the record, says his spokesman, Bush is 5/6ths of the way through his
book ("he's one of the most disciplined people you'd ever meet")
and works on it every day - not, Sherzer adds, with a ghost writer, but with
a team of researchers and fact-checkers.

As for the anecdotes he likes to relay in his paid speeches, he apparently
really did go to the hardware store - Laura sent him out to buy a battery as
they'd just moved into their house the day before. He took his secret
service protection because, Sherzer says, "he will never regain his
anonymity, but he has had a great opportunity to become part of the Dallas
community."

Laura too has been busy speaking at conferences around the country. "And
she is very involved leading the women's initiative at the presidential
centre. They both believe that women will be at the forefront of freedom in
the Middle East," Sherzer says. "She has been involved in
designing the library. And she's working on her own book, due out in the
spring."

I ask if Bush is still friends with anyone from his administration. "He
is in touch with a lot of different folks," Sherzer says. "He
doesn't miss being President but he misses the team - he sees Condi Rice,
Don Evans [former Secretary of Commerce], Josh Bolten [former White House
Chief of Staff] still."

***

On stage at the San Antonio arena, Bush is half-way through his 30-minute
speech. "I sat behind a desk given to the US by Queen Victoria,"
he tells a crowd that is now feeding from his hand. "Franklin Roosevelt
used that desk. He was in a wheelchair. 'Course, I'm the guy who ate the
pretzel and passed out," he jokes, referring to the 2002 incident. "Everyone
knows I ate the pretzel, and hardly anyone knew Roosevelt was in a
wheelchair."

There are lots of soldiers here today, in full uniform, and he plays up to
them and this largely Republican crowd (to be fair to Bush, he and Laura
recently attended Fort Hood in Texas to speak to those injured in the
shooting last month, but told senior army officials they wanted the visit to
remain private and didn't want the media there). He says it dawned on him
shortly after 9/11 that the busts he had chosen to stand in the Oval Office,
of Churchill, Eisenhower and Lincoln, were all wartime Presidents.

"I didn't put them in there because they were wartime leaders," he
says. "When I campaigned I never said 'Elect me, I look forward to
being a wartime leader'. It's the worst thing a President ought to be, and
it's the last choice of a President to put his troops into harm's way. But I
made the decision that the best way to protect the country from cold-blooded
killers was to go on the offensive, stay on the offensive and bring them to
justice before they hurt us again."

If anybody here this afternoon remains ambivalent, a reference to his Southern
roots and a touch of homespun wisdom should seal the deal. "I came to
Washington with a set of values, many of which I learned here in Texas,"
Bush goes on. "And I wanted people to understand I wasn't going to
change those values. The temptation in life is to try to be the popular guy,
but the important thing is to look in the mirror and be proud of what you
see."

The stadium erupts with whooping and applause. Some people are standing. "It
wasn't popular," Bush says. "But I believe it was right."

It seems Bush is defending his record in retirement - but at home, in front of
crowds of adoring fans. On one politics blog, a commenter (presumably
someone who had been in the audience at one of his many speeches and heard
the much-repeated dog-walking anecdote) wrote: "I'm sure the former
President is much more relaxed in his speaking style now that the pressure's
off. We aren't worried about his 'faux poos' reflecting on our national
image, and neither is he." Quite.

Out of office: Lives of the ex-Presidents

Bill Clinton (US President 1993-2001)

Clinton has written two books: his 2004 autobiography, My Life, and the
charity manual Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, in 2007. Last
August, he made a surprise trip to North Korea to negotiate the release of
two US journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling; they were released the next day
and flew back with him. In the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, he
advocated vigorously on behalf of his wife, Hillary.

George H W Bush (1989-1993)

In 2005 appeared with Clinton in a series of TV ads encouraging aid for
victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Otherwise
limits public appearances to occasions such as the state funeral of Ronald
Reagan in June 2004.

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

Publicly campaigned for issues including the repeal of the 22nd Amendment,
which prohibits a president from serving more than two terms. Established
the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in California, which contains a
library with information on his presidency.

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

Of the recent former presidents, arguably Carter has enjoyed the most prolific
post-office career. Has conducted peace missions in North Korea and Gaza,
winning him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, and has been a prominent critic of
the death penalty in certain parts of the US. Has also authored 27 books
including a children's book, The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer, illustrated by
his daughter, Amy.

Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

In 1977, Ford founded the Gerald R Ford Institute of Public Policy in Albion,
Michigan, to give undergraduates training in public policy. Was an outspoken
critic of George W Bush's decision to use Saddam Hussein's alleged
possession of weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for invading Iraq.

Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

Spent much of his time trying to rebuild his reputation post-Watergate, most
famously through his 1977 television interviews with David Frost. Wrote 10
books, and offered his opinions on diplomacy to subsequent Oval Office
residents. Rob Sharp

 

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