An Interview With George W. Bush (Transcript)
October 26, 2010, Dallas
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MARK K. UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, your transition into private life—how did you find leaving the most powerful position in the world and going back to being a private citizen?
GEORGE W. BUSH: First of all, the transition was made smoother by friends. Laura and I value our friendships. I made friends during my presidency. But I had a lot of friends, we had a lot of friends, that went on the journey with us, so to speak. Even though they may have lived in Midland or Dallas or Austin, they participated with us through that eight year period. And those friends, many of those friends, were on the airplane back home. “Back home” was Midland—where 30,000 people greeted us—and then 4,000 people at the airport in Waco. And so the initial transition was affected by the friends we had—in other words, the “welcome home” and the “thank you for giving it your all.”
I woke up the next morning and I had to realize—one thing you had to learn [after the presidency] was that you no longer had the sense of responsibility that became ingrained in your system—so when I read the newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the Waco newspaper, I saw the headlines (and I can’t remember what they were, of course) and there was a “what are we going to do about this?” And then I realized, it wasn’t me. It was my successor.
So I gathered up Barney and Beasley, got in the pickup truck, drove over to my office, and started writing anecdotes for my book. Day one. I occupied my time with projects. The major project was writing the book but also beginning to raise money to get this Library and Institute, not only funded, but to get the strategy in place.
And then my speaking engagements began. They were fun events, they’re all off the record—a couple of them weren’t initially but they’re now all off the record—and it gives me a chance to share experiences about the presidency. I transitioned by focusing on projects and a way to make a living. I was a little taken aback at first with being paid and giving speeches. I had done it for fourteen years for free and all of a sudden somebody’s willing to pay me—it didn’t take me long to adjust but nevertheless I did a lot of that.
And I stayed fit. I wanted to make sure that my fitness was strong so I rode my mountain bike a lot and then I took up golf, or retook it up. The interesting thing about golf is that the presidency requires focus and discipline, and golf requires focus and discipline. It was a way to make sure that parts of my life were focused and disciplined.
UPDEGROVE: Your father had been there before you. Did he help in the transition?
BUSH: My father has helped. It was a different transition. Mine was a transition of a guy who served eight years. He had an unbelievably difficult transition and yet he handled it with unbelievable class and dignity. He helped in this sense: I watched him carefully and how he moved on with his life—he didn’t linger, he didn’t have a sense of needing to hang on to the presidency. For me, I learned from him that when it’s over, it’s over. I view my time in politics as a chapter, not my life. I’m forever a former president and I understand that, but at this point in my post-presidency, I don’t want to be involved with politics. Secondly, I don’t want to interfere with my successor’s presidency. [My father] taught me (at least he showed me) a dignified way to be a former president is that once you’re off the stage, you’re off the stage. So I learned a lot from him.
UPDEGROVE: Let’s talk a little bit about Decision Points, Mr. President. In talking to your father and other former presidents, and hearing from Mrs. Bush, it is my understanding that the process of writing a memoir can be very cathartic.
BUSH: I think it is.
UPDEGROVE: How so?
BUSH: Well, first of all, it focuses your mind. When you’re writing about something that happened, it helps you transition to the present. Ironically enough, by focusing on your presidency, it helps you realize that you’re no longer the president. By reliving moments, it helps you stay focused on the moment. In other words, my book is very anecdotal and only I can tell people what it was like to meet with the widow of someone who lost their life in Afghanistan. Telling that story and typing it, in an interesting way, adds finality to the presidency.
I spent a lot of time on this book. I would think that not spending time on a project could create anxiety and negative feeling—“if only this” or “gosh, I still wish I was there”—and I didn’t experience that at all. Maybe it’s because I was spending so much time on the book. You know, I’m a content person and I’m content knowing that I gave it my all when I was president. But I’m also content because I’m a busy person. I don’t think you can run for president or be president unless you’re a busy person. The book kept me busy and it was interesting to relive moments of my presidency.
People ask, what were your resources? There are diaries, there are notes. The national security advisors would take extensive notes from important meetings—and we would read those notes and I would read them and researches would read them—and it was fascinating to relive the presidency. And so I became absorbed with the book, which made me happy.
UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, you wrote about the key decisions in your life and presidency. Upon reflection, were there any decisions that you thought better of?
BUSH: Well from a personal perspective, quitting drinking is a decision I felt good about. Running for president was a good decision. Marrying my wife was a good decision. Being a father and trying to love my daughters with unconditional love—those were all good decisions.
