By TOM BENNING
The Dallas Morning News
U?NIVERSITY PARK, Texas — More than four years after George W. Bush left the White House — settling in Texas with a desire to leave politics behind — the former president remains reluctant to give up the liberation of “not feeling like I’ve got to be in the limelight.”
But as the George W. Bush Presidential Center prepares to open, Bush and his confidants don’t hesitate to defend a presidency that’s taken its share of lumps over the years.
The former president is doubling down on “compassionate conservatism.” He’s listing no new regrets. He’s focused on the center’s policy institute, which builds upon the main themes of his presidency. And he delights in taking on preconceived notions of him,
Taking measure of a driving philosophy behind his presidency, Bush said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that discussion of his legacy should start with a fresh look at his record.
“The best way for people to understand what I meant by ‘compassionate conservative’ is to look at the programs we implemented and look at the results,” he said.
The spotlight will turn again to Bush this week, when the four other living U.S. presidents are slated to visit Dallas for the dedication of the center. And Bush is ready to retake the public stage on his own terms.
He wants to share the experience of the presidency, what he calls his “area of expertise,” and hopes that the Bush Center allows people to better understand why he did what he did. But he has little desire to enter the day-to-day political scrum.
“People ask me, ‘What about the economy?’ ” Bush said. “My answer is, ‘Why don’t you go hire an economist? Or hire five economists and get 15 different opinions?’
“I enjoy telling people what it’s like. There are some lessons inherent in sharing the stories of the presidency.”
Life after presidency
A prevalent story line of the Bush post-presidency is that he’s hiding out in Dallas’ tony Preston Hollow neighborhood with his wife, Laura.
Bush, a Republican, did no campaigning for GOP candidates last year, even skipping the party’s national convention, rare for a former president.
In the 40-minute interview at his Bush Center office, there was little doubt he relishes the relative privacy of being back in Texas.
Wearing a light blue, open-collar shirt, Bush, 66, said repeatedly that he’s “comfortable” with both life and legacy. Among his most pressing concerns was whether his hamstrings were ready for a mountain bike ride later that day.
That ease is genuine, friends and close advisers said. But they also stressed that the former president has been busy.
Confidants noted that Bush is simply approaching life after the White House differently than, for instance, predecessor Bill Clinton, though they took pains not to criticize the Democrat, now close to the Bush family.
“Bush is going to do it differently because he’s a different breed of cat,” said Midland oilman Joe O’Neill, one of Bush’s childhood friends.
Bush also made clear that he’s not interested in being idle. He described his role as “a person searching for a way to continue to serve without being involved in politics.”
He’s traveled the globe giving private speeches, some for lucrative pay. He’s played an active role in planning the Bush Center, which includes the policy institute, a museum and the official government library dedicated to his presidency. And he’s poured his time and energy into the George W. Bush Institute.
“One of the real challenges of life is that when you complete a chapter, you don’t atrophy, that you continue to find ways to contribute,” Bush said.
Policy institute focus
The institute is nonpartisan but reflects Bush’s conservative bent. It centers on six areas: economic growth, education policy, global health, human freedom, military service and women’s rights.
Clinton and Jimmy Carter have similar policy initiatives, part of a trend of presidents looking to stay engaged as they live decades after leaving the White House.
“One way of looking at a president’s impact is not only what he finishes in office, but what he starts,” said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. “That’s a perfectly logical foundation for some of the efforts at the center.”
Bush described the institute’s focus in broad, familiar terms: Freedom is universal. Free markets are fairest. Free societies are based upon good education. Those who fought for freedom should be honored. To whom much is given, much is required.
The former president was particularly proud that the institute, started in late 2009, has already been active — with a cancer-fighting initiative, for instance, that has helped screen more than 28,000 women in Africa.
“People have discovered that we’re advancing universal principles in a way that is constructive, results-oriented and focuses on humanity,” he said.
It can be hard to discern Bush’s exact influence. Fellows are given ample discretion. And Bush wants programs “based on something greater than the individual for whom the building is named.”
But aides said the institute is based upon the lifelong passions of Bush and his wife. The former president, who speaks often at institute events, emphasized his desire to “defend principles and help implement policy based upon those principles.”
Involvement in ongoing policy debates has on occasion brought him into conflict with the GOP. The party, particularly its presidential candidates, repudiated key parts of Bush’s record in the 2012 campaigns.
Bush has championed foreign aid, which some Republican contenders pushed to curtail or eliminate. He defends federal accountability in education, a key provision of his No Child Left Behind law, even as some Republicans declared it failed federal overreach.
The former president has touted tax policy as the first step to economic recovery; other Republicans focused more on spending cuts. He called for a “benevolent spirit” in the immigration debate.
Asked what message he’s sending to the GOP, Bush reverted to broad descriptions of freedom. He steered clear of giving his party specifics on how to rebuild, but he said that he stands by “the principles that guided me when I was president.”
“These are principles that need to be articulated and defended as time goes on,” he said.
No tea, here
For Bush, “compassionate conservatism,” much derided by the party’s harder-edged tea party adherents, is still a powerful draw.
He predicted a renewed interest in the philosophy, which he described as “the idea that articulating and implementing conservative ideas leads to a better life for all.”
