News & Politics

Gone Fishing

George W. Bush has been lying low, writing his memoirs, and relying on friends and loyalists to try to burnish his legacy.

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.

In the past, a former administration official might be able to get an op-ed column placed in the New York Times or Washington Post during a particularly hot policy debate. These days, says Tony Fratto, former deputy White House press secretary, “We can communicate daily, if not multiple times a day, on the current policy debate and attacks on the previous President. We can put something up and show it in eight different ways: we can tweet it out, put it up on Facebook, and the few thousand people who care about it will see it.”

Fratto, whose nearly 2,000 Facebook friends include many journalists, started a Web site called The Roosevelt Room—named for the part of the White House where policy discussions often take place—to post every Fox News utterance, Wall Street Journal column, or blog entry by his former colleagues.

Rove alone has written a book that’s due out in March and has a contract with Fox, his own Web site, and a column for the Wall Street Journal. “Karl is tweeting and writing and talking all the time,” says Fratto, who himself appears regularly on CNBC and is head of the Bush-Cheney alumni group, which also has its own Web site.

“It’s a labor of love,” says Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary who is now chief issues counselor for the public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller but is still one of Bush’s fiercest defenders. Perino is able to still have her say through regular spots on Fox News and lots of blog writing.

“My philosophy is once a staffer, always a staffer,” she says. “I’m still in touch with a lot of reporters, and when I see things that aren’t true I can say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, excuse me—we actually wrote the Afghan policy review the Obama administration now says it can’t remember having.’ I do what I can. It can be a full-time job playing whack-a-mole, but eventually the truth wins out.”

Former aides say they’re doing the sort of legacy building now that they might have done in the last months of Bush’s presidency, had the administration not been consumed with the financial crisis. And they say Bush was more interested in readying the government for his successor than in his own image or reputation.

“President Bush spent a lot of time thinking about his legacy, but not in the sense reporters usually mean,” says Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council adviser now teaching at Duke. “His real focus was on his handoff to his successor. Everything was designed to have the next President in as good a shape as possible at 12:01.”

Brookings Institution presidential expert Stephen Hess agrees, saying the Bush administration was “exceptional” in preparing the incoming administration. People have joked, Hess notes, that Bush did a great job coming into office and a great job leaving office.

Bush’s embattled presidency, coupled with the economy, caused concern among those trying to raise an initial $300 million for the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU. But the Bush Foundation, headed by Don Evans, found that the big supporters hadn’t abandoned their once-powerful friend.

The 12-person foundation has raised more than $200 million in pledges and contributions, none of it from foreign entities and much of it from the Texans who helped Bush move to the governor’s mansion and then the White House. “He tapped right back into the vein of the old-guard, extraordinarily wealthy, extraordinarily conservative friends who’d been with him at the get-go,” says biographer Bill Minutaglio.

The presidential center, scheduled to open in 2013 with the groundbreaking next fall, will include an archive, a museum, and the public-policy institute. The archive will house the documents and records of Bush’s time in office. The museum will feature items associated with, as Bush said, “my most consequential decisions,” including the bullhorn he used at 9/11’s Ground Zero and Saddam Hussein’s pistol.

But most intriguing to donors, say those close to the former President, is the Bush Institute, the first full-fledged think tank to be part of a presidential center. It will give voice to the former President’s ideology and be the chief avenue for the Bushes’ continued participation in public life.

It’s also the part of the presidential center that, from the start, has sparked controversy at SMU, Laura Bush’s alma mater. Some professors have worried about the close association of the Methodist university with the policies of the former President—particularly on matters of war—and that the institute would be highly partisan.

In announcing his plans before an SMU audience in November, Bush insisted his policy shop would be nonpartisan and independent and said it would focus on four areas that he and his wife have been passionate about—education, global health, human freedom, and economic growth.

Glassman, tapped last year to run the institute, says the President’s staff took pains to select, as the first batch of senior fellows, non-ideological scholars such as education expert James Guthrie of Vanderbilt University. And Glassman disputes the notion that the goal of the institute is to refurbish the Bush legacy. “That’s not what I’m out to do,” he says. “That’s not what the institute’s out to do.”