When one reads my book, they will see that I am very comfortable with the strategic decisions that I made. No matter how tough Iraq became, removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do for the sake of peace and for the 25 million people we liberated. Denying Al Qaeda safe haven was the right decision. Using tax payers’ money to provide liquidity to Wall Street so that the country wouldn’t head into a depression was the right decision, in my judgment. In other words, the strategic decisions, I believe, were the right strategic decisions.
There were tactical decisions that I wish I could have done differently: mission accomplished, not revealing my drunken driving charge prior to my run for the presidency, flying over New Orleans on Katrina and the pictures being released and people saying, “he’s aloof and doesn’t really care.” I mean, there are a lot of tactical decisions that, if I could have done them over, I would have; and I say so in the book.
UPDEGROVE: What impression do you hope to leave readers with?
BUSH: I hope people say, “Wow. That’s what it was like and I have a better understanding of why President Bush made the decisions he made. I may still disagree with it.”
I describe what’s called coercive diplomacy, which is a diplomatic tract and a military tract, the two reinforcing each other. My hope was that by saying clearly to Saddam Hussein, “we’re going to enforce UN Resolutions,” that he would make the decision to leave peaceably and at least allow for inspectors to come into his country, and if he chose not to, there would be a military option. I want people to understand that the military was my last option. I had a strategy and hopefully solving the problem peacefully—and it wasn’t just me, it was a coalition of nations that were involved.
I would like people to understand the rationale for my embryonic stem cell research decision and how the process became distorted over time.
There are mistaken impressions about me. This book may correct them and it may not correct them. It may reinforce the stereotype or it may not—I don’t know. But I do think if a person reads it, they will have a better sense of what the environment was like, how I made decisions, and what I’m like.
UPDEGROVE: The publication of a memoir is often the first step for a former president in launching a more activist post-presidency. You saw that with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and others. What are your plans for your post-presidency?
BUSH: My post-presidency is evolving. Laura and I will be very much involved with the Bush Center at Southern Methodist. I tell people that this is a way for us to be involved in policy and not in politics. I am a passionate person when it comes to freedom. I believe that we’re in an ideological struggle; I believe the only way to marginalize those who murder the innocent, to achieve our ideological objectives, is to spread democracy and freedom. I believe in the universality of freedom and therefore want to be involved in the freedom movement. And a good way to do so is starting the Institute at Southern Methodist. And we’ve started.
One of the things that Laura and I will be involved in is working with women in the Middle East because I believe that women will lead the democracy movement. Now, what I’ve just described is controversial—there are some who say, “It’s a pipe dream that people in the Middle East will live under a democracy.” Some say, “Who cares if they live under a democracy.” But I think it’s important for the country, and I do care. Therefore, I’m going to be involved with freedom; I’m going to be involved in the marketplace; I’m going to be involved in the accountability in schools. Laura and I and the Center will be involved in living under that admonition, “To whom much is given, much is required.” And helping people helps defines a strategy that makes public and private moneys more effective when it comes to helping save lives. Those four areas of engagement will occupy a lot of my time.
And that’s the fundamental difference between this kind of activism and an activism that intrudes into the life of the current president. I can change, but as we speak now, I really have zero desire to see my name in the press. I tell people that one of the biggest sacrifices in running for President, if there is one, is the loss of anonymity. I realize I will never regain my anonymity but I can certainly give it a try. And it’s a lot of fun to give it a try.
UPDEGROVE: I want to talk about your institute in a moment but let me go back to other former presidents. Is there a former president who you would like to emulate?
BUSH: George H. W. Bush. He’s been a classy guy in his post-presidency. When I called upon him and President Clinton to help in the Tsunami and Katrina, he said, “I’d love to, son.” He is gracious. And I’m not saying any of the former presidents aren’t gracious, I’m just saying, this man is gracious. But each of us will figure out our own way. I can only be—I can only give my life in a way that makes me comfortable and I am uncomfortable at this point in my post-presidency in going on Meet the Press or any of the morning talk shows.
President Obama called me and said, “Would you be willing to work with President Clinton in Haiti?” And it took me a nanosecond to say, “Yes! I’d be willing to work on that.”
But it’s an interesting question, your post-presidency. What would be interesting is if you come back five years from now and see what I’ve done. I suspect you’ll come back and say, “Well, you really haven’t been in the press—you gave a speech because they asked you to at a convention perhaps.” I think you’ll come back and say, “It’s interesting what you’ve done with veterans.”
