The foyer of George H. W. Bush’s office in the memorial neighborhood of Houston is perfectly round, but if you squint really hard, it can look … oval. The geometric fantasy is supported by the presence of official-looking artifacts, presidential and otherwise. The guest book where I sign in contains scribbled signatures of visitors famous and infamous (April 10, “Chuck Yeager”; April 18, “Karl Rove, Washington, D.C.”). On one curve of the wall is a framed series of three photos, all taken over half a century in the East Garden on the White House grounds by the same photographer, of presidents and vice presidents at the lunch table: Roosevelt and Truman, Reagan and Bush, and Bush and Quayle. On the other, next to a small bronze statue of George Washington, is a Peter Max painting of the American flag, one of several gifts from the artist while Bush was in office. In the hallways off the foyer, family photos and paintings donated by well-wishers share space with a glass-encased baseball autographed by Joe DiMaggio and a neatly arranged display of medals and crosses given to Bush by governments around the world after his defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton, which he jokingly refers to, Churchill-like, as having received the “Order of the Boot.”
When he ambles out of his private office, cup of coffee in hand, Mr. Bush seems relaxed and happy, in the mode of a carefree retiree, and he looks like an older version of his trim, preppy self (he turned 79 in June). I had been warned by Tom Frechette, the 24-year-old Josh Hartnett look-alike who handles his press and travel, that the former president wasn’t going to be able to give me or our photographer, Platon, much time. But on this late April morning, FLFW, as Mr. Bush is known in shorthand, seems to have no place special to be. (The meaning of that abbreviation? Frechette says that when the staff had to set up the Internet domain name for the office, someone waggishly suggested “flfw.com,” as in “former leader of the free world.” Mr. Bush liked it, and it stuck.)
Mr. Bush makes his way to the small, dark conference room where the photos will be taken and greets Platon and his assistants warmly. His time in front of the camera turns out to be casual and jokey—very Bush or, I couldn’t help thinking, very Dana Carvey.
“Mr. President,” Platon says in his full-on British accent, “I’m going to have to explain some of my English phrases to you. When I say you’re ‘wicked,’ I don’t want you to take offense. It means ‘cool.’”
“I’m just getting used to ‘cool,’” Mr. Bush replies. A few seconds go by. “Would you say Brad Pitt is wicked?”
Mr. Bush patiently mugs for fifteen minutes—standing, sitting, grinning, flashing a victory sign at Platon’s request—and then starts to leave. It’s time for our interview. But as we head back to his office, he turns to me and motions to a few framed photos on a table in the corner. “Did you see that picture of me and Jacques Chirac?” he asks slyly. “I just want to be sure you mention that.”
Evan Smith: Mr. President, it’s now been a little more than ten years since you returned to private life. How’s it going?
George H. W. Bush: I don’t think we’ve ever been happier, Barbara and I. There’s plenty to do, and we can control our own time. I have to make a living, so I go out and commit white-collar crime by speaking for a lot of dough, or what seems to me a lot—not compared with my successor, but still plenty. I try to be a point of light, and I’m engaged in certain eleemosynary causes, like M. D. Anderson. So life is full—much fuller than I thought it would be. And we’ve got the best lifestyle, because we spend seven months in our little house in Houston and then five months based out of Maine. We’ll leave in a couple of weeks to go up there, and it’s very different. Neckties come off, there are few drop-ins, and we’ve got a little gym so I can work out. I have my boat there—the sea means everything to me. I’ve been there a part of every summer except one, so there are a lot of memories, and all our kids and grandkids love it, as did we and my grandparents.
ES: What are the responsibilities of a former president to the country?
GHWB: I don’t think there are any. I don’t think there’s a job description. Truman wrote a book, a chapter of which was called “What To Do With Former Presidents,” where he suggested they be honorary members of Congress with no right to vote, but they could sit in on stuff. That has no appeal for me. Of course, with the new president, and before that, with both George and Jeb running for office, I was disinclined to get out there and take positions and write op-ed pieces, and it’s just verboten now, because some enterprising reporter would say, “Look at this. Don’t I detect an iota of difference here between this president and number forty-three?” It’s better just to stay out of the limelight, sit on the sidelines, and go about my life. At times I miss making important decisions. At times I miss seeing my views out there. But it’s unimportant to Barbara and me when compared with the well-being and progress of our two sons in politics.
What’s interesting, I think, is that the press takes your silence as an indication of differences between you and the president. The fact that you’re not speaking out supposedly says something. When a friend of mine like Jimmy Baker or Brent Scowcroft says, “Well, we ought to do more about the Middle East,” the press says, “It looks to us like they’re reflecting what president number forty-one really feels but doesn’t want to say,” which