The man standing on stage in a Dallas auditorium Thursday was a lot grayer than the one who left the governor’s mansion in Austin under somewhat controversial circumstances nine years earlier. But so much of the mood music surrounding George W. Bush’s first major domestic speech since leaving the presidency felt familiar.
Before he strode on stage with his unchanged wife, you could have gazed at a big screen showing photos of presidential hugs alongside such slogans as Compassion and Responsibility. This was the warmup for the original Compassionate Conservative—the one who campaigned as a different kind of Republican. The man who promised to restore the Responsibility Era, to put his hand on the Bible and swear not only to uphold the laws of the land, but the honor and integrity of the office to which he would be (kind of) elected. So help him God.
Bush stayed the same. But the country was forever changed.
If you closed your eyes, you might think it was 1999 all over again. You might think that 9/11 had never happened. Nor the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, either. Not Hurricane Katrina, record surpluses turned into record deficits—and certainly not the rise of an unlikely politician named Barack Obama. Bush didn’t mention any of them. Why should he? A man gets to decide his own legacy, doesn’t he?
There was his old buddy from Midland, Don Evans, introducing the Bushes: the man who helped to make the match between Laura and George, who chaired his campaign for governor and president, and is now raising money once more for the new Bush presidential center at Southern Methodist University.
• Lloyd Grove: The Man Charged with Bush's Makeover And then there was the man himself, still uncomfortably goofy while standing at the podium. After all those thousands of presidential speeches, he still started off blinking like a rabbit at the cameras. Then he shook off his nerves with a little swagger and some well-worn jokes which, come to think of it, were already a bit threadbare back in 2000.
He joked about the media, which his daughter has now joined. And he joked about skipping class as a student, which sounded like the soft bigotry of his own low expectations. He even indulged in jokes about Mother. After all, what could be funnier than a 63-year-old former president who is too afraid to praise his wife in case it annoys his parents?
This was the unveiling of what Bush once told author Robert Draper would become his “fantastic freedom institute.” But it turned out to be less about freedom for the world than the freedom to rewrite his own presidential history.
The myth about presidents is that they never change, according to their own aides and friends. They are rocks of men, sitting resolutely mid-stream in the raging waters of history. No matter what happens to them, no matter what happens because of them, they leave office intact.
For President Bush, this is a tricky myth to sustain. It requires a huge degree of self-belief, a considerable lack of self-awareness, and a touch of delusion. Or a nine-year-long Rip Van Winkle sleep.
So he explained how the Bush institute will promote five main areas: education, global health, human freedom, economic growth, and a women’s initiative.
Education, according to the former president, was his top domestic priority as president, and a “nonpartisan” one at that. The landmark of that policy was passed by the summer of 2001, leaving seven years without a top domestic priority. Mentioning No Child Left Behind also served as a reminder of how 2001 was a paradise of bipartisanship; an era when self-confessed liberals like Ted Kennedy found ways to work with a new Republican president. Sadly President Bush left behind a Washington with zero House Republicans who could vote for a Democratic president’s stimulus bill. For a guy who styled himself as a uniter, not a divider, the nonpartisan legacy looks a little thin.
On global health, Bush’s record is far more impressive. His increased spending on global HIV/AIDS has been lauded by everyone from Bono to Barack Obama. Yet that record would have come as a surprise to anyone who fell asleep after his 2000 campaign, since the compassion he mentioned most often related to the power of faith to rehabilitate offenders.
Then again, the 2000 campaign never foreshadowed the most compassionate commitment of the Bush presidency: Iraq and Afghanistan—the biggest nation-building efforts since World War II. In fact, Bush campaigned in 2000 by deriding nation-building as a massive liberal corruption of the true purpose of the United States military—which was “to fight and win wars,” as he used to put it. So maybe it was just as well he didn’t mention either war at SMU, leaving such talk to his wife with her women’s initiative.
Instead, Bush recalled his firm belief—repeated through the 2000 and 2004 campaigns for the benefit of evangelical voters—that “every human life has dignity and value.” Such a belief is itself dignified and valuable. But it’s also hard to square with his decision to go to war in Iraq, and the lack of post-invasion planning that accompanied that decision.
There was one apparent moment of regret; one apparent admission of a mistake. President Bush conceded that he went against his free-market instincts by approving the TARP bank bailouts to avoid a worldwide depression. In the next breath, he warned his successor that “the greater threat to prosperity is not too little government intervention, but too much.” He even warned against “the blunt instruments of government spending and control.”
Never mind that he alienated his own party’s fiscal conservatives by expanding Medicare with a vastly expensive prescription-drug benefit. Sometimes the blunt instrument of government spending has a higher purpose. And never mind that even Alan Greenspan concedes that a little more government control, or regulation, might have averted the reckless ways of Wall Street on Bush’s watch.
Those blunt government instruments are nothing compared to blind faith in the markets. Perhaps that is why the man running the Bush institute, James Glassman, wrote an investment guide entitled Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market. The book appeared in 1999, just as Bush was starting to run for president, and just before the dot-com bubble burst. At the time of publication, the Dow was around 10800, about 600 points above where it stands today. For some reason, Glassman’s biography on the Bush institute Web site fails to name the title of his investing books.
Yes, SMU was a place for political Van Winkles. On stage stood the original, pre-Iraq President Bush. Version 1.0. “I gave the job my all,” he said. “I always did what I believed was in the best interests of my country. And I came home to Texas with my values intact.”
Bush stayed the same. But the country was forever changed.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.