So I’m beginning to get a sense of how active I’m going to be with veterans—I feel a special kinship with our military personnel, veterans, and their families. After all, two of my decisions sent them into harm’s way. To this end, I’m participating with PGA of America on a single weekend, and that’s Labor Day weekend, to help raise money for college scholarships for kids who lost a parent or whose parent is severely wounded. This hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m seriously considering becoming the chairman of First Tee. My dad was the head of First Tee. So in this case, I’m pleased to be able to use golf (which I enjoy playing) and a cause—whether it be instilling values or helping veterans. But I’m just beginning to get a sense for ways I can use golf—or perhaps mountain biking at some point in time—to stay focused on causes that are dear to my heart. So we’ve got the Library, the Institute, and I’m beginning to get a sense of ways for me to stay engaged with our military.
And Laura and I have done some quiet things—again, I’ve told you I don’t want to be in the press. We go out to the airport to welcome our troops; we did so because we’re the honorary chairmen of something called Slant 45, which is a way to engage volunteerism for the Super Bowl. And we went out to the airport to greet troops—I told them I’m going but I don’t want any news, I’m not interested in that.
We had Gold Star Mothers and Blue Star Mothers over to our house; it was Gold Star Mother Weekend. These are mothers whose child is in combat or has died. So we had a large group from the Metroplex come by. The word on these events seeps out, which is natural, but we’re doing these events in a way that makes us comfortable and is consistent with our desire to be low-key.
UPDEGROVE: You talked about your admiration for your father and his post-presidency. One of the differences between you and your post-presidency at this point and your dad [is that] your dad told me he didn’t want to “save the world”; he had no interest in doing things like that. The George W. Bush Institute has some pretty high ambitions all around core areas that are of interest to you: education, economic growth, global health and human freedom. What do you want to accomplish ultimately with the George W. Bush Institute?
BUSH: Well, there’s a lot that I want to accomplish. One, I believe in a core set of principles. I believe that freedom is a gift from an Almighty to every man, woman, and child; that is a principle that was important to me during my presidency and I think it’s an important principle. Markets are the best way to allocate resources. To whom much is given, much is required. All human life is precious. In other words, these are certain principles that need to be defended. The core areas are areas of interest. The programs will be built around those principles, just as the freedom movement is built around the principle of democracy and universality of freedom.
From a philosophical perspective, I want to fight off isolationism and protectionism, be it part of another voice out there that says, wait a minute, what matters to women in Afghanistan matters to America. An isolationist point of view says it doesn’t matter. The articulation of “all life matters” helps frame the case that it does matter what happens to a woman in Afghanistan. I worry about a nation withdrawing and saying, “It’s too hard, let’s forget what’s going on over there.” I also worry about protectionists, which is another way of saying less competition, less trade around the world. And I view those as twins of negativity. Through programs we can remind the country about why we need to be engaged and why need to not be fearful of competition.
Specifically, I would hope we would be able to measure of the 150,000 principals of America, I hope that the curriculum we’re developing that will enable school districts to better recruit, better train, and better equip principals will pay off with good schools—that we’re able to look ten years from now and see some of the pillars of civil society that we helped women strengthen in the Middle East. That overseas, just like on PEPFAR (which is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), we’re able to say, "Here are the number of lives saved as a result of a strategy"—in this case, that Mark Dybul is developing. So there are tangibles.
There are some things that we’re going to do that aren’t very measurable. How do you measure whether or not a strategy of economic growth that is articulated by a very smart, capable economist actually yields growth? You can’t. But you can influence.
So I would hope that we would have measurable results that we could say to the people back in the Institute, “Thank you. Thanks for doing what you’re doing because here are some things that have changed.”
UPDEGROVE: You did not have a reputation of being a micromanager in the White House.
BUSH: I wasn’t.
UPDEGROVE: What will the extent of your involvement in the Institute be, Mr. President?
BUSH: One is to make sure that we stay focused on core principles. Secondly, I will be a recruiter of talent and someone who makes sure that the talent we recruit is appreciated. Thirdly, I will work on the fundraising side. I will be a part of the thought process about how to make sure that the platform we have developed is effective and innovative. This is a living institute. We’re just starting and we’ve got a wonderful guy named Jim Glassman who brought great credibility. When this thing first got started there were a lot of people who said it was just going to be a political training ground and we’ve made it into a place of solid intellectual thought based upon the principles that I have just described to you. Those principles will anchor the Institute. The programs will give us a chance to be more than just a think-tank; it will be a results-oriented programmatic place.
Laura and I will be involved a lot. I can’t tell you all of the programs that will emanate out of here but I can pick up the telephone and say to a world leader friend of mine, “Come on over. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about…?” And more than likely if it works, they’ll come. I can not only help recruit good people, I can make some of the events that take place at the Center very interesting.
