As Bush Settles Into Dallas, Golf Tees and Family Time Now Trump Politics
By PETER BAKER
Published: November 2, 2013
DALLAS — When the executive director of former President George W. Bush’s public policy institute decided to move on recently, he stopped by for an exit interview. Mr. Bush asked if he had anything in particular he wanted to talk about.
Nothing specific, said James K. Glassman, the departing director.
“O.K.,” Mr. Bush replied, “I want to talk about painting.”
After early self-portraits in the shower and then dozens of paintings of dogs and cats, Mr. Bush, it seems, has now moved on to world leaders. He told Mr. Glassman that he wanted to produce portraits of 19 foreign presidents and prime ministers he worked with during his time in the White House.
Nearly five years after leaving office, the nation’s 43rd president lives a life of self-imposed exile in Texas, more interested in painting than politics, recovering from a heart scare, privately worried about the rise of the Tea Party,
golfing with fervor, bicycling with wounded veterans and enjoying a modest revival in public opinion. While Bill Clinton criticizes Republicans on the campaign trail and Dick Cheney chastises the current administration on his book tour, Mr. Bush resolutely stays out of the public debate.
That his voice remains silent may be all the more striking given how much he seems at the center of the debate anyway. Some of the issues dominating Washington trace their roots to his time in power, including whether to use force to counter nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the Middle East and how to find the right balance between security and privacy when it comes to the surveillance state.
When the rollout of the federal health care exchange was botched, some looked to Mr. Bush’s expansion of Medicare for lessons. When President Obama vowed to fix it, he promised a “tech surge,” echoing the language used for Mr. Bush’s second-term troop buildup in Iraq. And when Mr. Obama pushes lawmakers to overhaul the immigration system, he makes a point of noting that his predecessor supported it too.
But Mr. Bush seems to miss none of it. “He’s moved on,” said Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, who has been interviewing him for a book on the two Bush presidents. “He’s comfortable with the decisions he made. He doesn’t obsess about his place in history.”
Mr. Bush is not completely removed from public policy. His institute promotes free-market economics, global health, democratic reform and other causes. He travels to Africa as part of a program fighting cervical cancer. He broke his silence recently to advocate immigration legislation, in effect bolstering Mr. Obama. Behind closed doors, he made a surprise keynote address to Jewish organizations, where attendees said he urged skepticism of Iran’s recent outreach, in effect warning Mr. Obama.
In private, Mr. Bush expresses disappointment in Mr. Obama’s performance, although he would never say so publicly. And he views with concern the growing influence of the Tea Party, which is a rebellion against him as well as Mr. Obama. His brand of “compassionate conservatism” — increasing the federal role in education, expanding Medicare coverage and providing a path for illegal immigrants — is anathema to many new Republican Party activists.
But Mr. Bush is most worried about what he sees as a growing isolationism, a retreat from the tough-minded national security policies and assertive American role in the world that he championed. “That’s his main concern about the Tea Party,” Mr. Glassman said. In that vein, Mr. Bush contributed $5,000 to Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolina Republican who is facing a challenge from the right.
His main passions these days, though, are elsewhere. Mr. Bush, who is 67, spent Halloween with his new granddaughter, who was dressed as an astronaut. He has a regular seat near the dugout at Texas Rangers games and gave the coin toss at a recent Southern Methodist University football game. He hosted a charity golf tournament, and after having a stent inserted to open a clogged artery, he is back on his bicycle.
“I would sum it up as library work, speeches, painting, golfing and mountain-bike riding,” said Mark McKinnon, a friend and former political consultant. “The most consistent characteristic about President Bush is that he truly loves and relishes life.”
After giving up golf while in office out of deference to troops at war, Mr. Bush has taken it up again. He sometimes plays with the first few people who happen to show up at courses like the Brook Hollow Golf Club or the Las Colinas Country Club, and he built a putting green at home. “He’s a golf-aholic now,” said his friend Charlie Younger.
Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, moved to Dallas in 2009, exhausted by eight years of crises. They bought a relatively simple house in the Preston Hollow area and renovated it. Upstairs the former president has what a friend called “his man cave,” an office with mementos and pictures from his time in power.
It took a while to decompress. “Laura told me she didn’t realize how stressed she was until she got back here,” said Pamela Nelson, a longtime Dallas friend.
But they adjusted and express little nostalgia for Washington. “I’ve never seen a happier, more relaxed man than George W. Bush since he left the presidency,” said Wayne Berman, a friend and fund-raiser.
Mr. Bush has become part of the Dallas firmament again, a regular at restaurants around town and host of barbecues at home. He helped raised a reported $1.2 million for the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. He is expected to attend a Dallas event on Monday honoring the columnist and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer. “Clinton is a citizen of the world,” said a friend, “and Bush is a citizen of Dallas.”
That is not to say that Mr. Bush does not revisit the consequential days in the White House. From time to time, there are revealing moments, friends say.
“You’re leaving as one of the most unpopular presidents ever,” a former aide noted during a visit to Dallas shortly after Mr. Bush’s return. “How does that feel?”
Mr. Bush pushed back: “I was also the most popular president.”
Today, Mr. Bush finds himself somewhere in the middle. A Gallup survey found that 49 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, compared with 46 percent who saw him unfavorably, hardly as high as Mr. Clinton or Ronald Reagan but the first positive balance in eight years.
That reflects a return to the fold by some conservatives who see Mr. Bush more positively than Mr. Obama and perhaps a softening by some moderates and liberals who see him more positively than Tea Party Republicans. Former Bush aides seem less defensive today because Mr. Obama adopted much of his predecessor’s security policies and because the current president has had his own troubles.
“There’s now more appreciation and even some nostalgia for his resolve, the clarity of his convictions; things that were sometimes seen as liability when he was in office are now looked at with more affection,” said William C. Inboden, a former aide and the executive director of the Clements Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University of Texas, Austin. “There’s also more appreciation for the challenges and the calls a president has to make to keep a nation safe.”
Mr. Bush has benefited from his decision not to publicly second-guess his successor. Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s campaign against Mr. Bush in 2000, said she was told that Mr. Obama was “grateful and admiring of how the Bushes approached the post-presidency,” adding that “this should serve as a different template for the modern presidency.”
And the contrast with today’s Republicans in Congress has stoked some nostalgia. “The view of him has softened because of the continuing rightward march of the Republican Party,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic House aide during the Bush era. “He is looking more centrist and moderate every day.”
But others are frustrated by what they call Bush revisionism. “Time passing may fade some of the sharpness of the memories of the Bush era, but the toll from the Iraq war isn’t any less bad just because some time has passed,” said Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, a liberal activist group. “The people who lost their homes and were personally devastated by the economic collapse of 2008 are not going to get that time back.”
Mr. Bush confronts the toll from Iraq and Afghanistan regularly. He spends time with “wounded warriors,” hosting an annual 100-kilometer bicycle ride across the Texas desert and a Warrior Open golf tournament.
For Mr. Bush, this is not about reliving the past but about picking up and starting again. And that is where the painting comes in. He read how his idol Winston Churchill took up brushes and oils after leaving office and tried it too.
“He’s very serious about it and very disciplined,” Mr. Glassman said, “which is the way he does everything.”
Ms. Nelson, the former first lady’s friend and herself an artist, said she was struck by Mr. Bush’s passion. It is, in the end, about the future, she said. “You just can’t look backwards.”