George W. Bush: Public Defender

John Robert Greene, author of The Presidency of George W. Bush.

Until recently there has been an unwritten arrangement among the members of “The Club”—that exclusive group of, to this point, men who have served as president of the United States. That agreement, based on a fundamental understanding of the weight and responsibilities of the job, has kept a former president from criticizing any of his predecessors too openly or too sharply. Having walked a mile in his predecessor’s shoes, a former president agreed to be rarely seen—except when replenishing his coffers on the speaking circuit—and even more rarely heard in public. The Club’s tacit gag order does not extend to the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign—in the modern period, Harry Truman openly campaigned against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956; Gerald R. Ford against Jimmy Carter in 1980; and George H. W. Bush against Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Rather, it extends to that period when a predecessor was actually in office and affecting decision-making. The vast majority of our former presidents have honored that compact, allowing their successors to govern without having to endure much sniping from those who had done the job before. There were exceptions, of course, the most glaring being Herbert Hoover, who began his public criticism of the New Deal within days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s March 1933 inauguration and continued without letup to criticize FDR and his policies for the entirety of his administration. The second exception was George W. Bush, the subject of my new book for the University Press of Kansas, to be released in the fall of this year.

Initially, Bush did not deviate from the expectations of postpresidential decorum. With but a few exceptions, Bush kept his distance from the Obama administration, choosing not to criticize his successor or his administration in public. Instead, Bush took a more solitary road. He moved to a $3 million home in a Dallas suburb and worked on the building of the George W. Bush Presidential Center (which opened to researchers on May 1, 2013). He also stretched his wings as a writer, penning a second volume of memoirs, Decision Points, in 2010 as well as a biography of his father in 2014. Bush then combined his interest in writing with a newfound retirement hobby—portrait painting—and in 2017 he released Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a collection of portraits of veterans of the War on Terror. Bush was also ubiquitous on the speaking circuit—between January 2009 and June 2015, he made at least 200 paid speeches, earning between $100,000 and $175,000 per appearance. But most of these speeches were delivered in private—conventions, meetings of businesses and organizations, and the like. One would be hard-pressed to find a public statement of opposition to Obama administration made during his presidency. Indeed, the two men became unexpectedly close, with Bush going out of his way to applaud Obama in the White House on May 31, 2012, when he and his wife, Laura, unveiled their official portraits; for his part, Obama used that occasion to be effusive in his praise of both his predecessor and his wife.

That would all change with Donald Trump, beginning with the 2016 primaries. In an effort to establish himself as the scion of the isolationists, Trump used Bush and his administration as a punching bag, blaming Bush for the attacks of September 11, 2001 (during a February debate: “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That’s not safe.”) That, combined with many personal attacks on Jeb Bush, the former president’s brother and Trump’s opponent in the primaries (calling him “Low Energy Jeb”) earned for Trump the contempt of the forty-third president. Bush appeared with his brother in South Carolina in an attempt to save his campaign, but to no avail. In the fall campaign, as Trump was buffeted with charges of personal malfeasance, Bush chose to sit it out, perhaps assuming as he had in 2008 that Hillary Clinton would, as virtually every pollster predicted, emerge victorious. When she did not (according to one biographer, the senior Bush voted for Clinton, and the younger Bush voted for “None of the Above”), Bush dutifully attended Trump’s 2021 inauguration. But when Trump’s inflammatory inaugural address was concluded, Bush turned to the Clintons and said in a stage whisper, “That was some weird shit.”

It took Bush about a year and a half to publicly speak out against President Trump. But when he did, he became not only the first former president in almost twenty years to publicly criticize both his predecessor and his policies (making him the first president in modern memory to break the rules of “The Club”) but also the first former president in our history to speak out against a successor of his own party. There can be no doubt that this was personal. On October 19, 2017, Bush spoke at a conference sponsored jointly by the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Freedom House. Without mentioning Trump by name, Bush denounced the “casual cruelty” of modern political dialogue and spared few words in showing his contempt for his predecessor: “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children.” But Bush’s criticism was also highly political, as he once again showed the pains that he went throughout his entire career to navigate the ever-widening gap between the moderate wing of his party (as evidenced by the policies of his father) and the GOP’s conservative wing. This led him to single out a Trump administration policy that troubled both moderates and conservatives alike—the administration’s intolerant xenophobia. Also at the above-mentioned conference: “We’ve seen sensationalism distorted with nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism. We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.” For his part, Trump gave as good as he got. On April 13, 2018, he pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a key advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney who had been found guilty of lying to federal investigators and obstructing justice in connection with the Plame-Wilson affair. Cheney had lobbied Bush hard for a pardon of Libby, but Bush refused. As a result, Trump’s pardon of Libby was widely seen as just one more slap at Bush’s face.

