For Bush, post-presidency role still evolving


DALLAS — When George W. Bush left the White House, his approval rating was in the tank and Will Ferrell was raking it in as his swaggering doppelganger on Broadway and HBO.

Yet on Jan. 16, almost one year after taking a helicopter back to Texas on Inauguration Day, Bush stood in the Rose Garden with President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, ready to take a credible turn as a senior statesman raising money for disaster relief in Haiti.

The White House moment — followed by
appearances with Clinton on Sunday morning TV talk shows — was the
first tangible sign that Bush has made progress shifting his public
persona from late-night punch line to a more dignified pantheon.

If he has succeeded in turning around his poll
numbers from a year ago, observers say it’s largely because he has kept
a low profile and refused to lob bombshells at Obama with former Vice
President Dick Cheney and senior adviser Karl Rove.

“It can do nothing but help him and does nothing but add to his stature when compared to his vice president,” said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and an expert on presidential politics. “It does begin to put him in
the light of other former presidents who, the longer they’re out of
office, are looked at as having tried to do their best.”

To be sure, the anti-Bush ennui that gripped voters
a year ago has not entirely dissipated, particularly outside his
post-presidential comfort zone of Texas, Canada and Asia, where he has given a number of lucrative speeches.

Aides say he has made 32 speeches and raised more than $200 million toward construction of his presidential library, though they have declined to identify donors. If he’s been to Europe, it would be news to the paparazzi. He declined to comment for this story, but has said he’s glad to be out of the limelight.

Instead, he has waged a self-deprecating, street-level charm offensive that has been well received in red-state Texas.

He threw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’
home opener. He posed for cell phone photos with people he met on local
mountain-bike trails. And he took in the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff game
victory with owner Jerry Jones.

The scene is so welcoming the city already has a President George Bush highway named for his father. He and his wife, Laura, have even received a few standing ovations when they dine at North Dallas
restaurants. They are country club Republicans in a bastion so
conservative it’s still possible to see “W” bumper stickers on the
occasional SUV.

Bush has not, however, made an endorsement in the heated Republican primary for Texas governor. It features his successor, Rick Perry, against longtime congresswoman Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Many Democrats say Bush has been shrewd to refrain
from partisan politics. Longtime foes warn that he should not mistake
voter indifference for political forgiveness.

“By becoming somewhat invisible, he’s not there to
remind people what they didn’t like about his policies and the
consequences of his policies,” said Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Austin. “He’s not rehabilitating himself; he’s just off the radar screen.”

Locally, anti-Bush sentiment hasn’t generated much heat. A small group called the al-Zeidi Society,
named for the Iraqi shoe thrower whose boot famously whizzed by Bush’s
head, twice called for protests at meetings where Bush officials were
scheduled to discuss the presidential library. Both times, only a
handful of protesters showed up.

A larger crowd of about 50 people rallied in June, when war protester Cindy Sheehan led a march through Bush’s Preston Hollow neighborhood. Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, gained national attention in 2005 when she protested outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas, home.

But the event last summer, which was organized by
the Dallas Peace Center, drew mainly cold stares, car horns and Bush
supporters carrying their own signs.

Perhaps the biggest off-script moment for the Bushes came last February, just weeks after they moved back to Dallas. The former first couple visited a neighborhood elementary school during an open house.

“Hey, kids, do you know who I am?” Bush asked the students.

George Washington!” one replied.

“That’s right!” the former president said. “George Washington Bush!”

Karl Rove has not been the architect of Bush’s post-presidential life.

But he will play a key role at the Bush Institute, the privately funded think tank that will be housed with the presidential library at Southern Methodist University. Along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Rove will serve on a small advisory board that meets in Dallas.

The group will help shape Bush Institute programs and develop a network of contacts and fellows, according to Mark Langdale, president of the Bush Foundation.

In the meantime, the former president may not mind having someone guard his reputation.

“I’m sure he appreciates it when others speak up to defend him,” said Karen Hughes, who was a top Bush adviser in Austin and Washington.

Hughes, an executive with a global communications firm, still guides some of the Bush Foundation’s media operations. Ever the loyalist, she hopes that history will “set the record straight” on Bush’s eight-year tenure.

Longtime observers say Bush believes he will set the
record straight with his memoir, which will be released later this
year. He started writing it the day after he left office and is nearly

“I don’t think Bush is obsessed with being loved by Americans in the near term,” said Robert Draper, author of Dead Certain, a portrait of the final years of the Bush administration. “George W. Bush has been around long enough to know that poll numbers are snapshots.”

Still, Bush will probably win over fellow Texans quicker than he will anyone else, Draper said.

“There was a level of disdain for Bush that seemed
out of proportion to what he’d done. It was almost primal,” he said.
“There isn’t a lot in the way of nostalgia for Bush.”

In Dallas,
however, Bush hasn’t hesitated to try to charm even such natural
adversaries as trial lawyers (his campaign for governor called for
limiting the amount of money that companies could be forced to pay if
they lose lawsuits).

Mark Lanier is one such case. The Houston lawyer was hired by SMU
last year to fend off a lawsuit filed by condo owners who claimed they
were rightful owners of some of the land for the Bush library.

Lanier, who got a surprise call from the former
president, said he is not a “Bushie,” but found the 43rd president to
be “charming and utterly personable.”

“When I answered the phone, I said, ‘I feel like I should sing “Hail to the Chief,” ‘ ” Lanier recalled.

He said Bush countered: “No, I’m not in office anymore. You only need to hum it.”

Lanier noted that SMU was his client, not Bush, which is why he was able to discuss the conversation.

Bush’s decision to put the library at Southern Methodist University has been an easy fit. It is Laura Bush’s alma mater, and the board of trustees includes his wife, his minister,
two former ambassadors who served under him and a number of his biggest
political donors, including oilman Ray Hunt.

In the past year, SMU spent millions of
dollars to secure the final rights to the land for the library and to
fend off a lawsuit that at one point would have forced Bush to become
the first U.S. president to submit to questions in a state civil trial.

Meanwhile, on the public front, SMU officials helped Bush arrange a couple of unannounced visits to campus last fall.

When longtime political writer Carolyn Barta crossed paths with Bush on campus one day, she invited him to speak to
her journalism students. He did it on the condition that his remarks
were off the record.

“He turned out to be very forthright and very personable,” said Barta, who first covered Bush when he ran for Congress in 1978. She said the students, who were able to ask him questions, were impressed.

The genteel reception Bush got at SMU was a far cry from what his former Justice Department aide John Yoo got when he returned to teach law at the University of California at Berkeley.

Yoo, author of the memos that provided the legal
rationale for the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation
techniques, faced an onslaught of protests and calls for his dismissal.
At SMU, the only blowback came when some faculty circulated
a petition while Bush was still in office, objecting to plans to
include a policy institute with the presidential library. They said it
would imply an endorsement of Bush policies, a far cry from housing a
presidential archive.

Nevertheless, the library design calls for the Bush Institute to be in the same building as the library. The private Bush Foundation will operate the institute, and the federal government will run the library.

Professor Alan Bromberg of SMU’s Dedman law school, who signed the petition, said he knows that fight is over.

“I think it’s pretty well died down and been accepted as reality.”

(c) 2010, The Dallas Morning News.

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