George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.
In 1970, a 24-year-old man pulled up to the White House in his car — a purple Gremlin. He was there to take the daughter of President Richard Nixon, out on a date. It can be intimidating to pick up any date and meet the girl’s father. It must be exceptionally nerve-wracking when your date’s father happens to be the most powerful man in the world.
It was the young man’s father who attempted to play matchmaker between his son and President Nixon’s eldest daughter, but there was no real chemistry between the nervous young man and Tricia Nixon. Later, he would remember simply, “We went to dinner. It wasn’t a very long date.”
Three decades later, Tricia Nixon’s date would move into the White House himself and understand the feeling of being President and father to two attractive young women.
Tricia Nixon’s date that night was George W. Bush.
There are four whose “retirements” stand out heads-and-shoulders above the rest:
•John Quincy Adams: Defeated for re-election in 1828, but elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1830 and spent the last 17 years of his life in Congress as a passionate opponent of slavery. He was also a major advocate of what became the Smithsonian Institution and continued his fight for internal improvements throughout our growing country while also opposing Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian-era Democratic Party.
•William Howard Taft: After losing his bid for re-election in 1912’s three-way race against Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Taft spent the entire Wilson Administration as a law professor at Yale. More importantly, just a few months into President Harding’s term, Taft finally got his dream job — Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft’s term as Chief Justice was undoubtedly the happiest and most fulfilling time of his professional life and he stayed on the Court until just a few weeks before he died.
•Jimmy Carter: Carter forged an entirely new role for an ex-President with his humanitarian work around the world through the Carter Center. His efforts at personal diplomacy have not always been welcomed by incumbent Presidents, but much of what Carter has accomplished during his 33+ years of “retirement” (the longest post-Presidential life of any POTUS in history) has been remarkable. It’s also set the tone for the modern post-Presidency.
Bill Clinton: Following Carter’s lead, the work the 42nd President has done (and continues to do) since 2001 via his Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative has helped millions around the world. Because of Clinton’s popularity, domestically and internationally, as well as the fact that he’s the best politician alive and likely married to the next President of the United States, he is in a unique position in comparison to every other former President in American history. There’s really no ceiling for what he can accomplish other than his personal health and the 22nd Amendment.
It will be interesting to see how active George W. Bush and Barack Obama decide to be and what they focus on during their post-Presidential life. Bush 43 obviously is not as interested in being as visible as Clinton, but he has continued the extraordinary work in sib-Saharan Africa that he began as President. I’m not sure what Obama’s focus will be, but I don’t think he’s going to just retire to a beach house in Hawaii. I’d like to see him focus on domestic poverty and income inequality. I think all of our former Presidents from this point forward will follow the Carter model to some extent. I’m sure they’ll still cash in on some paid speeches (which I have no problem with), but Carter set the standard for post-Presidential public service.
When George H.W. Bush emerged from Ronald Reagan’s shadow in 1988 to seek the Presidency in his own right after nearly eight years as Reagan’s Vice President, many of his opponents and the media’s political pundits saw him as an out-of-touch, stuffy, patrician, WASP who, in the famous words of Texas Governor Ann Richards, “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Probably the most frustrating incident of the 1988 campaign was when Newsweek ran a cover story called “Fighting the Wimp Factor” which questioned whether Bush was tough enough to be President.
All of these labels were patently unfair when directed towards Bush, who would eventually defeat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in November 1988 and become the 41st President. After all, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy on the very day that he turned 18 years old during World War II, was the youngest pilot in the entire Navy upon earning his wings, and flew 58 combat missions in the treacherous Pacific. Out of the fourteen pilots in Bush’s squadron, he was one of just four to come home at the end of war, and that was despite surviving three plane crashes during his service, one of which saw him barely evading capture after being shot down by the Japanese. Bush’s toughness should have never been questioned.
