DALLAS — George W. Bush has spent much of the month with relatives at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he played golf, rode bicycles and dined with friends. Back in Dallas, the former president will mostly play golf, ride bicycles and dine with friends.
Bush, who left office in 2009 with a historically low popularity level, seems content in self-imposed exile. “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in,” he said in a rare interview with the Hoover Institution this year.
This is not exactly a shattering development for a Republican Party that is hoping to put its best face on display at next week’s convention in Tampa. Despite rallying around Bush for years, especially after the Sept. 11 strikes, the party hasn’t exactly clamored for input from the man who led the country for eight years.
“Why would people care?” Alberto Gonzales said in response to questions about what Bush had been up to. The former U.S. attorney general, who is now a law professor at Belmont University, said he last saw Bush at the dedication of his official portrait at the White House. At the end of the ceremony in May, Gonzales said, he found himself alone with Bush in the East Room, staring up at the painting. “What I recall was that he was very happy,” said Gonzales. “Very happy with the portrait, particularly the face.”
Bush has long said that he would leave it to history to judge his presidency. Yet he is aware that the current assessment of his term in office is less than favorable.
During an April news conference, he said he wished the “Bush tax cuts” were known by another name, because “if they were called somebody else’s tax cuts, they’d probably be less likely to be raised.”
Not every former president plays a role in his party’s nominating convention, but in Bush’s case, the political toxicity that he himself has acknowledged might explain his announced absence. (He appeared at the 2008 Republican convention via video feed.) It may also shed light on why his initial endorsement of Mitt Romney to be the Republican presidential candidate came from behind closing elevator doors, and why his congratulations on Rep. Paul Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate came in a news release.
The Romney campaign has kept its distance. Ryan has harshly criticized the Bush administration’s spending. On July 24, Bush and his wife visited Romney’s Boston headquarters — while the candidate was in Nevada. While there, Bush delivered a pep talk to the Romney campaign troops, yet Katie Cunningham, an assistant to Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s communications director, denied that Bush was, had been or would be there.
“No,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. (The campaign subsequently acknowledged the Bush visit.)
Bush, who declined comment through a spokesman, stays current politically: He keeps in touch with Karl Rove, was pleased with the selection of Ryan and is keen to discuss the election. Confidants describe him as immune from political slights.
“He is completely unfazed by any criticism,” e-mailed Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who spent time with the Bushes in Kennebunkport.
James Francis, who organized Bush’s Pioneer network of donors and who dines frequently with the Bushes, describes the former president as “very unshackled and very relaxed and at peace with himself.”
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Interviews with friends and associates of the former president reveal a man steeped in routine and satisfied with his lot. In Dallas, where he lives in wealthy Preston Hollow, Bush wakes early, reads newspapers, works out and then goes to the office, near Southern Methodist University. There, he often lunches on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He answers correspondence and warmly welcomes old friends.
“He had his feet up on the table,” said Alexandra Pelosi, a daughter of Nancy Pelosi who made a documentary about Bush’s 2000 campaign. He stays in touch with some members of Congress and former foreign leaders about their own charitable projects. He’ll sometimes meet privately with wounded combat veterans and helps organize the Texas bike ride and golf tournament he holds in their honor. He travels to raise money for his presidential center and to deliver paid speaking gigs; his visit to Romney HQ coincided with a talk at the Global Business Travel Association’s annual conference.
He’ll frequently duck out of the office for a round of golf, sometimes with a coach who is improving his swing. He rides his mountain bike at least as often, takes in an occasional Texas Rangers baseball game and periodically repairs to his ranch in Crawford, where he takes guests on sunset drives.
Bush, who dines out at least three nights a week, likes the crab souffle and Buckler’s non-alcoholic beer at Rise No. 1, a French-themed restaurant where he received the call from President Obama last year informing him of Osama bin Laden’s death. Bush, his family and Condoleezza Rice have signed their names on his favorite table at the front of the restaurant, under a bookcase of biographies (“Sylvie Vartan: Dans la Lumière”), cookbooks (“Styles Regionaux”) and assorted Scrabble pieces that spell out “Bienvenue.”
“I have found that life after the presidency is awesome,” Bush said in the Hoover interview.
