By Mary Jordan
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
FORT WORTH -- After nine months of being nearly invisible -- a big outing has been to a Dallas hardware store for flashlights -- George W. Bush made his debut Monday in his latest incarnation: motivational speaker.
Nearly 15,000 people heard the former president, known more for mangling the English language than for his eloquence, reminisce about his White House days. Bush, who is writing a book about the dozen toughest decisions he had to make, used much of his 28 minutes onstage to talk about lighter topics such as picking out a rug design for the Oval Office that reflected his "optimism."
Perhaps in a nod to his dismal 22 percent approval ratings when he left office, Bush noted that "popularity is fleeting. . . . It's not real."
He beamed at the standing ovations from the friendly hometown crowd -- he now lives in nearby Dallas.
Looking younger than his 63 years and relaxed, Bush did not appear to have an overarching theme, but strung anecdotes and jokes together and frequently mentioned his faith in God.
"I don't see how you can be president without relying on the Almighty. Now when I was 21, I wouldn't have told you that, but at age 63, I can tell you that one of the most amazing surprises of the presidency was the fact that people's prayers affected me. I can't prove it to you. But I can tell you some days were great, some days not so great. But every day was joyous." That, he attributed, to the prayers of others.
His speech came after the crowd at the "GET MOTIVATED!" seminar stood up and danced to the Beach Boys' song "Surfin' USA" and batted around beach balls tossed into the audience.
The well-publicized event appears to mark the beginning of a higher profile for Bush.
Just last week he gave three speeches in Canada, and he has joined the Washington Speakers Bureau. He is scheduled to give another motivational speech next month in San Antonio. Former presidential adviser Karen Hughes said he has "quite a few speeches planned" during the fall.
Along with his book, due out next year, Bush is planning his new presidential library and policy institute at Southern Methodist University -- the alma mater of Laura Bush. He also has been spotted riding his mountain bike on local trails.
Many people interviewed afterward said they liked Bush, perhaps even because he wasn't the best speaker of the day. He could have said a thesaurus was a big scaly creature that roamed the planet millions of years ago and they would have applauded.
His most memorable story, one after another said, was about Barney, his Scottie:
Mindful of his new neighbors, who have had to endure as many as 650 people a day gawking at his new house in a cul-de-sac, Bush said he took Barney for a neighborhood stroll with "plastic bag on his hand" to scoop poop. That was a moment, he said, when he realized "Man, my life has changed!"
"He is just a normal guy! He wasn't the best speaker. But I was happy to see him!" said Lubbock salesman Patrick Kruger, 50.
Anthony Champagne, a professor of politics at the University of Texas at Dallas, said many presidents go underground for a period after they leave the White House, but then "even Richard Nixon came back in the public eye."
He said approval ratings of presidents often rise the longer they are out of office.
Along with Bush, former secretary of state Colin Powell, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired football great Terry Bradshaw and a host of professional speakers spoke on a stage decorated with red-white-and-blue signs that said "Motivate!" and "Achieve!"
Sparklers, rock music and a perky master of ceremonies ever-complimentary of Fort Worth kept the crowd on its feet.
"Cut the word 'impossible' out of your vocabulary!" thundered the Rev. Robert Schuller, televangelist and author. After telling the sad story about his daughter getting her leg amputated after a motorcycle accident, he came back big with an account of her playing baseball, trying for home runs so she wouldn't have to run: "Never look at what you have lost. Look at what you have left."
Powell, speaking after a drawing for a door prize of a high-definition flat-screen TV, told the audience to celebrate America's freedom. "We must never be afraid of some clown hiding in a cave," Powell said. Then moving on from Osama bin Laden, he talked about the Chinese: "The only fight we have with them is they want more shelf space at Wal-Mart!"
All this face time -- on giant screens for those in the rafters -- cost $4.95 for most people. The VIP seats in the front rows went for $89.
Tamara Lowe, co-founder of the motivational speakers series, which did a brisk business selling workbooks and other materials, said she was contractually bound not to reveal how much Bush was paid. His spokesman also declined to comment on published reports that estimated his fee at $100,000.
In Britain, where Bush remains wildly unpopular, the media have been reporting his return to public speaking with incredulity. Some commentators recalled his famous flubs: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" and "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."
A Telegraph news article noted that the Republican former president -- whose policies inspired millions of Americans to vote Democratic in the 2008 election -- was now managing to draw crowds and "may yet have the last laugh."
"I kept looking for a teleprompter, but I didn't see one," said Joanne Ryan, 35, a financial adviser in the audience who noted, "I know the media makes him out to be an idiot," but he seemed genuine and "down-home."
Ryan said Bush seemed more comfortable speaking now than he did as president.
In the crowd of real estate agents in suits, housewives in jeans, students and senior citizens, Chris Clarke, 25, a salesman from Dallas, stood at the back. Like many people, he said that other speakers were better -- Colin Powell was his favorite -- but he thought Bush was good. In fact, he said, it could turn out that Bush may be more suited to motivational speaking than being president. He said when Bush misspeaks, it sounds "incompetent if you are president. But here it can be inspiring. It makes him seem like a regular guy, no better than me."