Why you should care
We look back at life and leadership with America’s 43rd president.
On Monday, OZY co-founder and editor-in-chief Carlos Watson sat down with President George W. Bush at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego.
At 92, Barbara Bush had transitioned from battling a terminal illness to “comfort care.” The former first lady would die the next day. But on Monday evening, there was no despair as her son George W. Bush talked about his mother. He began our conversation by reflecting on his unusual blessing: Bush is the only U.S. president to have both parents alive after the presidency.
“It’s a huge blessing, and so every day with my mom and dad has been fantastic,” he said onstage in San Diego at the ASU+GSV Summit, which convenes some of the nation’s top education leaders and innovators each year. “She’s 92 years old. She’s had a spectacular life, and she does not fear death. And I am ready, and she feels ready. She’s still going.” Bush said he spoke with his mother every day and shared how they spent their last time together in person needling one another as they often did. Then Barbara Bush turned to the doctor and said, “Do you know why George acts the way he does?” After a pause, she continued: “Because I drank and smoked when I was pregnant with him.”
It was the first laugh from the thousands-strong crowd, and far from the last. Still spry at 71, displaying the same jocular wit we so often saw during his political career, America’s 43rd commander in chief was self-deprecating and punchy during our nearly hourlong interview. He revealed how even as the world has shifted in so many ways since he left the presidential stage almost a decade ago, his ideology and principles remain unchanged — and, he argues, are more applicable now than ever.
I believe in everybody’s soul — not just white Methodists, everybody’s soul — is a desire to be free.
George W. Bush
Somewhere between an anecdote about his recent lunch with the Saudi crown prince and another tale about a 2006 trip to Graceland with the Japanese prime minister, Bush landed on the point that drove so much of his presidency and still informs his thinking today: “I believe in the universality of freedom. I believe in everybody’s soul — not just white Methodists, everybody’s soul — is a desire to be free.” He derided America’s growing isolationism as a “certain kind of elitism that says, ‘I can be free but nobody else can.’” Bush’s critics would contend that the Iraq War punctured such thinking, and Bush offered no great prescriptions for a way out of the Syrian quagmire — other than to say that leaving the mess to Vladimir Putin would be a grave mistake. Still, he’s taking the long view.
Bush was bullish on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and said the economic and social liberalization there can spread to the wider region. It would have been considered stupendously naive post–Pearl Harbor to imagine Japan and the United States would become close enough allies that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would go on to croon “Love Me Tender” with an Elvis impersonator in Memphis — but the country transformed. And so too could the Middle East, Bush said, as long as America does not retreat within its borders.
Bush seemed at ease with letting history judge his presidency — as well as his successors’. He declined to pass much of any comment on either Barack Obama or Donald Trump, but his freedom-driven policy prescriptions could be heard as critiques of both men.
Before an education-focused crowd, he lauded the No Child Left Behind law as one of the signature achievements of his presidency, but I couldn’t even finish my question about what he was most disappointed about not getting done before he answered: “Immigration reform.” In retrospect, Bush said, he should have tackled immigration in 2005 rather than private Social Security accounts. Anti-immigrant resentment had not yet built up, he said. But by 2006, when his push began in earnest, small communities were struggling with the influx of new people and a scuffling economy. “They blamed the government, they blamed trade and they blamed immigrants,” Bush said. “We’ll work our way out of this, but it’s a tough issue.”
Bush doesn’t do interviews like this very often. Since leaving office in 2009, he’s avoided the spotlight. “Fame is addictive, and I don’t care for it,” he said, adding: “I think it’s quite pathetic for somebody who’s been out of office to clamor for the news: ‘I’m still relevant!’”
Meanwhile, his party has turned sharply against immigrants — with Trump’s vows to erect a wall on the Mexican border and congressional Republicans refusing to consider relief for immigrants who arrived illegally as children. Bush is often encouraged to speak out, but he said he prefers to let his actions speak for him, pointing to the naturalization ceremonies at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. “I can’t think of a better speech than standing there with two Mexicans who just became Americans, wearing Marine uniforms,” Bush said.
Still, he added, he doesn’t see America’s current leadership making major progress on immigration anytime soon. The moment has come and gone.