Glassman—who served in the Bush administration as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and later undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs—was a surprise choice to head the institute, if only because he’s been a Washington fixture for decades, a veteran of both media and public-policy circles.

Among his jobs here: president of the World Growth Institute, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, financial columnist for the Washington Post, moderator of CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday, editor and part owner of Roll Call, president of the Atlantic, executive vice president of U.S. News, publisher of the New Republic, and 30 years ago executive editor of The Washingtonian.

In 1999, he coauthored a bestseller, Dow 36,000, that gained notoriety mostly for its miscalculation. The book’s premise—that stock prices would soar to an index of roughly 36,000 within the following three to five years—proved not so prescient when the dot-com bubble burst.

Glassman is a solid conservative who has been critical of the Obama administration. But his selection seemed to reassure some at SMU who view him as a serious thinker and writer and were pleased Bush didn’t choose a more polarizing figure.

For his part, the self-described “serial entrepreneur” says he was excited by the idea of starting something from the ground up and once again managing an organization. What’s more, says Glassman—who will remain based in Washington until the presidential center opens in three years—“I like President Bush.”

Douglas Feith was one of the more provocative figures in the Bush administration. As undersecretary of Defense for policy and one of the architects of the Iraq war, Feith was accused of pushing faulty intelligence to make the case for war.

He’s accustomed to hearing harsh comments. A lightning rod even four years after leaving the administration, he describes the success of a recent
speaking engagement at Duke this way: “Nobody protested me there.”

Still, Feith says he was amazed that when his book, War and Decision—one of the first books about the Iraq war from the administration’s point of view—was published in 2008, it wasn’t reviewed by the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, or any other major American newspaper except the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and Christian Science Monitor.

“It was astonishing because I was on the front pages of a lot of those newspapers often. It wasn’t like they could say, ‘Who ever heard of this guy and who cares?’ ” says Feith, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “I think it’s shameful.”

Feith received a prickly reception when he was enlisted by the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service to teach classes on terrorism and national-security policy. Professors were so outraged about his hiring—several dozen signed a petition saying his activities amounted to “war crimes”—that his two-year contract wasn’t renewed even though the dean told him his students had rated him highly.

Most Bush officials didn’t leave the administration with the kind of baggage Feith carries, and not all have faced hostility. Many lawyers returned to law firms. Former aides have found homes at think tanks, universities, and consulting firms, started their own shops, worked for GOP candidates, or are running for elected office.

Still, Bush refugees walked out into a chillier climate than predecessors did. “It was not ‘Holy smoke, you worked for President Bush—please work here!’ ” says one former aide.

Peter Feaver, the former NSC adviser, says several factors conspired to make the road away from the White House a bumpy one: the poor economy, the fact that the financial crisis caused staffers to be working hard up to the end rather than looking for jobs, and the unpopularity of the former President. Says Feaver: “The atmosphere was suffused with an anti-Bush hue or ‘Bush derangement syndrome,’ where people have an irrational loathing.”

Some Bush-administration lawyers, especially those involved in policies related to interrogation techniques of detainees, remain under a cloud. Lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, authors of the so-called torture memo, have been under investigation by the Justice Department’s internal-ethics unit, with Bybee—appointed to a federal bench in 2003 before his memo on interrogation techniques was made public—facing calls for impeachment.

Former Cheney aide David Addington hasn’t been able to find work, according to the New York Times. And former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who told the Wall Street Journal he considered himself “one of the many casualties of the war on terror,” remained jobless after stepping down in 2007, only recently landing a teaching post at Texas Tech University—to faculty protest.

Campus protests greeted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice upon her return to Stanford, where she was once provost. She has a busy teaching schedule and is working on two books, one about her parents, the other a foreign-policy book. The early protests have died down, but she still encounters sharp-edged questions from students. A popular YouTube video shows Rice, on a visit to a dorm, growing increasingly irate as students question her aggressively about the interrogation of detainees.

Perino says she worried about the reception she’d encounter, especially when people would stop her and ask if she was the former White House press secretary.

