George W. Bush’s New Cause: AIDS in Africa

Now that he’s been out of the White House for almost four years, George W. Bush’s post-presidency is coming into sharper relief, and there’s a lot for his critics to admire.

Together with Laura Bush, he spent the July 4th week in Africa, where he helped refurbish a clinic to detect and treat cervical cancer. His jeans splattered with paint and with a baseball cap shielding his eyes from the sun, the former president said his work on global-health issues is a natural outgrowth of the freedom agenda he championed in Washington, noting with his characteristic bluntness: “One aspect of freedom is for people to be free from disease.”

This was Bush’s third trip to Africa since leaving office (Laura’s second), and his emotional ties to the continent reach back to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that he put in place 10 years ago to help stop the transmission of the AIDS virus from mothers to children. It was transformative for Africa—and for also for Bush, who found a cause that he could take way beyond the White House, one that would become a building block in the next chapter of his life. Laura Bush is speaking at next week’s AIDS conference in Washington, the first held in the U.S. now that restrictions have been lifted so people with AIDS can enter this country.

A sympathetic observer familiar with Bush’s thinking, who declined to be identified, says Bush wants his ex-presidency to be “a blend of Jimmy Carter, his father, and a little bit of Bill Clinton, but not too much.” An online photo of Bush, roller in hand to paint a door at a health clinic in Zambia, is reminiscent of Carter’s work building houses with Habitat for Humanity. But Karen Hughes, a longtime confidante of Bush, bristles at the notion that her ex-boss is modeling himself after any of his predecessors.

“He is very much charting his own course,” she says, “and it’s a continuation of things he really cares about going back to his term as governor. He really believes in the biblical imperative, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’”

The Bush Institute is being erected along with his presidential library on 25 acres of land on the Southern Methodist University campus, Laura Bush’s alma mater. It’s at the institute’s temporary offices in Dallas where the former president can be reached most days—“very early in the morning, like 6:45 he shows up,” Hughes told The Daily Beast. “I spoke to him this morning at 7:30 and he was probably on his third cup of coffee.”

The institute houses a variety of programs under the broad headings of global health, education reform, economic growth, and advancing human freedom, areas that advance Bush’s interests and reflect his presidency. Laura Bush oversees a women’s initiative that is hosting its first class of fellows from Egypt, activists who are critical to the country’s fledgling democracy movement. When planning the institute, Bush instructed, “I don’t want a think tank; I want a do tank.”

Bush left office in 2009 with an approval rating of just 22 percent, the lowest in modern times for a departing president. He supports Mitt Romney, but is so determined to stay off the public stage that he sent word late Friday that he will not attend the Republican convention in Tampa. His father has declined for health reasons, and Bush won’t disappoint too many Republicans by deciding to stay home. “He’s putting distance between himself and partisan politics, which is probably good for him and his party,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna University. “People will think better of him if he focuses on philanthropy—and most Republicans would be happy to escape his embrace.”

During an interview with the Hoover Institution released Tuesday, Bush said his two terms were “awesome” but he had had his fill of Washington. “I crawled out of the swamp and I’m not crawling back in,” he said, adding that he would continue to honor his pledge not to speak ill of President Obama or any future successors. Like his father, who forged a friendship with the man who defeated him, Bush the younger gets along famously with Bill Clinton. “It’s nice for them, and it’s also good for the country to see former rivals come together,” says Pitney.

The Clinton Global Initiative sets a very high bar for what a former president can accomplish. “He has great respect for the things Clinton does with his global initiative, the way he raises money and funds projects,” says Tony Fratto, a former Bush deputy press secretary. “But he wanted to have the [Bush] institute be a laboratory and a platform for ideas in the four areas he considers really critical for the advancement of human progress—freedom, education, global health, and the economy.” The interest in Africa, and in AIDS, has become a “family affair,” says Fratto, noting that daughter Barbara founded a nonprofit, Global Health Corps, which focuses on Africa.

Bush presided this week over the launch of the institute’s first book, The Four Percent Solution, an admittedly aspirational goal where various economists weigh in on what they would do in addition to extending the Bush tax cuts. The institute’s programs carry forward Bush’s signature proposals—there’s a team “thoughtfully assessing, not judging” requests from states asking for waivers from No Child Left Behind. And there are the sports events that Bush holds to honor the servicemen and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The W-100” is a three-day mountain-bike ride every spring, and in October, Bush will host the second “Warrior Open,” a golf tournament that recognizes the importance of golf as a rehabilitative tool. “It recognizes the war in a way that doesn’t excite passion about the merits of his policies,” says Pitney.

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While unquestionably heartfelt on Bush’s part, it avoids any re-opening of a policy debate about the wars on his watch. And that’s the point. Freed of the office, Bush appears to be modeling his post-presidency after Bush 2000, the compassionate conservative, the reformer with results, the uniter and not the divider.

Mark McKinnon, Bush’s chief media adviser on that campaign, confirms Bush’s return to those themes, describing him as “in a state of grace,” grateful for the privilege of having served as president “and happy now to be off the radar screen and quietly doing good, meaningful, and compassionate work.”

To McKinnon, a Daily Beast contributor, the Bush he sees appears “unburdened and liberated … happy, content, and complete. He does not whine, complain, or express any concern about how he is perceived or treated in the political ecosystem. And he has zero ambition to get back in the spotlight or play any significant role in party politics.”