A few weeks into his post-presidential life, George W. Bush flew off with an old friend to launch the arduous task of raising a half-billion dollars to build his library and refurbish his tattered legacy.
After a successful pitch to a wealthy prospective donor over dinner in Lexington, Ky., his traveling companion arrived at Bush’s suite next morning to find the 43rd President in a wistful mood.
“First time I’ve had to pack my own bag in 14 years,” Bush said with a wry smile reflecting the altered reality all former Presidents experience -- one day leader of the free world, the next grubbing for money.
Now, three days before his library and “freedom institute” are dedicated in his home town of Dallas, Bush’s future -- though not necessarily his standing with history -- are far more inviting.
His lifestyle is beyond comfortable -- corporate jets and hefty six-figure speeches as often as he chooses; weekly golf rounds at Brookhollow Country Club (despite a back still healing from disc surgery); the ham and cheese souffle at Rise, an Inwood Village bistro; hunting and fishing expeditions, and ministering to wounded U.S. warriors and AIDS victims in Africa.
His second career as a self-styled “beginner painter” has become an unexpected passion: he paints upstairs at his North Dallas home and keeps another easel busy at his Crawford ranch near Waco, exhibiting a discipline surprising even his closest pals. Friends say he’s getting better, beginning to master the intricacies of composition with regular visits by an accomplished local artist.
“I’m done with politics but I’m not done with life and I’ve got a real good life,” he recently reminded a political ally, not for the first time.
“He’s very content, and his new granddaughter is the exclamation point,” echoed Brad Freeman, one of his closest friends, referring to Margaret Laura “Mila” Hager, born in New York City April 13.
“He’s enjoying the hell out of life, “ a close friend told National Journal. “He’s his loosey-goosey self again, the way he used to be.”
Various confidants describe 43 as “mellow,” “serene” and “tranquil,” happy with his self-imposed exile from the political grind he never really liked and ecstatic with his new life below the radar.
“You have no idea how relieved he is to be out of the game,” one of his oldest friends said. “He doesn’t miss politics even a little.”
This week’s two days of festivities on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater, mark his somewhat reluctant re-emergence into the national spotlight since leaving Washington in 2009. President Obama and the three living Presidents will join 15,000 guests to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The center comprises a Presidential library housing 43,000 artifacts and millions of documents from the eight years of 43’s tenure. The adjoining think tank, informally known as the “freedom institute,” will preach the gospel of Bush’s conservative vision to future generations.
The institute is also designed by Bush as the vehicle to rehab and burnish his legacy with future historians and posterity.
“Of course he’s confident” about turning around his reputation, one longtime counsellor told National Journal. “How else could he be? But he’s got a ways to go to mending his record - if it can be done.
“There’s a lot of baggage to deal with -- Iraq, Afghanistan and most of all the (excessive) spending - and at the moment, the trajectory isn’t going in the right direction.”
Bush, by contrast, is the classic half-full politician when pondering his legacy, which he seldom does. He likes to say he’ll be long dead when history sorts his ledger out, so why dwell on it? Meanwhile, he’s convinced his presidency ultimately will get higher marks than contemporary assessments, which generally place him at the low end of the ratings.
Bush has also told friends and political associates that his success keeping the homeland safe after the 9/11 attacks will be awarded greater weight by history. That’s why it’s no coincidence the centerpiece of the library’s exhibit hall is a 17-foot, 2-ton piece of steel from the Twin Towers.
Displayed vertically, the mangled, blistered remnant is “impact steel” -- experts have determined it was actually struck by one of the terrorist-piloted jetliners. From a distance the hallowed relic looks like a piece of modern art, but as visitors draw closer the impact of its origin has already moved some to tears.
While time is known to heal some wounds and Presidential legacies, money doesn’t hurt, either. The institute is bulging with cash, allowing its board to hire like-minded academics and pay some executives more than $650,000 a year.
Bush’s $500 million fundraising target was originally scaled back to $300 million given the unpopularity of his second term. But Obama’s unpopularity in his first two years helped loosen Republican checkbooks, and the half-billion target has been reached -- to the amazement of many in the Bush orbit.
One Bush family friend, Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt, gave his elk-hunting buddy $25 million.
Understandably, Bush and his successor don’t have much of a relationship. Despite campaigning in 2008 against what he termed Bush’s failed Presidency, Obama is said to feel a kinship with 43 from the shared responsibilities of the world’s most daunting government job and their membership in the country’s most exclusive men’s club. But calling their policy differences vast is a gross understatement.
Bush supports Obama’s aggressive escalation of drone strikes to take out terrorists but thinks the administration has made a mess of relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan and projects weakness in dealing with adversaries like Iran and North Korea. He also disdains Obama’s attempts to raise taxes on the wealthy, his soaring budget deficits and landmark health-care law.
When asked about Obama in Q&A sessions after his frequent lectures, however, Bush meticulously takes the high road, politely declining to criticize his successor. His stock answer: “I want my President to succeed because when my President succeeds my country succeeds, and I want my country to succeed.”
Brothers Jeb and Marvin are incensed that Obama continues to blame their older sibling for assorted policy headaches four years after inheriting them. Their mother Barbara Bush is also known to be irked. But 43 “is perfectly willing to turn the other cheek” about the brickbats, a friend who speaks with him regularly said.
Obama political handlers deny they’re still making Bush the poster child for saddling Obama with two unpaid wars, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit and the 2008-09 financial meltdown.
“The President thinks he did what he thought was best for the country and we respect that,” a senior Obama adviser countered, lauding Bush as “a gracious ex-President.”
“As time goes by Bush will benefit from the comparison with Obama,” Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution predicted. “If Obama had been a Bill Clinton-like figure he would have made Bush look like the caricature his opponents have suggested. But Obama has been a great gift for Bush - he’s as polarizing a figure as Bush was.”
As politicians and academics parse his historical net worth in perpetuity, Bush is delighted to remain on the sidelines.
“He loves his granddaughter, he loves playing golf, he loves making money and he loves making a difference,” a Bush stalwart said. “And he enjoys the hell out of saying what’s on his mind without a microphone being stuck in his face anymore.”