05.31.12

Bush’s Hidden Legacy

As Obama unveils Bush’s official portrait Thursday, partisans see hues of 43 in the current administration. Eleanor Clift on the former president’s surprising influence on his successor.

UPDATE: At the event Thursday, President Obama recalled his predecessor after the 9/11 attacks standing on that pile of rubble at Ground Zero, conveying resoluteness and strength, pointing out that his administration’s success in tracking down and killing Bin Laden was due to many people working across two administrations. “That’s why my first call was to President Bush,” Obama said. On a lighter note, he said the former president “left me a really good TV sports package.”

Bush chuckled at that, and when he took the stage, noted that the White House portrait gallery of former presidents “starts and ends with a George W.” When his successor wanders the hall, Bush continued mischievously, he can look either way and ask, “What would George do?” Introducing his wife, Laura, as “the greatest first lady ever,” Bush turned to former First Lady Barbara Bush, sitting in the front row, and said, “Sorry Mom … would you agree to a tie?” The contrasting personalities of the two men was on display, Obama always reserved, Bush always jaunty, and at this moment in time, political differences vanished. “There’s not enough tissue to go around,” said Michelle Obama.

Original Story: It would have been hard to imagine not so long ago, but Barack Obama will be saying some very nice things about George W. Bush on Thursday. 

It’s become a time-honored ritual that with the installation of a past president’s portrait in the White House, his successor heaps praise on the man he once reviled on the campaign trail. A shared sense of the enormous job of keeping America safe in the face of countless threats bonds these former opponents.

And Bush, perhaps more than any recent president, must feel vindicated by the policies that Obama has chosen to pursue, many of them forged in the post-9/11 era under Bush’s leadership. 

Even so, “he won’t express it,” says former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. “He meant it when he said the president deserves his silence.” But even as George and Laura Bush stand in the East Room for the unveiling of their portraits—and for the expected showering of praise—the staffers who worked for them will take little satisfaction in the evolution of candidate Obama to President Obama, nor will they be so quiet about it.

“To get to the left of Hillary, he said President Bush violated the Constitution, and now he’s adopted a lot of the Bush antiterrorism policies,” Fleischer told The Daily Beast. “We’re happy that he changed his tune, but he ran on that ugliness in ’08.” 

The scars of a hard-fought campaign run deep, and for Bush loyalists, it’s not enough that Obama has come around to their boss’s thinking on key national-security issues. They fault Obama for making too much of the few differences that existed, notably on the issue of torture. Waterboarding terror suspects was given up years earlier, Fleischer says, and all Obama did was to make it official. What was at issue, and still is, are indefinite detention, warrantless wiretaps, secret rendition, Guantanamo, and don’t forget, Fleischer adds, “Obama started down the path of prosecuting CIA agents who conducted the war on terror. He backed away, but it was a horrendous threat for him to make. What they did was legal and approved by the government, and then for a successor to say it was illegal, or maybe illegal, would freeze the CIA in its tracks.” 

The resentment felt in the Bush camp is more than matched by a sense of betrayal on the Democratic left, which bought into Obama’s pledges that he would keep America safe in a way that more vigorously respected the Constitution and the country’s values. Reports by Newsweek and The New York Times on how Obama personally signs off on a “kill list” of al-Qaeda terrorists prepared by the CIA and the Pentagon is chillingly reminiscent of the deck of playing cards that Bush used to keep score of top terrorist targets when he was in the Oval Office.  

“There has been a surprising amount of continuity,” William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email, adding this critical difference: “Obama’s form of unilateralism (drones) has worked a lot better than Bush’s. That’s what the people want–effective defense/offense on the cheap (especially as measured in American lives).” In a briefing earlier this month, the former Clinton administration official said that Obama’s muscular approach to national security has managed to offset any GOP advantage on national security. “Every day spent by the Romney campaign talking about those issues is a wasted day for Romney,” Galston said. 

The resentment felt in the Bush camp is more than matched by a sense of betrayal on the Democratic left.

When smiling staffers, friends, and families have gathered at the White House for such events, the sense of continuity and the good feelings displayed by the principals offered a welcome respite from the harsh rhetoric of an election year. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and his mother, Barbara Bush, will also be there. When the senior Bush’s portrait was unveiled during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Bush got the crowd laughing when he said, “Welcome to my hanging …” Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, yet the two have become good friends, traveling together in recent years on seven humanitarian trips. Clinton jokes that Barbara Bush refers to him as her “black-sheep son.” 

This latest visit to the White House will be George W. Bush’s first time back since March 2010, when he and Clinton answered Obama’s call to rally support for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Bush’s presidential library will open next April in Dallas, and he’s been keeping busy with paid speeches and very few public events. An avid cyclist, he led 20 Wounded Warriors on a 3-day, 100-mile bike ride last month. As for politics, he endorsed his party’s presidential nominee while in Washington earlier this month as he ducked into an elevator and was asked the question just before the doors closed. “I’d be surprised if Romney asks him to campaign,” says Fleischer. Funny how politics works—Bush is not particularly popular in his own party, and he’s likely to get a warmer reception at the White House from Obama than anything Romney is able to muster.