Yes, George H.W. Bush was a patrician and a WASP who was born in Massachusetts, the son of a U.S. Senator, and a student of prestigious schools such as Greenwich Country Day, Phillips Academy, and Yale University. Still, there was an earthy, fun-loving, mischievous side to the 41st President — one that didn’t vanish when he became the most powerful man in the world. We know that Bush went skydiving several times as a former President (another measure of his toughness) — he last jumped out of an airplane at the age of 85 in 2009 — but he also might be the only President in history to break out the bunny ears during a gathering of former Presidents and former First Ladies:
In Bob Greene’s Fraternity: A Journey In Search of Five Presidents (BOOK•KINDLE), Greene seeks out five former Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41) and gets a chance to spend time with all except the ailing Reagan. In Greene’s wonderful book, the most surprising revelation is that Bush — the wealthy son of a Senator who had a famous family name when entered politics and didn’t have to overcome the poverty and obstacles that Nixon, Ford, and Carter faced — was the most down-to-Earth, easy-going of the four Presidents interviewed. The two photos above give us a glimpse of that personality.
The bunny ears photo is obviously a clear example of Bush 41 not taking himself too seriously, the skydiving shows an adventurous spirit, but the photo at the beginning of the post is simply evidence that Presidents can have fun — even while they are in office and having every move watched by the public.
On August 19, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush had been President for almost exactly eight months, and, along with his family, had traveled to his beloved home on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine for a two-week-long vacation. In order to promote boating safety, Coast Guard members videotaped an inspection of President Bush’s 28-foot speedboat, Fidelity, and Bush recorded a short public service announcement about the importance of carrying life jackets while boating. Once the Coast Guard’s cameras turned off, the 65-year-old President received an old-fashioned family challenge.
Among those out on the water with Bush was his oldest child, 43-year-old George W. Bush, and George W.’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. The future President — still several years from entering the political arena on his own — dared his father to take a dive into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. Egged on by his son, his granddaughters, and others who were out on the water with them, Bush 41 had no intention backing down. Stripping down to his trousers, Bush prepared to take the bet. Although he had just taped the message about life jackets, the President said he didn’t need one when a Coast Guard member suggested Bush wear one if he were going to the take the dive. After all, Bush was once rescued by a submarine after treading water in the Pacific Ocean for over three hours during World War II, and he was quite confident in his swimming skills.
Before taking the dare, Bush decided to make some money off of it. George W. didn’t think that the President would make the plunge, especially with other boats full of reporters swarming around Fidelity. Bush 41 put Jenna and Barbara in charge of collecting bets, and joked to reporters, “You can’t report it unless you put something in the pot.” After his granddaughters made their rounds and collected the bets, the President of the United States, bare-chested and barefoot, but wearing black trousers, followed through on George W.’s dare. Diving into the 60-degree Atlantic Ocean waters off the coast of Maine, the President swam for about two minutes before climbing back into Fidelity.
Like the bunny ears photo, it was one of those wonderful, unguarded, fun moments where a President allowed himself to be humanized. It’s rare that we see that side of our Presidents because now — only a bit more than 20 years later — everything is so choreographed and lacking in spontaneity that we often miss the human side of our Presidents and political leaders.
By the way, for winning the bet and taking the dare of the man who would later become the 43rd President, Bush 41’s twin granddaughters handed the 41st President a grand total of $11.
It certainly doesn’t hurt.
Listen, I certainly have my issues with George W. Bush, but stop and think about this for a second: Maybe the Bush family gets elected because they are the only Republican candidates capable of capturing some moderates and conservative Democrats in a national election because, to a lot of reasonable people, the GOP is frighteningly extremist and out-of-touch. Is that possible? This country hasn’t elected a Republican President not named “Bush” in THIRTY YEARS.
First of all, thanks a lot for making me feel old.
Your question isn’t dumb at all. During his Presidency (and throughout his earlier career), Bush 41 was simply “George Bush”. His middle initials were not widely used until 1999 when it was clear that George W. Bush was a serious contender for the Presidency.
