George W. Bush in Retirement: A Man of Character
Mothers are revealing. Most people my age lived in households where the father worked and mothers raised the children. Fathers were seen during evenings and on weekends, sometimes to punish their offspring for misdeeds performed during the day. Children were told: “Wait ‘til your father gets home!” Mothers were around all the time; so they had the stronger influence.
It was interesting, in that regard, to hear Fox News’ Steve Doocy interview Barbara Bush at her Houston home last week. As an independent-minded, long-time observer of the political scene, Mrs. Bush responded to a recent Maureen Dowd column on the possibility of another Clinton-Bush lineup in 2016: “It just seems ridiculous in a country this size that we don’t have other families!” Her dispassionate tone was soon overtaken by her motherly instincts: “Jeb [Bush] is the most qualified person in this country to run for President.”
There is no doubt that Mrs. Bush’s character and intelligence informed her eldest son, George. Controversy about him continues to swirl. Diehard Democrats still accuse him and the Republican Party of “stealing” the 2000 election. By the time he left office, his ennobling response to the horrific events of 9/11 had been swept away with the venality that fell on him for the invasion of Iraq, the “torturing” of prisoners and for allowing the credit crisis of 2007-2008 to unfold as it did. Mainstream media never liked him. When Mr. Bush left office, his poll numbers were the lowest of his Presidency. Schadenfreude was palpable among members of the press.
In his inaugural, Mr. Obama was quick to distance himself from George Bush. “Not since 1933,” David Sanger wrote in the New York Times the next day, “when Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a ‘restoration’ of American ethics and ‘action, and action now’… has a new president so publicly rejected the essence of his predecessor’s path.” Mr. Obama’s desire was to “transform America” – to remake it in his image. Phrases like “Bush lied,” and “Blame Bush,” became common as parodies of themselves. And, certainly, ethical behavior has not been “restored.”
But even those who find it difficult to say anything nice about the 43rd President generally agree he is a decent and considerate man. Those aspects, in another age, would have marked him as a man of “character;” but the importance of character is no longer considered relevant.
An insight into George Bush’s character (and unlike that of the current occupant) is that not once during his Presidency did he accuse his predecessor for what he [Bush] had inherited: he never blamed him for not killing Osama bin Laden when given the chance; Mr. Bush never assigned responsibility to Mr. Clinton for the run-up and later bursting of the tech-Internet bubble that was still unwinding when he assumed office in January 2001. (It is largely forgotten, but by the time Mr. Bush was inaugurated, the NASDAQ Composite was down 50% from its peak 10 months earlier. It is never mentioned that George Bush inherited an economy that was headed into recession, which began two months after he took office and ended in November of 2001.)
George Bush left Washington on Tuesday, January 20, 2009 and flew to Midland, Texas with his wife and parents. In contrast to Bill Clinton, George Bush has stayed out of the limelight. “I don’t think it is good for the country to have a former president criticize his successor,” he told Jay Leno in an interview last November. He was right. We should not be a nation of celebratory or “rock-star”-like presidents and ex-presidents. Citizens serve as president and then should retire quietly. George Washington set the tone in March 1797 when, like Cincinnatus, he left the field to John Adams and fled to Mount Vernon. It is fascinating that the liberal media – the supposed supporters of the "common" man – should crown their Democrat heroes with garlands of royalty, the most conspicuous of course being the Kennedys and Camelot. Clintons are glamorous. Obama is “The One.” Not so Republicans. The same press tells us that Gerry Ford was a bumbler, Reagan was senile, and George Bush the stupid scion of old wealth.
Nevertheless, and despite every derogatory epithet thrown at him, George Bush has lived since retirement at his home in Dallas and on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, doing good deeds but outside the public’s eye. His home, ironically, is far more environmentally friendly than that of his former political opponents who rail against man-made causes of global warming (or climate change, as they now call it). Mr. Bush devotes himself not just to his library and painting landscapes and portraits but, importantly, to women’s health issues in Africa and to veterans, especially those who returned home wounded. And he does this without seeking the publicity without which people like Bill Clinton would shrivel up like wilted flowers.
When George Bush left office he was considered a pariah by many in his own party. Even four years later, at the Republican convention in Tampa that nominated Mitt Romney, his only appearance was via video, which quickly flipped to his father. Yet he never lost his love and respect for the people he served, especially those in the military. His concern is real, not faked. In the 1992 election, Mr. Clinton once famously said, “I feel your pain!” But it has been Mr. Bush who truly found his way into the hearts of the nation’s servicemen and women. After hearing of the Fort Hood massacre by Islamic terrorist Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 and wounded 38 on the 5th of November 2009, Mr. Bush and his wife, without escort, drove the thirty miles to visit the wounded and comfort the bereaved. They did so without notifying the press. They were on the base for six hours, until the White House requested they leave.
President Obama showed up days later for a memorial but never visited the hospital. Granted, Mr. Obama has a far busier schedule than does Mr. Bush, but still, this was the largest terrorist act on American soil since 9/11. The problem may be that Mr. Obama and his Justice Department deny it was terrorism, referring instead to the shootings as “workplace violence,” despite the cries of “Allah Akhbar” called out by Major Hasan as he slew his fellow soldiers.
About a month ago, George Bush announced a new initiative to take the “Disorder” out of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The problem, he noted, was that PTS is an injury, not a disorder. If it is called a disorder, “veterans don’t think they can be treated.” As President, Mr. Bush ordered these men into combat and today feels responsible for the injuries incurred. The Bush Institute focuses on veterans. Last May, Mr. Bush hosted and rode in his third annual 100K “Warrior Ride” – a three-day mountain bike trek with wounded veterans, many of whom have lost limbs. He has continued his interest in golf but in golf tournaments for wounded veterans.
As President, Mr. Bush founded the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. By the end of his term in office he had increased humanitarian aid to Africa by more than 640%, to more than $5 billion a year. Before PEPFAR, an estimated 100,000 people were on anti-retroviral drugs in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2008, that number had grown to two million. Since leaving office, George and Laura Bush have stayed active regarding health issues in Africa. Last year, on a visit to Zambia and Botswana, they launched the "Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon" initiative to bring together public and private funds to fight cervical and breast cancer in Africa and Latin America. Polls indicate that Mr. Bush’s popularity in Africa exceeds that of Mr. Obama. All of this has been accomplished with minimal news stories. It is the deed, not publicity, that drives them.
Two major crises struck during Mr. Bush’s Presidency – 9/11, less than eight months into his first term, and the bankruptcy of Lehman, four months before the end of his second term, in September 2008. As the financial crisis occurred almost at the end of his time in office, he cannot avoid some responsibility for the events that almost undid our financial system. In my opinion, though, the root cause lay with a feckless, political culture that encouraged the leveraging by consumers without adequate means to purchase houses they could not afford.
On Monday, September 15, 2008, Lehman filed for bankruptcy. That evening, the government agreed to an $85 billion bailout plan for AIG. The next day, Morgan Stanley’s shares fell 30%, as it looked as though it would be the next victim. On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced a $700 billion “bad bank” plan. On the 22nd, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley gave up their status as investment banks, allowing them to access the Fed’s window as commercial banks. Without recounting the litany of daily events, the Administration did respond and, as I have written in the past, Henry Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and NY Fed President Timothy Geithner deserve credit, along with President Bush, for not permitting financial Armageddon. In fact, as I have also noted, by the end of November the High-Yield market had bottomed and by the end of December the TED spread (the difference between 30-Day Treasuries and 30-Day Libor) had narrowed by over 300 basis points. The patient was still sick, but the crisis had passed its peak.
The high point of Mr. Bush’s Presidency, in terms of popular support, came with his inspirational response to the horrific events of 9/11. No one who heard his words will ever forget his bullhorn speech from the rubble that had been New York’s World Trade Center: “I can hear you! I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The wars that ensued became divisive. My point is not to defend them, but Mr. Bush made it clear that the enemy we were combating was different from anything we had seen before, and he did succeed to the extent that no subsequent attack on U.S. soil occurred during his Presidency.
The Presidency of a democracy is a continuum, with a beginning, but (we hope) with no immediate end. When the President leaves office he should walk off the field, as Mr. Bush did. He should not worry as to how history will treat him, for that is out of his control. As George Bush has noted, historians are still writing about and analyzing George Washington.
There are many who disagreed with Mr. Bush’s policies, especially in regard to the war in Iraq. Disagreement is fine; it is what allows a democracy function. But no one should suspect his motives, which always put the country and those who served her first. Mr. Bush is comfortable in his accomplishments and has no need for the limelight that others seek. He is an honorable man, with deep respect for the office he held and for the traditions that have made the United States the exceptional nation it is. In retirement, as in his Presidency, George Bush has shown character.