To see George W. Bush now, open-collared in a sports coat and slacks, sitting comfortably behind his desk in a sleek corner office, a view of downtown Dallas several miles in the distance, is to see a man who seems genuinely content with having left the White House behind. His office doesn’t look like that of a former president. Except for the enlarged photos of him with world leaders that line the halls and the framed shots of his famous family arranged neatly on a credenza, it could be the generic quarters of a C-suite executive at Citibank or Ernst & Young. Nothing particularly presidential is on display, no flag or seal, no intricately carved oak desk, no Frederic Remington sculptures. And that may be the point—Bush has moved on.
We hadn’t heard much from him since January 20, 2009, when boos from partisan members of the record-breaking crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration could be heard directed toward the outgoing commander in chief. Observing a tacit rule among “formers,” Bush maintained a low profile, slipping back into private life and enjoying his $3 million, 8,501-square-foot home in Preston Hollow and the company of his family and friends. Aside from off-the-record speaking appearances, which often fetch six-figure paychecks, he stayed out of the public eye. That changed in November, as he presided over two events that have become milestones in the lives of ex-presidents: the publication of his memoir and the groundbreaking of his presidential library. The events may also mark the unofficial beginning to a more active—even activist—post-presidency that Bush may pursue, using the George W. Bush Presidential Center (a 25-acre complex at Southern Methodist University that will include his presidential library and museum, the offices of his foundation, and the George W. Bush Policy Institute) and his influence to pursue causes of importance to him, much as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have done.
Which is what I’d come to talk about on a sunny Tuesday in late October, a week before the midterm elections that Bush would watch from the sidelines—all too happily. “The scene is a swamp out there right now,” he told me, “and I don’t want to get in the swamp.” Not a bad time to be a former.
UPDEGROVE: Mr. President, how did you find leaving the most powerful position in the world and going back to being a private citizen?
BUSH: I woke up the next morning, and one thing you had to learn was that you no longer had the sense of responsibility that became ingrained in your system. So I read the newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the Waco newspaper. I saw the headlines, 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 Beazley, got in the pickup truck, drove over to my office, and started writing anecdotes for my book. 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 get the strategy in place.
And then my speaking engagements began. They are fun events. They’re all off-the-record—a couple of them weren’t initially, but they’re now all off-the-record. I was a little taken aback at first with being paid to give 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.
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, 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: He helped in this sense: I watched him carefully. He moved on with his life—he didn’t linger. 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 really don’t want to be involved with politics. Secondly, I don’t want to interfere with my successor’s presidency.
UPDEGROVE: Let’s talk a little bit about [your book] Decision Points. It is my understanding that the process of writing a memoir can be very cathartic.
BUSH: I think it is.
UPDEGROVE: How so?
BUSH: Ironically enough, by focusing on your presidency, it helps you realize that you’re no longer the president. I spent a lot of time on this 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. Telling [my] story adds finality to the presidency.
UPDEGROVE: You wrote about key decisions in your life and presidency. Upon reflection, were there any that you thought better of?
BUSH: When people read 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 taxpayers’ money to provide liquidity to Wall Street so that the country wouldn’t head into a depression was the right decision.
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