But Bush was not done. In an April 28, 2020, interview for CBS News, Bush told Norah O’Donnell that “I think it’s undignified to want to see my name in print all the time” and that “to me, humility shows an understanding of self.” Less than a week later, in a recorded message, Bush called for national unity during the COVID-19 surge (“We are not partisan combatants . . . we’re human beings”). An obviously irritated Trump responded, as was his wont, with a tweet: “Oh, bye [sic] the way, I appreciated the message from former President Bush, but where was he during impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside. He was nowhere to be found ir [sic] speaking up against the greatest hoax in American history.” Bush would later tell an interviewer that in November 2020, he went to the polls and wrote in the name of Condoleezza Rice, his former national security advisor and secretary of state, as his choice for president.

The Bush-Trump feud did not end with Trump leaving office. On April 20, 2021, while promoting his new book Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants on NBC’s Today Show, Bush returned to his earlier criticism, describing the condition of his party as left by Trump as “isolationist, protectionist, and to a certain extent, nativist.” While he did not mention Trump by name, Bush said that the January 6, 2021, insurrection against the US Capitol “made me sick” and was a “terrible moment in our history.” When asked specifically if Trump was to blame for the riot, Bush claimed that “I’m not going to cast blame” but then went on to say that “It’s an easy issue to frighten some of the electorate. And I’m trying to have a different voice.” For some in the Republican Party, Bush’s criticism was too little, too late. His description of his party as “nativist” brought a tweeted response from Joe Walsh, a former member of the House from Illinois and frequent Trump critic: “What the f— [sic] George W. Bush? Like Boehner, you come out NOW and speak out against Trumpism? NOW? So many of us former Republicans lost everything publicly opposing Trump these past few years, yet you said and did nothing. And NOW you speak?”

But Trump is not Bush’s only presidential target. Where Bush largely gave Barack Obama a free pass, not so President Joe Biden. Indeed, Biden’s announcement that he was going to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, a withdrawal that was set to be completed on September 11, 2021, drew Bush’s immediate ire. On July 14, 2021, in an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle News, Bush called the withdrawal a “mistake.” He argued that the withdrawal would endanger countless civilians, noting that “Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm” and that they and others were “just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart.” Bush was immediately criticized by those who believed that the policies of his administration were responsible for the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place, and that Bush should not be criticizing any decision that would end what had become America’s longest war in Afghanistan. On Al Jazeera, Andrew Mitrovica pulled no punches: “Bush is a mass murderer. He should be sharing a bunk bed with Ratko Mladić at The Hague, not giving interviews on Afghanistan in Maine.”

All this brings one of my basic conclusions in The Presidency of George W. Bush into high relief: that some twelve years after the end of the Bush presidency, we continue to live in a world made by George W. Bush. When it comes to the personality of Donald Trump, as well as the policies of both the Trump administration and the Biden administration, Bush doesn’t seem to like the politics of that world very much. Indeed, his criticism of both Trump and Biden is sharper and more public than has been the criticism dished out by any other former president (save Hoover) on any other president. Bush has become his administration’s own public defender. But in so doing, he has run afoul not only of the opposition Democrats but also another opposition party—the Trump wing of his own Republican Party. Whether Bush’s attempt to defend the policies of his administration from assaults by both these opponents will be successful remains to be seen, as the nation gears itself up for the 2024 presidential election.

 

John Robert Greene is the Paul J. Schupf Professor of History and Humanities, Cazenovia College, and the author of I Like Ike: The Presidential Election of 1952; The Presidency of George H. W. Bush, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded; Betty Ford: Candor and Courage in the White House; and The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, all from Kansas.