George W. Bush is the classiest former president in history. Don’t take my word for it: ask the Democrats.
In the last two weeks, half a dozen Democrats have commented to me about what a “statesman” George W. Bush has been in his post-presidency. One of those individuals is a senior Obama administration official and two others are former senior Clinton administration officials.
It strikes me that Bush’s admirers in the Democratic Party have a funny way of showing their affection. President Obama and his surrogates continue their onslaught of assaults against every aspect of the Bush presidency, including personal attacks against the president for his management of the economy and allegations of wrongdoing against the very people who protected us from further attacks. One Bush aide said, “It’s fine to reverse all our policies, but the character attacks are over the top.”
There are few public signs of that goodwill or respect being reciprocated from Obama, but that’s not likely to alter Bush’s conduct.
If the attacks bother former President George W. Bush, you’d never know it. Friends and former advisers who have spent time with him recently report that he’s “more relaxed than they’ve seen him in years” and “truly at peace” with life as a “former.” Events showcasing the warmth between Bush and Clinton shine a spotlight on Bush’s comfort with membership in the ex-president’s club. In fact, recent news coverage of Bush’s public events depicts an openness and generosity, especially toward those who disagree with him, that was often obscured by the office.
In two public speeches this week, Bush repeatedly refused to criticize President Obama on national security and on his management of the economy. He reiterated a pledge he made in March to maintain his silence, saying that “it is essential that he [Obama] be helped in office.” This comes from a place of deep respect for the office he once held, but also from genuine goodwill toward President Obama. “I love my country a lot more than I love politics,” Bush added. There are few public signs of that goodwill or respect being reciprocated from Obama, but that’s not likely to alter Bush’s conduct.
In answering a question from an audience member at a speech in front of the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan about what he wanted his legacy to be, Bush said: “I hope it’s this: the man showed up with a set of principles and he was unwilling to compromise his soul for the sake of popularity.” With his approval numbers inching upward, George W. Bush is doing all the right things to ensure that his legacy is as he wishes. It’s a legacy that is as deserved as any label I’ve ever seen attached to a politician. Contrary to well-established conventional wisdom, Bush was always aware of how unpopular some of his policies were. And, at least during my tenure at the White House, he read the papers and knew what was being written and said about him. As he made clear this week, popularity was never his objective, and most will agree that mission was accomplished.
But while no politician willingly sacrifices public support for his agenda if he can avoid it, George W. Bush relished traveling the politically treacherous path. Being a man of deep conviction was as central to Bush’s presidency as any other personal trait or outside event. I asked Senior Advisor David Axelrod once to what extent Obama was driven by his convictions.
“He’s pragmatic,” was his response, and it’s in keeping with something I’ve written about before—Axelrod’s belief that every winning candidacy is a ‘remedy’ to the previous administration.
I’m certain Axelrod was not suggesting that Obama doesn’t have convictions, but he was acknowledging something interesting about the extent to which those convictions would control Obama’s actions. It is probably a correct political analysis on the part of Axelrod and the Obama team that the country hungered for more pragmatism. How else could they explain a national security team with Secretary Gates and Samantha Power on the same side? But as Bush’s rebound continues, Obama’s lack of a clearly defined and publicly acknowledged set of principles could become a liability.
Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.