“I guess I bought into some of what the media was saying, so I have been a little nervous,” says Perino, recently nominated by President Obama to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. But she says people have been largely positive: “One pilot even bumped me up to first class.”

Many former staffers say they’re realistic about how much they can do to change perceptions and aren’t attempting to rewrite the script of the Bush years.

“Legacy is up to history,” says former Bush chief speechwriter William McGurn, who writes a column for the Wall Street Journal. “I generally don’t think people are in control of their own legacy as much as they think they might be. But I do think it’s important to address misrepresentations or double standards. I have the real estate to do that, and I do.”

McGurn’s most noteworthy attempt at setting the record straight was a September column he wrote in response to a book by one of his former subordinates, Matt Latimer, that was critical of the Bush White House. McGurn’s caustic column was subtitled a man i hired was not the star he thought he was.

McGurn wasn’t the only one to take a shot. In other columns, TV spots, and blogs, Perino, Fratto, former Bush counselor Ed Gillespie, and others portrayed Latimer as a staffer so junior and inconsequential that they hardly remembered who he was—or, as Fratto tweeted, “a pimple on the ass of life.”

Latimer, noting that all the buzz heightened sales of his book, says he anticipated the attacks: “This group formed a classic Washington buddy system—insular, self-protective, and ultimately self-defeating. Anyone who didn’t show absolute fealty to their views or offered even the slightest criticism—whether moderates, conservatives, members of Congress, or even members of the media—were subject to attack. This is how they helped lead President Bush to rock-bottom approval ratings.”

Besides responding to the renegades who have written unflattering books, Team Bush sees its more important role as trying to have a say in the ongoing policy debates on everything from Afghanistan to health care.

When White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said the Obama administration was starting from scratch in designing a strategy on the Afghanistan war, at least a half dozen former Bush officials from Cheney on down shot back, saying the Bush administration produced an Afghanistan policy review that it had shared with the transition team.

When Obama talked about swine-flu preparations at a press conference, he credited the Bush administration with laying the groundwork, citing statistics that had appeared a day earlier in a Wall Street Journal column by former deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Tevi Troy.

When Obama said that the economic-stimulus bill created or saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, Fratto, Rove, McGurn, and others argued that such a calculation was impossible for even the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make. The media started questioning the administration’s claims.

“I do think we’ve been able to help shape the debate on a lot of different things,” says Fratto.

He says that while he and other Bush defenders may have been reluctant to come out swinging, Obama’s continued finger-pointing at his predecessor freed them of inhibitions. “A lot of us felt that’s where the deference can stop,” Fratto says.

Will all the chatter shift perceptions about the 43rd President?

“You can’t force these things,” says Peter Wehner, former director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives who’s now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “A lot of this is just mood and tenor
and the feeling of the country. You can make arguments two days after Bush left the presidency that people wouldn’t find compelling or persuasive. But ten months after he left, they might. And two years later, they might even more.”

Many Bush associates—and the former President himself—like to draw parallels with Harry Truman, another President who left office in disfavor, with a 32-percent approval rating, second-lowest after Bush’s. Truman’s image was helped greatly by his two-volume memoirs. “You need to write a memoir that matters,” says historian Brinkley. “It has to be a timeless book.”

Wehner, like many, believes Bush’s legacy will largely depend on how Iraq turns out. “The Iraq war colored everything,” he says.

Wehner notes that after eight years the public had even grown weary of Ronald Reagan, whose second term was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal and the Robert Bork hearings. But then the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union split apart and Reagan was seen through a brighter lens.

“Events have shifted, the lighting has shifted,” says Wehner. “It’ll happen with Bush, too.”

Bush’s longtime friend Don Evans expects the President’s memoirs, to be published in the fall, to go a long way toward providing insight into the Bush years. Evans believes the book and the presidential center—and eventually history—will reflect how Bush’s principles shaped him as a person and as a leader.

But he says his buddy doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.

“It’s not something that preoccupies him,” says Evans. “He knows they’re going to be studying this presidency—probably more so than any other—for the next 100 or 200 years.”

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].