Library Launch

George W. Bush Emerges From the Shadows to Open Presidential Library

The former president is talking about his brother Jeb’s chances and reuniting with Obama and his presidential predecessors as he opens his library. Eleanor Clift on the quietest member of an exclusive club.

04.23.13 8:45 AM ET

It’s been called the most exclusive club in the world, with membership limited to living ex-presidents and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

On Thursday, Barack Obama is joining four of his predecessors—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the two Bushes—for a reunion of that club, to mark the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. It is a rare moment for the country to savor, with all five coming together in the warm glow of friendship to underscore the special bond that exists among those who have held the presidency. They rarely speak ill of each other, at least not in public, and stand ready to respond like a troupe of superheroes in times of crisis.

“There’s no job like it, and there are very few in our history who have held it,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday. Obama’s presence at the ceremony Thursday is evidence of that special bond, which the president believes trumps policy and political differences, Carney said. “He is firmly of the view that every one of his predecessors that he will be seeing in Dallas approached their job trying to do the very best for the country, that they all love their country, and they made policy decisions based on what they thought was the right thing to do.”

Bush has been a strikingly low-profile member of the club, staying out of the public eye since leaving Washington. But he and his first lady, Laura Bush, graced last weekend’s cover of Parade magazine and sat for a wide-ranging interview. Bush offered a flippant answer about brother Jeb’s presidential ambitions—“Yeah, he’d be the best candidate”—then sidestepped a question about whether the country is ready for another Bush. “That’s for Jeb to figure out—you know what I mean?”

“That’s just the president’s style,” says former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. “He’s sort of a towel snapper,” and his words are a dare, as if he’s saying, “Get in if you want to, Jeb.” There are those who think the 43rd president may have ended the Bush dynasty with a reckless war and reckless spending, but Fleischer says Bush is a man at peace with himself: “He rests comfortably knowing he did what he did as president for good reasons.”

Located on the grounds of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater, the Bush Center is an ambitious undertaking that goes well beyond a conventional library to add both a museum and policy institute. Visitors will be given access to the information Bush had and the advice he was given, and asked what they would do if they were in Bush’s shoes after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, two of the defining crises of his presidency.

In the Parade interview, Laura Bush reveals how her husband found his recent passion for painting. After leaving the stress of the presidency, he decided to give up smoking cigars, a habit the White House did not advertise and which an aide says was confined to his study and the Truman Balcony. “Desperate for a pastime,” says Laura, Bush was advised by visiting Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis to read Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime.

“And George did,” Laura says. At the same time, in a happy confluence of technology and history, Bush had an app on his iPad that he could use to draw pictures. He would send her and his daughters stick figures of himself in bed with Barney the dog to say goodnight or good morning. Laura showed them to an artist friend who thought they showed real creativity, encouragement that led to getting an art instructor for the ex-president. “He paints for a lot of hours a day and it transports him,” says the former first lady.

Those who know Bush are pleased he found his calling, though none could have predicted it would be painting. “Sitting still is not something the Bush family is known for,” says Jim McGrath, a spokesman for Bush 41, who in his heyday played golf so fast it was dubbed “aerobic golf.” Bush senior is in a wheelchair but otherwise doing well at age 88. He has what is described as Parkinson’s of the lower extremities, which affects his mobility.

The elder Bush, beloved by those who know him, is the glue that holds the presidential club together. His friendship with Bill Clinton has prompted Barbara Bush to dub Clinton her fifth son. What kind of relationship the elder Bush and Obama have forged is less known. Obama traveled to College Station, Texas, in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, and in 2011, Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for his long public service. In addition to those public events, on two occasions, when Bush was in Washington to attend the Alfalfa Club dinner, “President Obama caught wind of him being there and invited him over for chats in the Oval Office,” says McGrath.

The younger Bush has not forged the close relationships that his father has, and it’s not clear that he ever will or that he sees that as a priority. “Living presidents only get together when one of them dies or one of them opens a library,” says Fleischer, describing these rare occasions as offering a brief respite from partisanship and political strife. “Hopefully, the nation can pause and take it in, and enjoy it—despite Twitter,” he says, adding that he’s a fan of Twitter but if there’s a day to set aside snarky tweets, it’s when five presidents assemble on behalf of one of their own in a display of welcome solidarity.