Broken Telephone: What George W. Bush Really Said in Las Vegas

George W. Bush (Associated Press)
Associated Press

Numerous reports, based on second-hand accounts, have alleged that former President George W. Bush “bashed” President Barack Obama in his remarks at the gala dinner of the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Saturday. Bloomberg View bases its report on notes provided by an attendee; so does the New York Times–although, to his credit, the Times‘ Jason Horowitz actually sought other quotes from exiting attendees as he stalked outside the event.

I don’t know who tried to transcribe Bush’s remarks, but his or her account is inaccurate. The individual quotes seem correct, but they are highly selective–and the overall tone of Bush’s remarks has been mischaracterized. He did not “bash” Obama, and in fact made it clear at the outset that he would not do so because he felt the office of the President was more important than the occupant. In addition, his tone was humorous, self-deprecating, and sunny–not harsh, bitter, or self-righteous.

There were only two occasions on which Bush appeared to criticize Obama. One was his use of a quote by Lindsey Graham–which he explained, to much laughter, that he was using in lieu of actually criticizing Obama himself–that the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 had been a “strategic blunder.”

The other occasion–not reported by Bloomberg or the Times–was when he noted that he had met Russian president Vladimir Putin over two dozen times, despite rising tensions. (Bush allowed he had been wrong to trust Putin.) Bush added, by way of explanation, that meeting with foreign leaders was a central tool of diplomacy–a remark that was interpreted by he audience as a subtle commentary on Obama’s recent reluctance to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That was it, as far as “bashing.” Bush’s other remarks were expressed as his own views, not as criticisms of his successor. When he explained what was wrong with the Iran deal, he was careful to note that the deal was falling short of “the president’s” objectives, which was a way of criticizing the deal while suggesting Obama had been trying to do the right thing. His suggestions were framed as what the president should do–not as complaints about what Obama was not doing.

The meeting was off the record–and Bush, jokingly, said that meant the New York Times would print his remarks in two days instead of right away. It took far less time than that–thanks to an attendee who clearly wished to spin Bush’s words as a direct criticism of Obama, and quoted him selectively for that purpose.

No doubt many Republicans would love George W. Bush to be more forthright with his views, just as Bush’s predecessors never tired of bashing him while he was in office.

But that is not Bush’s style, and to portray him as using a private meeting for that purpose is to do an injustice to the man, as well as to the lofty example he wishes to set for post-presidential behavior.