I might not have gone to see George W. Bush if the tickets had not been free. But they were free, and the guy did spend eight years at the helm during some pretty interesting times, and my schedule on a Tuesday night was, as usual, wide open. Politics be damned.
As a speaker, George W. Bush the civilian is nothing like George W. Bush the president. He’s tanned, glib, at ease, self-deprecating and occasionally funny. He comes across as that proverbial guy you wouldn’t mind having a beer with. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that; it’s what got him elected twice. He didn’t use notes or a teleprompter and brought the audience to laughter and standing applause on several occasions. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that either. It was a very friendly crowd. Probably not a lot of surly Democrats willing to pay good money to listen to a man they despise.
He had a couple of interesting stories about Vladimir Putin, in which he seemed to acknowledge that his first glowing impressions of the Russian president were mistaken. Turns out “Vlad” is actually, as Dick Cheney would say, a major league asshole. Bush didn’t use those words, but his disappointment with the man was palpable. Then Bush showed some of his old defensiveness on the subjects of waterboarding and Cheney. The gist: both were absolutely right. Period. As far as I could see, Bush remains a man without regrets.
The only time the former president seemed at a loss for words was when he was asked, “What do you miss the least about being president?” He seemed not to understand the question, not to know whether it referred to something he loved or something he hated. There was an embarrassing moment when he struggled to clarify it, and it brought back all those times I used to cringe while watching him on TV.
I don’t know if that moment bothered anyone else. It was, as I say, a very friendly crowd. Theresa and I did not leap to our feet at every opportunity, and felt a bit conspicuous for remaining seated. We did notice that some in the crowd boycotted the standing O’s only when Bush spoke forcefully in defense of religious diversity, and his commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa. I guess Republican love has its limits too.
Anyway, it was an interesting evening: Spending a brief time so near this apparently ordinary man who set so many extraordinary things in motion. You consider how many of those things are still playing themselves out, with no end in sight. And you consider that Bush seems none the wiser. He is no Robert McNamara. If anybody out there is waiting for a mea culpa, my guess is you’ll be waiting a very long time.