It’s kind of funny how strange it felt to refer to him as “George H.W. Bush” before getting used to it. Now, referring to him as just “George Bush” would seem weird despite the fact that we called him by that name for 12 years throughout his Presidency and Vice Presidency (and, for folks older than me, during his time in Congress, running the Republican National Committee, and serving as CIA Director).
Diplomacy in the [George W.] Bush Administration is, ‘Alright, you fuckers, do what we say.’”
Richard Armitage, George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State
It is always better to lowball these things. If you perform, people are surprised. I really enjoy it when somebody says, ‘That son-of-a-bitch just got out a coherent sentence’.”
George W. Bush, on lowering expectations, to an Army General during a conference call on the Iraq War
I don’t know if “difficult to understand” would be the right term because most re-elections of incumbents can be explained pretty easily.
Let’s just look at your three examples — Nixon, Clinton, and Bush 43. As you mentioned, all three had it pretty easy when it came to their opponents. I have a ton of respect for George McGovern and Bob Dole, but they were no match for Nixon in 1972 and Clinton in 1996, respectively. And, of course, John Kerry was just a terrible candidate for President, so Bush got really lucky in 2004.
It’s important to note, however, that the scandals that tainted Nixon and Clinton didn’t start causing them major problems until after they were re-elected. The Watergate break-in happened during the ‘72 campaign, but the extent of Nixon’s in-depth involvement wasn’t revealed until after Nixon laid an ungodly Electoral College beatdown on McGovern that year — 520-17 was the score, 49 states for Nixon while McGovern took home just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
The Monica Lewinsky story didn’t break until January 1998, well after Clinton had coasted to re-election against Bob Dole in November 1996. And, even if Clinton had faced re-election at the same time he was being impeached by the House of Representatives, would it have mattered? Remember, Clinton’s approval ratings went UP while he was being impeached and put on trial by the U.S. Senate!
So, I guess we settle on George W. Bush by default. In retrospect, the 2004 election is definitely one that raises eyebrows. Bush was tremendously unpopular and the only reason he was re-elected was basically due to the fact that in John Kerry and John Edwards the Democrats nominated their worst Presidential ticket since the nightmarish duo of John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan in 1924.
That 1924 Democrats ticket required 103 ballots before the Democratic Convention finally settled on a candidate. At that Convention, the Democrats nominated SIXTY different candidates for the Presidency! And if they had spent just a quarter of that time on coming up with alternate candidates 80 years later in 2004, George W. Bush probably would have lost that election.
The nation did not want to re-elect Bush in 2004, but the Democrats blew it by nominating John Kerry. You can’t really blame Kerry — you have to take that opportunity when you get it. It’s other leading Democrats who could have and should have stepped forward in 2004 who deserve the blame. Most of them recognize that they made a huge mistake by not running in 2004 because (a.) they could have won, and (b.) they may have lost their window for being President. Hillary Clinton is fortunate to be a resilient enough political figure that her window is still open. If Hillary had run in 2004, she would have beat Bush and would have been seeking re-election to the White House in 2008 instead of losing the Democratic nomination to the junior Senator from Illinois that year.
I really don’t know if I’ve answered your question. I guess my point is that none of those re-election victories are difficult to understand, but it is certainly frustrating that an incumbent as vulnerable as George W. Bush in 2004 was able to win another term. I guess the difficult thing to understand is how the Democratic Party, with its vehement opposition to Bush and increasing anti-Iraq War sentiment in 2004, nominated such an underwhelming ticket in such an eminently winnable campaign. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand that.
Do you know what is most frustrating about the 2004 election? Despite the terrible Democratic ticket, despite John Kerry, despite John Edwards, despite the lack of passion from Democratic voters nationwide, and despite everything that happened from the DNC in Boston until Kerry’s concession speech at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, one thing will always haunt Democrats: Kerry still almost won! The Electoral College count: Bush 286, Kerry 252. If more people had voted for Kerry than Bush in just one state — Ohio — on November 2, 2004, Bush would have been a one-term President.
Like I said, it’s not that I find anything I mentioned to be difficult to understand; it’s just a bitter pill to swallow — still, nearly a decade later.