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George W. Bush's return to spotlight won't last

'After selling this book, I'm heading back underground,' the former president says while promoting his new memoir. Work starts this week on his Dallas think tank and presidential library.

November 14, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — With appearances on prime-time television and Kanye West's Twitter feed, former President George W. Bush emerged from self-imposed exile last week for a book tour that was both serious and surreal. His defenders relished a chance at redemption for a man who left office with dismal approval ratings. His critics recoiled at reminders of scars.

Bush, never a man to mince words, had a message for them all: Don't get used to it.

"After selling this book, I'm heading back underground," the 43rd president told NBC's Matt Lauer while promoting his memoir, "Decision Points."

In the two years since leaving office, Bush has embarked on a post-presidency that is on course to be remembered for its subterranean activity. His public appearances have been rare, his media interviews rarer, and his work life steady but far from the political fray. Book promotion aside, former aides, observers and the man himself say that's unlikely to change.

"He gave his all to public service when he was governor and president," said Dana Perino, Bush's former press secretary. "Now he is in a new chapter in his life."

That chapter seems dictated by personal disposition and political reality. Bush left office with a 34% approval rating, among the lowest for any modern president. Both political parties were eager to turn the page on a tumultuous tenure marked by two wars, Hurricane Katrina and a near financial collapse. When the president promised to leave the national stage in 2008, few argued.

At the same time, the choice matched Bush's temperament, former aides said. Bush has rarely demonstrated the zeal for politics that has helped make former President Clinton his party's most popular campaign surrogate. (Bush assiduously dodged questions about President Obama last week. Clinton, by comparison, used his 2004 book tour to jab at Bush.)

Nor has Bush advertised a desire to remake himself as a roving freelance ambassador in the mode of former President Carter. His fledgling Bush Institute — a think tank associated with Southern Methodist University — has set out to distinguish itself through its focus on well-defined research and projects.

"He's very results-oriented and has always been," said Karen Hughes, a longtime friend and advisor to the former president. "He wants to make sure that the things that we do are driving to an actual result. That's probably his business training. He likes to measure and hold people accountable."

A groundbreaking on the building that will house the institute and Bush's presidential library is scheduled for Tuesday in Dallas.

It is only relatively recently that Americans have come to expect a post- White House relaunch from their ex-presidents. For many, life after leadership was primarily a true retirement, interrupted occasionally by diplomatic requests from sitting presidents.

"Particularly since Richard Nixon, if a former president chooses to pursue an agenda he has left over from the White House or do things that he wants to do, he has ample opportunity to do it. The modern presidency affords presidents far more opportunities than their predecessors to do something meaningful," said Mark Updegrove, author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies after the White House" and director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.

Those opportunities blossomed with globalism, Updegrove said, a trend that allowed U.S. presidents' popularity abroad to remain high or even improve long after their shine had worn off at home. A former president's attempt to focus on international projects also has the benefit of keeping them out of their successors' affairs — the oft-repeated and sometimes violated code of the ex-presidents club.

Nixon set out to assert himself as a trusted expert in foreign affairs. Carter eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize. Both men, like Bush, left the White House with a significant popularity deficit.

Although he may be promising to stay out of the limelight, Bush is not rejecting pursuing similar opportunities.

The Bush Institute promises to promote "global health, human freedom, education reform and economic growth." Its health initiative is studying methods for providing healthcare to pregnant mothers in several African and Asian countries. Its education reform project is aimed at training the nation's principals.

Both projects build on Bush's work in office. The No Child Left Behind law was his signature domestic policy achievement. His administration's effort to combat disease and poverty in Africa are a rarely noted bright spot in his international portfolio.

"I think these are areas he wants to be remembered for," said Updegrove, who interviewed Bush for an upcoming article in Texas Monthly magazine.

Of course, Bush knows there will be much more to how historians evaluate him. The eventual success or failure of democracy in Iraq, the depth and length of the economic downturn and history's view of the interrogation methods he sanctioned are poised to determine his legacy.

He was direct this week in describing his memoir as aimed at that evaluation. Historians will judge his decisions. He won't be around to see it, he wrote. The book would make his case for him, perhaps once and for all.

"I have no desire to debate," Bush told Lauer. "My debating days are over."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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