UPDEGROVE: When one looks at what Carter and Clinton have done, it’s pretty clear that they pursued agendas that were unfinished from their presidencies. To some extent, it seems like they pursued them to burnish their legacies and for some sort of vindication. There are those who could look at this and the core areas that you’re focusing on as being the areas that you would most want to be remembered for as President.
BUSH: It could be. I tell you, I would like to remembered as President as somebody who did not compromise principles in order to try to be loved or liked. So to the extent that the Center is going to remain focused on certain principles, maybe that reinforces something I’d like to be known as. It was a privilege to be president and it is a privilege to be a former president and I believe that I have got a chance to be a part of something that is influential—but not for my sake, but for the sake of people dying in Africa or people worried about a free society in their countries or people who wonder whether there will be a free market.
I don’t want to sound like a stubborn guy. I gave it my best. I’ve written a book to describe it. Some people are going to like the decisions I made, some people are not going to like the decisions that I made. That’s just the way it is.
You know, if someone came to me and said, “Your strategy in your post-presidency is brilliant,” as if I had figured out a way to make me look better, to me, that analysis is amusing. I decided what I wanted to do, not to make me look good, but to make me feel comfortable. Other presidents do it other ways. You know, Bill Clinton and I are friends; we see each other on the speaking circuit. He likes to be visible. I don’t. And I draw no judgment either way.
UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, you mentioned Africa, and I think there are many people who would be surprised to the extent that you aided Africa for no immediate gain to the United States.
BUSH: I’m surprised that they’re surprised.
As a matter of fact, I’m surprised at the number of people that come up to me and say, “You’re a lot taller than I thought you were.”
So what ends up happening is people form images and the image they form is, in some ways, what they want it to be. The idea of trying to correct the image is something I’m not interested in doing. And I’m comfortable with time. Time will change.
I watched President Reagan—he leaves office in very difficult times in ’87-88. People were hammering him over Iran Contra, he passes away, and he’s viewed as a great president. I’ve read a lot about Harry Truman.
Perceptions change with time and you can’t rush it, in my judgment. Let me rephrase that, I’m uncomfortable trying to rush change of perception, except to the extent that I’m going to write a book. And it’s an honest book. It starts off with, “Can you tell me a day in which you have not had a drink?” It’s my wife Laura saying, “Just tell me one day.” It is the story of a guy who was drinking too much who ended up quitting. It is a part of a pretty honest appraisal of a person who had to grow up.
UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, I would like to go back to Africa, if I may. And then I’d like to talk about the view of history which you were eluding to a moment ago. What was your motivation in aiding Africa? There was no sitting president who did more than you. What was the motivation behind that?
BUSH: Two factors. One, I believe strongly that to whom much is given, much is required—we are a blessed nation—and that the United States could affect suffering in a positive way. I saw a clearer way to be effective in living out that admonition.
Secondly, I viewed the issue from a national security perspective. You have to understand, my presidency (and the country, of course) was significantly was affected by 9/11 and my thinking was significantly was affected by 9/11. I clearly saw the ideological conflict we faced. If you are young child and you’ve lost mother and dad to AIDS and rich nations sit on the sidelines not caring, you will become a frustrated person and a hopeless person. We face an enemy that can only recruit when they find hopeless people—you’ve got to be pretty hopeless to become a suicide bomber. So my justification for the program was one moral justification and one national security justification.
We developed a strategy that was different but one that we felt would achieve results; we had a program that was measurable. We changed the aid from paternalism to partner[ing]. I was comfortable with the strategy we were developing because it could lead to the results that would make the American people proud.
UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, do you feel like the press mischaracterized your administration?
BUSH: I don’t know. First of all there’s a filter. When people say, “I thought you were a lot shorter than you are”—I felt like they mischaracterized my dad’s administration. But I didn’t pay that much attention to it—I really didn’t. But what people did not understand—and they couldn’t understand it—is that I had watched his presidency in agony because of the mischaracterization of George Bush.
I tell the story when Newsweek put the “wimp” label on him. God, was I mad. I was really, really hot. And I developed a reputation as a “hothead” because I got in the face of a lot of reporters and they thought I was just a hotheaded person. What they didn’t understand was that I was motivated by love. I put in the book, 1992 was the worst year of my life, to watch my dad lose. It was a painful experience. Yet when I became president, it was so much easier to be president. But for him, it became painful, because he paid attention to all of the characterizations. I didn’t, I really didn’t. I, of course, was aware that the president gets belittled, but it came with the territory. I had seen it first-hand. It was much easier for me to endure the belittling than it was to watch my dad get belittled.