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But Bush’s retirement isn’t entirely carefree. He also has the responsibility of being the public face and chief fundraiser for the fledgling Bush Institute. The organization, which employs nearly 70 policy experts and administrators, has ambitions to make a difference in global health, education and democracy initiatives, among other areas. With a motto of “Impact in the Real World,” it needs Bush to be high profile to maximize impact.
Institute officials say Bush is deeply engaged and highly visible. “He’s hiding in plain sight if anyone cares to see him,” said Mark Langdale, a longtime friend, neighbor and associate of Bush who runs the institute’s parent organization, the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The institute’s supporters point to Bush’s appearance last month at a Dallas unveiling of the institute’s first book, “The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs.” Bush wrote the foreword for the collection of economic essays. He made an unpaid speaking appearance at a New York conference on the topic in April with Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will be the keynote speaker at the Republican convention.
There are other examples of Bush in public. On the same day he clandestinely visited Romney headquarters, he held an education reform roundtable that focused on the role of school principals — a key initiative at the institute.
In June, Bush went to Zambia, where, as in much of Africa, he is widely admired for saving millions of lives through his administration’s investment of tens of billions of dollars to prevent and treat AIDS. Bush’s institute is now leading an $85 million effort, with such partners as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, pharmaceutical giants and the Obama administration, to protect African women from cervical cancer, a disease that is much more likely to afflict those infected with the HIV virus. In the past six weeks, a Bush-funded clinic had screened hundreds of women. “We crossed the 500 line yesterday!” Doyin Oluwole, who heads the initiative, exclaimed to a colleague at the institute’s headquarters at Southern Methodist.
The institute’s leaders distinguish their work from that of other laudable post-presidency projects, including Jimmy Carter’s efforts to eradicate tropical diseases and build houses in the developing world and Bill Clinton’s high-octane Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).
“Let’s put it this way: If you look at what CGI does and what we do, it’s two very different things,” said Jim Glassman, the executive director of the Bush Institute and a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. “We actually manage and run our own projects. We’re actually not interested in being either a small partner or incentivizer or whatever you want to call it.”
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Right now, the institute and the adjacent presidential library and museum are still construction sites. Bush came to inspect the property three weeks ago. On Tuesday afternoon, Langdale donned a neon orange vest, protective goggles and a white Bush Center hard hat during a tour. The former ambassador to Costa Rica pointed out the Permian foundation stone at the 226,565-square-foot building’s base, quarried from Midland, Tex., where Bush lived as a boy. “It’s the foundation of the building and the foundation of [the Bushes’] lives,” he said. He noted a blank slab in the facade, which will be inscribed when all past and current presidents personally dedicate the center at its opening April 25.
Inside, the airy lobby is topped by a ceiling paneled in pecan wood from Texas selected by Laura Bush, who is also mulling a name and menu for the center’s restaurant. The lobby empties into Freedom Hall, a 67-foot-high dome where 5,600 square feet of high-definition LED screens will cover what is now concrete and ductwork. Underfoot in the Freedom Hall is Marianna limestone quarried from Tunisia (“Birthplace of the Arab Spring,” Langdale said).
A series of classrooms, one of which will be furnished with the conference table and screens of the Bush-era Situation Room, give way to the permanent collection, which, Langdale said, will seek to reintroduce Bush to the public. (“There’s an area there about the recount in Florida,” he said.)
This room opens up onto 22-foot-high beams of twisted steel, now ghostly under plastic wrap, that once held up the 85th floor of the World Trade Center. The steel will be surrounded by walls bearing the names of the victims of 9/11 and a video loop of the Twin Towers getting hit and going down. The next rooms will highlight Bush’s response over the subsequent 10 days — “his trip to New York with the bullhorn and all that,” Langdale explains.
Next comes a reproduction of the Oval Office and an ersatz Rose Garden, complete with colonnade. In a virtual game room, or “sophisticated leadership training simulator,” visitors will have a chance to respond to the many crises that Bush faced, including the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown. Bush will then appear on video and explain his rationale for what he calls “decision points,” the key choices of his administration — some of which helped render him one of the least popular presidents in history.
At the end of the tour, Langdale points to a spot on the museum’s floor where the dates of Bush’s presidency will be inscribed. A few feet farther on, a stone strip will carry the words that will mark the former president’s transition to a different stage: “Citizen Bush.”