On the morning of January 21, 2009, much of the nation was still dizzy from the glamour and spectacle of a historic inauguration with a handsome young family moving into the White House.
Back in Crawford, Texas, the man who had just vacated the Oval Office—so upstaged by his successor that he could have made off with the furniture—woke up early, sat down at his computer, and banged out 2,000 words.
The next morning, he sat down and typed 2,000 more words. His memoir was on its way.
In the year that’s passed since George W. Bush left the White House—returning home to far less adulation and fanfare than when he came to Washington in 2001—he’s wasted little time. His book—an account of the 12 biggest decisions of his presidency, starting with his decision to run for the White House—is nearly done. He has helped plan and raise millions for a presidential center, the first to include a think-tank-like public-policy institute. And he has made more than 30 paid speeches, most of them in places like Calgary, New Delhi, and Singapore.
He has done nearly all of this as quietly as possible, settling into another sort of protective bubble at the dawn of his post-presidency.
Leaving office with a 22-percent approval rating, the lowest of any departing President since the beginning of polling, Bush took refuge in a conservative, tony Dallas neighborhood—a ten-minute drive to Southern Methodist University, home of his planned presidential center—where he’s surrounded by some of his oldest friends.
He’s also spending much time at his Crawford ranch and playing a lot of golf, a passion he stopped indulging as a wartime President because he thought it made him appear too carefree.
His drop-bys have largely been on safe terrain—the locker room at SMU, the hardware store, Rangers games, an elementary-school class, a trip with his wife to visit soldiers at Fort Hood after the November shootings.
“I asked someone close to him what’s the prospect for getting him down here,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, a Democratic stronghold in the conservative state. The answer: Not very good. “He’s not ready for the college circuit yet,” says Buchanan, “even in his own state.”
Neither is he ready to enter the fray. If he’s rankled by the Obama administration’s dismantling of some of his policies or complaints about his stewardship, Bush has kept mum, committed to the unspoken code of etiquette that most ex-Presidents have adhered to.
Friends and former aides who have spent time with Bush in Texas say he’s upbeat, even “effervescent,” as one noted—a contrast to Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Texan who left the White House beleaguered and, haunted by his handling of a war, became despondent.
“This is a guy at total peace with himself,” says Bush’s longtime friend and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans. “He’s not sitting around second-guessing anything. He has a feeling of ‘I honored and respected and was true to my core principles.’ Only that kind of thinking could allow one to be as relaxed and comfortable as he is.”
Bush has received tips on building a life after the White House from Bill Clinton, with whom both Bush and his father have developed a surprisingly close friendship. The younger Bush bicycles with associates such as political consultant Mark McKinnon. And after eight years without an e-mail account, he’s become a prolific correspondent, keeping in touch with many former staffers and commenting privately on the news.
As he makes good on his vow to stay out of public debates—unlike Dick Cheney, who has had no such compunctions about pounding President Obama—Bush has relied on his army of loyalists, most of them former aides, to defend his presidency.
They know it’s an ambitious task. In a recent Washington Post poll, 1 percent of Republican-leaning adults named George W. Bush as the person who best reflected the party’s core values.
Some in Bush’s inner circle say they’re convinced perceptions will never change, that public views of the 43rd President are too cemented. But others have been pushing back. Reflecting Bush’s own conviction that history will render a kinder verdict, this Greek chorus of defenders is trying to shift the narrative of his White House years.
“I truly believe that late at night Bush says to himself, ‘What I did was right, and I don’t care if the media believes otherwise—history and time will prove me right,’ ” says Bill Minutaglio, a Bush-family biographer. “He knows it will take time and incremental steps, and he’ll let Team Bush begin to do that work for him. Bit by bit, they will help to heal the Bush legacy.”
Bush’s network reaches from James Glassman, a former Bush official and journalist who’s been tapped to run the Bush Institute at SMU, to former aides in Washington, New York, and Texas who write columns and blogs and appear on TV shows to his official staff and foundation. Also in the mix: a bounty of books in the works by former Cabinet members Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Paulson, confidant Karl Rove, and former speechwriter Marc Thiessen, as well as Dick Cheney and Laura Bush.
“When you leave the White House, you start running for history,” says Douglas Brinkley, an author and history professor at Rice University. “And you better have good people to help shape your legacy or you’ll get trashed.”
Brinkley says John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had especially effective champions, who ensured that those Presidents were well commemorated through things such as airports, buildings, and highly visited presidential libraries. Bush, Brinkley says, has already built the infrastructure for his consortium of caretakers, whose mission is “to launch a frontal assault on popular culture.”
The Internet has given Bush’s defenders a vehicle for that assault unlike anything available to previous administrations—allowing their voices to remain in circulation, constantly challenge Obama, swing back at swipes, and keep the GOP bench warm.