Whatever the reason, he made the right decision. Not because he doesn’t deserve some credit for the events of this week—he does. And not because all the glory should go to the current president—it shouldn’t. Rather, Bush’s decline of the invitation is the appropriate response for a former president in a country that faces raw political divisions and mounting political dysfunction.
One might say that the image of President Bush and President Obama standing side by side, laying a wreath on Ground Zero to honor the dead, would go a long way toward presenting a united front on the war on terror. Whether it was President Bush’s policies or President Obama’s focus and risk-taking that helped locate and kill the Sept. 11 mastermind, the sight of the two of them honoring the dead of Sept. 11 could be the ultimate expression of bipartisanship.
Perhaps it would. But I also think that Bush’s presence, given the current debates over who should get credit and who isn’t getting their due, could spark further broadsides from either Republicans or Democrats, taking away from the solemnity of the moment and the lives the president’s visit is meant to honor. I can already imagine the cable news dissection of every move both men make: Did Obama just wince when Bush flashed that grin at the cameras? Did Bush just grimace at the president’s words about the war on terror? Why are the two men standing so far apart?
The reality of the post-presidency—one that Bush has accepted and embraced with impressive grace, in my view—is that it’s not about you anymore. It’s the same reason I believe retired CEOs shouldn’t hang around and become chairmen, or that government leaders shouldn’t return after they’ve left as consultants. The best way forward is with the focus on today’s leader, without the distractions, good or bad, of the past.
Everyone remembers the emotional moment when Bush, holding a megaphone and standing atop a pile of rubble following Sept. 11, addressed the firefighters and emergency workers at Ground Zero. That was his moment. One hopes that the reason Bush isn’t attending is that he realizes that this is Obama’s, and that by not attending, he is helping the country to move forward.
More from On Leadership: