President George W. Bush dominated the headlines for eight eventful years. But he’s purposely stayed pretty much OUT of the spotlight, until now, with the publication of his new memoir. Jim Axelrod, who covered the Bush White House for CBS News, talked to President and Mrs. Bush at their new home, in Texas: It turns out that on January 20, 2009, no one was more ready for George W. Bush to move on . . . than Mr. Bush himself.
He said the realization that the end had come to his presidency came as he and First Lady Laura Bush departed the Capitol Building: “It’s over and we’re starting a new chapter in our life. We’d given it our all and we were headed home.”
Home to Texas, where George W. Bush is still a favorite son – living what Laura calls “the afterlife, in the state that George calls the Promised Land.”
At their new home in North Dallas, George and Laura Bush are happily settling into that “after-life.”
He said a wall of photos could be titled, “George and Laura are blessed with a great family and a lot of wonderful friends.”
And if you’re wondering whether Mr. Bush is mired in any second-guessing of the decisions he made as president – forget it.
“You’re telling me you sleep well at night?” Axelrod asked.
“Yeah, I sure do, particularly when I ride my mountain bike hard.”
He said, “When I looked in the mirror when I got home, I was proud of what I saw.”
The next chapter of his life won’t include any tortured soul-searching.
“After eight years of being the President and making a lot of decisions – which I chronicle a lot of them here in this book – I knew I did not compromise principle in order to affect my standing in, you know, in the short term.”
The book is “Decision Points,” an examination of the critical decisions that defined his presidency.
President Bush starts the book with,”When’s the last day you can remember not having a drink?” A personal note, with the decision he says made all the others possible – the decision to stop drinking that he made, at his wife’s urging. 24 years ago.
“What do you remember about the motivation that you needed to say something to your husband?” Axelrod asked.
“Well, I just thought George was drinking too much,” Laura said. “And I knew that he didn’t want to live like that. And we had little girls. We were 40 years old. And so I would say things to him – my dad drank a lot, and I didn’t really want to have that in my family.”
“Were you drinking too much? Or were you an alcoholic?” Axelrod asked.
“I, I probably drinking too much,” Mr. Bush said. “As I said in the book, you know, I didn’t, my quitting didn’t require an extensive program. And therefore, I guess or assume that mine was an addiction, not a genetic predisposition to drink.
“I guess, best way to put it, I had a conflict between my desire to drink and my desire to be a good husband and dad. And it seemed to me alcohol was winning.”
He writes about everything from running for president, to 9/11, to the stem cell debate, to the Iraq War and the “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam didn’t have.
He wrote, “No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons.” “I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”
“What was sickening?” asked Axelrod.
“Well, because, sickening is the fact that so many people felt that that was the only reason we went in to liberate Iraq,” he replied. “So in a way, the case became undermined, and it frankly, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction let Saddam off the hook.”
“Then once it was shown that there were no WMDs, didn’t it undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. invading?” Axelrod asked.
“Well, you know, that’s part of the problem. You know, in some people’s minds, they said, ‘Wait a minute, if this is the main part of the case, we made a mistake,'” Mr. Bush said.
“I don’t think, I don’t agree with that,” he chuckled. “I, I think that the liberation of Iraq not only makes America more secure, it gives 25 million people the chance to live in a free society. And that free society, over time, will have a transformative effect in the Middle East.”
“And so the liberation, in your view, justifies everything.”
“Well, I think, in my view, what justifies everything is the removal of a threat,” President Bush said. “[In] other words, the decision to leave him in power, and my judgment, would’ve been a decision that could’ve created enormous chaos in the world. Now, as one could envision a nuclear arms race between Saddam and Iran, and then they’d have been saying, ‘Wait a minute – the failure to act created enormous stress.'”
Failure to act could be the subtitle of the chapter on Hurricane Katrina. This man who saw “decisive” as his political brand (“I’m the decider”) found his presidency undermined by his delay.
When asked why Katrina was one event where he took too long to decide, President Bush said, “I got caught up in the legal system. [it’s] not an excuse. I’m just giving you the facts. And that’s the purpose – ”
“But you’re the President of the United States,” Axelrod said.
“No, I know. But that, the purpose of the book is to show you the decision-making process. And in this case, it, in order to send troops into New Orleans, the law says that the governor must declare an emergency and request [them], or I have to declare an insurrection.
“In retrospect, now, knowing what I know today, which is, you know, it’s not exactly what you get to do when you’re sitting there, I would’ve sent in troops a lot quicker.”
“There was a common feeling that after Katrina, you could never fully regain the trust of the American people,” Axelrod said. “Did you feel Katrina was a fork in the road for your Presidency?”
“I felt Katrina was a part of a very difficult period for my presidency,” Mr. Bush chuckled. “[in] other words, I said, ‘Let’s reform Social Security,’ and a Republican Congress didn’t. Iraq was very difficult in ’06. And Katrina was just a part of a narrative that, that, you know, began to undermine me personally with some of the public, a lot of the public for that matter.”
The long knives were out, which is when the White House can be at its loneliest . . .
Axelrod asked, “How does it work, Mrs. Bush? Do you offer point of view, criticism, when you’re in the heat of it?”
“Sure, all of those things, but not a lot of criticism,” she replied. “There are plenty of critics already for who lives in the White House. And that’s just not really our relationship. Did we talk about issues? Sure. Did we talk about personnel? Of course.
“But also, I knew when he came home late in the afternoon from the Oval Office that, you know, what he wanted to do was sit with me and work on the jigsaw puzzle that we worked on and watch baseball on television or football on television or some other sport and relax. We always had, really, just had the comfort of each other’s presence. And I knew that’s what he wanted when he was at home.”
Not that she ever held back when she felt he needed her unvarnished opinion:
Mr. Bush said, “I can remember a few examples when you said I was going down the wrong road, like, ‘You better watch your language, buster.'”
“Well, that kind of thing, for sure,” Laura Bush said.
“Wanted dead or alive, that kind of thing?”
“Yeah, that, and Bring ’em on,” she said.
“Yeah, I remember when I said that, and I got back, she said, ‘Hey, you probably could put this a little better,'” Mr. Bush laughed. “And of course, I said, ‘What? Everybody understood what I meant!'” I was a little defensive, I must confess. But I mean, her point was, ‘You’re the President, and yeah, you’re plain-spoken. But sometimes your plain-spokeness sends the wrong signals.”
To this day she remains his biggest protector, and quick on the draw.
When Axelrod the president if he thought there was a liberal bias in terms of the media’s perception of him, Laura Bush jumped in: “Yes. He didn’t have to answer, but I will.”
“Why do you jump in so quickly?” Axelrod laughed.
“No, I’m only kidding. I really don’t know. But I will say that almost two years that we’ve been home, I really do see from most Americans a great feeling of affection for George, that you don’t read about, that you don’t, never read about. And, you know, so I think there is, yes, I think there’s sort of a conventional wisdom that’s put out by the press.”
“And that conventional wisdom tilts left?” Axelrod asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The book is Mr. Bush’s chance to take on what he says are misconceptions – like the one about the shadow president.
“The question I always get the most from people who know I spent any time covering you is, ‘What’s he like?'” Axelrod said. “And the second question is always, ‘Was Cheney running the place?'”
“Yeah, you know, we laugh because – and I’m sure Dick Cheney would laugh and anybody who’s in the White House would laugh, because that’s one of the myth’s that arise when you’re the President,” Mr. Bush said. “And I do, you know, Dick Cheney came to me and he said, ‘If you want to replace me, do it,’ which I thought was unbelievably magnanimous.”
“Did any part of you think, ‘If I do this and replace him, that’ll put an end to, Is Cheney running the joint?” Axelrod asked.
“Well, that’s, that’s exactly right. That would’ve helped eliminate the myth. But the problem in that logic is, is that I liked the job he was doing,” Mr. Bush said. “He did a great job as Vice President. And it would’ve been incredibly self-serving and shallow to have made a decision about my Vice President based upon some misperception.”
Another misperception, Mr. Bush says, is that there was some deep-seated rivalry with his dad.
“When people read this book, they’ll realize that my relationship with my father is based on admiration and love and appreciation, that he gave me the great gift, and that is unconditional love,” Mr. Bush said.
“That’s another myth that can be disposed of, that there was some Shakespearean – ”
“- Psychogical drama being played out?” Mr. Bush chuckled.
Their home in Dallas is where George and Laura Bush want to focus their energy now – and return to as much of a normal family life as possible.
And while some things about him now might surprise you (his wall of photos contains no pictures of world leaders, but DOES show Siegfried & Roy), for the most part former President Bush is exactly the man you remember.
“I am a content person,” He said. “I, I stuck by my principles. [In] other words, I didn’t sell my soul for politics. I came out of the eight really interesting years a better person.”
Chances are George Bush’s critics will remain infuriated . . . his supporters enthusiastic . . . and his book won’t change too many minds on either side.
“You know, a philosopher once said, ‘You live life forward. You understand it looking backward,'” Axelrod said.
“[That’s] Pretty good,” Mr. Bush said.
“When you look backward, what is your biggest regret?”
“Well, I got regrets in not finding weapons of mass destruction ’cause that undermined the case for us, for some for us being there,” he replied. “I regret not bringing Sadda – Osama bin Laden to justice. You know, I mean, for the guy to utter dead or alive, in neither case took place when I was President,” he chuckled.
“I regret ‘Mission Accomplished,’ on the aircraft carrier. There is a lot of things I wish I could’ve done over. But in life you don’t get to do them over. You can learn from those mistakes. But, when you’re President, you know, it’s – ”
“There’re no do-overs,” Laura Bush said.
Mr. Bush concurred: “There’s no do-overs.”