Bush touted in particular the Medicare overhaul he signed into law in 2003.
Some Republicans blasted the new prescription drug benefit as too costly and slammed Bush for expanding an entitlement. Bush bristled at that critique, saying the “entitlement was already in place” and that “we were modernizing an antiquated system.”
And, he argued, the results have proved him right.
Bush said premiums haven’t risen nearly as much as people predicted. He said the program’s price tag has been lower than expected because “competition for services helps hold down costs.” And he said most participants are satisfied with the program.
“The record has been astounding,” he said.
Some experts have noted that costs were curtailed in part because fewer people enrolled than expected and more generic drugs were available at cheaper costs. President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul further addressed the program by phasing out a gap in drug coverage, known as “the doughnut hole,” that frustrated recipients.
Health care economist Len Nichols, head of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University in Virginia, said the Bush-era initiative filled a key Medicare gap and that it proved to be a smart move both politically and policy-wise.
“Not only is he telling the truth, he’s right,” said Nichols, who worked on health policy in the Clinton administration.
Bush also took on those — including many members of his own party — who say his policies led to excessive spending. He compared himself to Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan on several economic statistics.
In his tenure, total government debt in relation to the size of the overall economy, “which is the only accurate measure across the administrations, was close to Ronald Reagan’s and less than 41 and 42,” he said.
Bush said he also matches up well when measuring the annual deficits and government spending against gross domestic product. That’s even as analysts note that both overall federal debt and the annual deficit rose significantly during the Bush years.
“The deficit was a bit troublingly high at the time, though now we’d be pretty pleased to have it at that level,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “What’s noticeable during that time is that you didn’t see real deficit reduction efforts.”
Bush did not voice such comparisons to the tenure of Obama, who inherited an economy in a deep slide and who hasn’t been shy in blaming Bush for the mess.
“My only point,” Bush said, “is that when there’s an objective analysis of our fiscal record, people will say, ‘Well, that’s different than I thought.’ “
Bush said he’s not interested in “finger-pointing” or “self-pity.” But he was happy to share history from his view.
Asked what he might have done differently — with the benefit of hindsight — Bush listed the same regrets he mentioned upon leaving the White House: the failure to overhaul Social Security and immigration policy.
But he also noted that his presidency was shaped by the unexpected, such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
“Much of my presidency was defined by things that you didn’t necessarily want to have happen,” he said.
Bush defended his handling of the economy, recalling that he came into office during a recession, albeit a modest one compared to the financial crisis near the end of his term. He touted his tax cuts as the “most sustaining” and “fairest” way to boost economic growth.
Though he described the Wall Street bailout as a “painful decision,” he said it had to be done to break the country’s “psychological gridlock” after the financial meltdown.
He likewise reiterated his support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that he’s “confident the decisions were made the right way.”
Near the Iraq war’s 10th anniversary — as many stepped forward to revisit their criticism of the conflict — Bush made no mention of weapons of mass destruction, “enhanced interrogation techniques” or other controversies.
But he reflected on the “realities of the situation 10 years ago”: that the Iraq invasion had bipartisan support and that seeking regime change in Iraq had also been the policy under Clinton.
“It’s easy to forget what life was like when the decision was made,” Bush said.
Conscience is clear
Since he left office, Bush has been a punching bag for Obama, Democrats and even some Republicans. But while he said “nobody likes to be criticized all the time,” he brushed aside the constant pummeling.
“I’m comfortable with what I did,” he said. “I’m comfortable with who I am.”
Bush’s confidants said that’s real talk, too.
O’Neill, the childhood friend, said Bush’s “conscience is clear.” Jim Francis, a Dallas businessman and top Bush campaign fundraiser, said the former president has “been pretty immune to what people say or think about him.”
Karen Hughes, a longtime adviser, said it’s been harder for the former president’s friends to hear the criticism. Bush alumni, she said, will make a renewed effort to clear up “some misimpressions in the public’s mind.”
She and others noted that Obama has embraced Bush’s positions on taxes and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and that the GOP has started to come around on immigration.
“It’s time to start explaining our case,” Hughes said. “The record should be set straight.”
Given his family’s ongoing political prominence, Bush’s role in future campaigns and policy debates remains unclear.
He has pledged to help his nephew, George P. Bush, run for Texas land commissioner. And if his brother Jeb were to run for the White House, the former president said he’ll be a “strong defender” and “do what he wants me to do.”
But Bush said he has “no burning desire to re-enter the political scene.” He would rather focus on his policy institute — and a handful of hard-charging hobbies.
Bush, an avid mountain biker, hits the trails often. He likes to play golf and attend Texas Rangers games. He’s also taken up painting, an activity in which he takes “great delight in busting stereotypes.”
“People are surprised,” he said. “Of course, some people are surprised I can even read.”
Asked why a semi-retired 66-year-old is spending his free time on frustrating and potentially humiliating activities like mountain biking, painting and golf, Bush laughed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to call all the people who’ve written these books about me, who claim they know me, the psycho-babblers.”
But he pondered the question for a beat longer.
“I like challenges,” he said. “I find that charging up the hill is very rewarding — and frustrating. It’s important to set goals in life and have purpose.”