01.21.09

What Bush Did Right

On her flight back to Texas with the former president, White House counselor Karen Hughes reflects on unexpected accomplishments, low opinion polls, and why she didn’t bring her dog on the plane.

This time, I didn’t bring the dog.

Eight years ago, my golden retriever Breeze was with me as I climbed onto the Air Force plane that would take me and my boss to Washington for his inauguration as president. I hadn’t planned it that way—in fact, not much about the chaotic time between the agony of the month-long Florida recount and the frenetic blur of our abbreviated transition to governing felt planned.

I was working nonstop helping the president select a Cabinet, hire a staff, prepare to govern. My husband had rented a house in Virginia that I had yet to see, and he and my son had left for Washington so my son wouldn’t miss the opening day of school. Everything I owned except a suitcase, and the dog and cat, was on a moving van heading north.

As we boarded the flight home to Texas yesterday, all of us were proud—and relieved—that he had succeeded in keeping our country safe. I’m sure most of us wished he was leaving to accolades or higher approval ratings, but no one voiced that.

A couple of days before we were due to fly out of Austin, I was worrying out loud that I had not figured out a way to transport my pets. “Bring them with us,” a member of our staff suggested, explaining that the president was bringing his animals and a local kennel would board them until we were all settled. I made the arrangements, and showed up with my dog and cat in their travel crates, expecting to put them in the hold. But the hold wasn’t pressurized, as the polite Air Force officer informed me. I was mortified, but stuck. So I climbed on board, dog and cat in tow, worried what the Air Force personnel must be thinking (those Texans, bringing everything but the sheep and the goats!).

The flight that took us to Washington through Midland that day in 2001 was full of activity and anticipation. A member of our media team, Scott Sforza, helped calm the dog while the president and I worked, reviewing drafts of his inaugural and stacks of paperwork outlining upcoming decisions. Hope and high expectations were on board, along with some anxiety (what was Washington really like?) and much anticipation, including the conviction that our boss, who worked so well with Democrats in Texas, could change the negative tone in our nation’s capital.

What we never imagined on that January day eight years ago were the terrorist attacks of September 11, the day that would forever change and define the presidency of George W. Bush. It still surprises me to realize that after all the debates, news conferences and interviews—the thousands of questions that had been asked over the course of our presidential campaign, my boss had never once—not once!—been asked about Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Despite all our plans and intentions, from the day of the attacks until the final day of his presidency, preventing another attack on our homeland dominated the president’s first thoughts every morning and his last ones at night.

As we boarded the flight home to Texas yesterday, all of us were proud—and relieved—that he had succeeded in keeping our country safe. I’m sure most of us wished he was leaving to accolades or higher approval ratings, but no one voiced that. We all believe he accomplished many things for which he gets little or no credit, some expected and some not: covering prescription drugs in Medicare, reforming public schools, preserving huge swaths of pristine oceans, saving lives with a massive AIDS and malaria initiative in Africa, removing tyrannical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, funding a massive increase in development assistance to further education and fight poverty and disease.

And I believe two of his least-popular decisions, the surge of troops into Iraq and the massive rescue of our financial system, have paved the way for Barack Obama’s presidency to be far more successful than it otherwise would have been. We claim that we want our political leaders to do what they believe is right, rather than what polls shows is popular—but we don’t always honor that.

I hadn’t been sure what to expect about the flight home to Texas, dubbed Air Force Special Mission 28,000. The plane was the same one that had flown him across the world, but it was no longer called Air Force One because President Bush was no longer the president. I wasn’t sure if it would be somewhat sad, perhaps bittersweet, but as the president said, there was no “bitter” about it. Primarily, it was an affectionate, joyful gathering of people who have been through a great deal together. Many of us had arrived in Washington with the president; some had served the entire eight years, while others, like me, had spent part of the administration with him (in my case, a total of four years, 18 months at the White House, two-and-a-half years at the State Department).

A couple of things struck me during the flight: The friends on board were many of the same ones he and Mrs. Bush had before they entered public life, the same ones who visited his house in Dallas when I first went to work for him.

And second, the vast disconnect between the affection and admiration those who worked most closely for and around him clearly feel, and the negative judgment of the public opinion polls. We watched a video in which both staff members and career employees who worked in the White House expressed their appreciation and admiration. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair summed up my most profound thought: the extraordinary courage it took for the president to support the surge of troops into Iraq in the face of almost universal disapproval, thus transforming a war that was being lost into one that is being won.

It was the privilege of a lifetime to know and serve a president, to see the office and its demands up close—and now, all of us are looking forward to the next chapter. President Bush is an active, energetic man who at age 62 has many years of positive contribution ahead of him. In this new season, he won’t stand in the spotlight—it is President Obama’s turn now. He’ll write a book to share with the American people the factors he considered as he made the decisions he did. He’ll work on building his presidential library, and an accompanying policy institute dedicated to advocating freedom and responsibility. Soon, I expect we’ll be welcoming Afghan women, leaders of emerging democracies, dissidents fighting for freedom, and those who are leading the fight against disease and poverty in the developing world to the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

For now, I suspect those of us who know President Bush best are simply glad to welcome him home to Texas. Inaugurals are a wonderful affirmation of the enduring optimism of our democracy, and I wish President Obama and his team the very best. I know a lot more about Washington and the world than I did eight years ago, but I’m still an idealist at heart. I believe most people who are willing to endure the harsh, often negative spotlight that comes with public service do so for fundamentally the right reasons: to try to make our country a better place. My prayers are with our new president, and my gratitude and respect follow our former one home.

Karen Hughes was counselor to President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002, and undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005-2007. She is now global vice chairman of Burson-Marsteller, a communications/public-relations firm.