And I read a lot of history when I was president; I read a lot about Lincoln. Reading history while you make history can teach you a lot. Life really is a series of contrasts. If you read with empathy what Lincoln went through, then you realize what you’re going through is nothing compared to what he went through. And then my faith helped a lot. So I found solace in a lot of different ways that enabled me to shrug it all off. In a perverse way, if I hadn’t—
I mean, no one wants to be a polarizer, but on the other hand, if you think you’re doing right and you believe the decisions you make will lead to a better tomorrow, then they’re worthy of defense. And the more you defend in the face of a critical audience, the more you polarize. I was the Commander in Chief with men and women in combat. And the idea of trying to agonize in public or show weakness would have demoralized them. In the book I talk about the four audiences the president deals with, at least I did.
One, the people at large. So this is dissecting: “Bring it on.” This was a mistake. My language at times could have been more circumspect, less plain spoken. But I said I was talking to the American people and they needed to know that I thought the cause was worthy and I knew that they would become disheartened over time unless things changed quickly. Nevertheless, the president still had to say, “It’s worthy.”
I was speaking to the enemy. They could not shake our will, they can’t defeat us. Therefore the unspeakable acts of violence and really trying to affect the psychology of the country, and “bring it on” was to question, you’re attacking our troops, bring ’em on. My point to the enemy was “You ain’t going to shake our will. You’re just not going to shake our will.”
I was speaking to the Iraqis. They needed to know that we weren’t going to leave them alone. No matter how difficult it was, the United States would help them realize the universal desire to be free. Now of course, if you didn’t believe in the universality of freedom, then of course, you wouldn’t act. I care how they live and I believe a free Iraq will be transformative.
And finally, I was speaking to our troops. They needed to know that their Commander in Chief had great faith in them. No matter how tough the politics, he had great faith in them. “Bring it on” was basically a statement to our troops—that you can attack, but we will handle the enemy.
UPDEGROVE: Parenthetically, Mr. President, what you said about your dad is exactly what your dad said about you on the eve of your election. He told me, that he didn’t care when the slings and arrows were directed at him, but when they were directed at his son…. (question unfinished)
BUSH: Here’s the story. I would call him and mother would answer the phone and say, “Your father… I can’t believe he’s listening to all this stuff. George, you need to talk to your dad.” And I became the comforter. I’d say, “Hey, Dad. I’m doing great. I know it’s tough out there, but don’t worry about me.”
And so our roles got reversed. I used to say, “Dad, how’re you doing? Are you doing okay?” And he’d say, “I’m doing fine, son. I really am” And I’d believe him because he’d sound fine. So I’d call him and check in with him and say, “How are you doing?” and he’d say, “Can you believe what they wrote about you, said about you…?” I’d say, “Dad, don’t pay it attention. I’m not. I’m doing great. Don’t worry about me.”
So what people can’t possibly imagine is what it’s like to have two presidents who have a relationship as father and son—they envision us sitting around the table endlessly analyzing the different issues and strategies and tactics. It’s much simpler than that and in many ways more profound.
UPDEGROVE: It’s clear that you took the long view of history.
BUSH: I did and I think all presidents should take the long view of history.
UPDEGROVE: But, I wonder, what will history say about George W. Bush?
BUSH: You know, I don’t when history will objectively judge my administration. I know this; I’m not going to be around to see it. And so I’m comfortable. I am comfortable knowing that I put my heart and soul into the presidency. I am comfortable that the principles that I articulated were never compromised. And I am honored to have served. I’m glad I ran. It is a huge honor to be able to be a two-term president. It was really a great experience. I’m fortunate to have been able to serve. And I think that’s enough.
Now, the question is, Will I be satisfied with the rest of my life? And that’s the interesting challenge. And I think I will be. As I look back over my life, I’ve been an active person—obviously I was self-absorbed for a period of time. But my mission is to use my status through the Bush Institute, primarily through the Bush Institute, to affect people’s lives positively. I can’t give you the specific strategy; I can just tell you right now that I am comfortable with how I am living my life.
I really don’t want to in the press, genuinely don’t want to be in the press. The other day someone snuck into one of my speeches, and it just reminded me all of the garbage you go through because the reporting from my speech was not accurate. The scene is a swamp right now, and I don’t want to get in the swamp.
It will be interesting to watch this book come out; there will be a chance for people to blather away which is fine. I’m interested in selling books; I just want people to read it. All I ask is that the person, who thinks they’ve made up their mind about me, just read it. I’ll be interested in hearing what people think. It was a labor of love.