By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; C01
If anyone had an excuse for wanting to vanish in January 2009, it was George W. Bush, his approval ratings in the 30s, his hair graying, his legacy of two long wars and a fractious tenure wiped away by the election of a charismatic young president promising to fix all the messes left behind.
Then, as the months wore on, Bush's absence started to grow curious. Questions arose related to his time in office -- about the use of torture, or whether the war in Afghanistan had been mishandled, or whether the surge in Iraq had worked -- and Bush was nowhere to be found, even as other Bush administration figures, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, happily weighed in. Other ex-presidents stepped into the public fray, occasionally opining on current issues and dipping into politics. His own daughter, Barbara, went on television and offered her thoughts on the health-care debate.
But not Bush. He lapsed into almost complete public silence, apart from paid speeches (at up to $150,000 a pop). His most prominent appearance of late has been at the World Series, looking downcast in the stands as the Texas Rangers flailed.
Now, for the first time in nearly two years, the 43rd president is about to reemerge -- in better physical shape than ever, his friends say -- to promote his new book, "Decision Points," due out Monday. He is granting a number of high-impact interviews, including with Matt Lauer on NBC, Oprah Winfrey, and Candy Crowley on CNN. His former aides said he is reappearing as part of the normal process of selling the book -- for which he received a hefty advance -- not because he misses the limelight. Former senior adviser Karl Rove, asked whether Bush has been itching to defend his presidency, replied: "No."
"He has an abiding confidence in how this process will roll out," Rove, who talks to Bush every week or so, said in an interview. "At the White House, I'd be steamed up about something, and he'd say, 'Listen, history will get it right, we'll both be dead, who cares?' He has been happy there were other voices out there who'd get into the fight, whether it was the vice president going out and setting the record straight," or other defenders.
Still, Bush, 64, has the opportunity to shape perceptions of his presidency with the book, an unconventional memoir divided into chapters about major decisions in his life. He began work on it the day after he returned to Texas, friends said, drafting much of it himself before turning sections over to a collaborator, 28-year-old Christopher Michel, his former White House speechwriter. The two worked together at an office in Dallas, not far from the home Bush and his wife, Laura, purchased, and at the Crawford ranch where they still spend many weekends. Bush wrote quickly and voluminously, later joking at a reunion of former staff members that he knew many would find that hard to believe.
The release was timed to immediately follow the midterm elections, in part so Bush could avoid weighing in on the candidates during his promotional tour. Yet the outcome on Tuesday night hands him a happy coincidence. Republicans are back in demand, having gotten, in the words of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a "second chance."
Whether that second chance extends to Bush, the author, is another question. His approval rating is still low; 55 percent of Americans disapproved of him as of October, according to an Associated Press poll, and more people continue to blame him for the current economic crisis than blame President Obama.
That may not matter for Bush's book sales, however, and his strategy of silence ensured the details that have already begun to leak are all the more tantalizing. Among the revelations: He contemplated removing Cheney from the ticket in 2004 and replacing him with Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) but decided not to. He elaborates on his most embarrassing moments before he quit drinking, recounting the time he drunkenly asked a woman at a dinner party what sex after age 50 is like.
The worst moment of his presidency, he said, was hearing that rapper Kanye West had said Bush "doesn't care about black people" after his handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"He called me a racist," Bush told Lauer in the taped interview, set to air Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. "And I didn't appreciate it then. I don't appreciate it now. It's one thing to say, 'I don't appreciate the way he's handled his business.' It's another thing to say, 'This man's a racist.' I resent it, it's not true."
Lauer pressed him on whether the worst moment of his presidency should have been the hurricane itself, rather than the insult.
"I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply, as well. There's a lot of tough moments in the book. And it was a disgusting moment, pure and simple," Bush said.
Two years after leaving office, Bush seems to have settled into a routine of exercise, speeches and local events that matches what he always said he aspired to post-presidency. He gave a motivational speech last fall at a conference, talking about his reliance on God. He spoke at the reopening of a renovated rodeo park in Oklahoma. He spoke to high school seniors in New Mexico, staying away from politics.
More recently, he met veterans and invited mothers who lost children at war to his home in Dallas. In the coming weeks, Bush will participate in the groundbreaking for his new library and institute at Southern Methodist University, scheduled to open in 2013.
His approach seems the polar opposite of his predecessor, Bill Clinton -- who left office with not only higher approval ratings but also a still-strong appetite for public engagement, with his life in public service extended further by his wife's election to the U.S. Senate. Clinton opened his Harlem office in July 2001, and by October 2002 was weighing in on foreign policy, warning -- during a trip abroad, no less -- that a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein might bring unwelcome consequences.
Instead, Bush is more like his father: open to humanitarian work (he got involved after the Haiti earthquake) but otherwise satisfied to be at home, mountain-biking and visiting with friends.
"He always told me when he was no longer president he would get off the stage," former press secretary Dana Perino said. "He does not seek the klieg lights. It does not give him energy the way it does some other politicians. He feels he weighed in on enough controversial decisions, and the current president has enough on his plate and doesn't need a former president making comments."
In his "Oprah Winfrey Show" interview, scheduled to air Nov. 9, Bush made the point himself. Prodded to weigh in on Sarah Palin's prospects in 2012, he replied: "You know, I am not a political pundit. I'm really not. And secondly, a lot is gonna happen between now and the nominating process. I -- I have no clue."
Winfrey nudged him again. "I'm not asking you to pundit."
"Yeah, you are," Bush said. "You're asking me to wade back into the swamp."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.