Five questions with President George W. Bush

Interview With
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George W. Bush

President and Mrs. Bush were delighted to welcome more than 925 Bush-Cheney alumni and their guests to Dallas May 19-21 for a series of gatherings and events. Secretary Don Evans may have summed it up best at the Fundraising Luncheon when he described the reunion as “good for the soul.” The Bush Center team is already looking forward to the next reunion, likely in 2027. During the Saturday evening party at SMU’s Armstrong Fieldhouse, President Bush participated in a lively conversation with Bush Center Senior Advisor and BCAer Kevin Sullivan. Here are excerpts from that discussion, lightly edited for brevity.

Q:  As Mrs. Bush said in her introduction, more than 900 alums and their guests registered for the reunion. What does that mean to you?

A little short of 1,000. (Laughter). It’s awesome, I mean, I am shocked that so many people showed up and I am unbelievably grateful. This is more people than I won Florida by. (Laughter). No, it means a lot. It means that I hope they were as honored to serve our country as I was. I suspect they were, because we had a really good group of people we worked with, not only in the White House but throughout government. I want to thank you all for being here and I thank you for your dedication. And I hope you’re doing well.

Q: I’ve heard you say before that you can tell a lot about a leader by the people they surround themselves with.  You had great people.

I’m asked a lot about leadership, and I think the key to leadership is to know what you don’t know, find people who do what you don’t know, and empower them to help you. We had a really good group of people. Many of you sacrificed to come to Washington, D.C., to serve the country. And you can testify that serving something you love is really important in life.  We weren’t there to bolster me. We weren’t there to bolster the Republican Party. We were there to do our best for America. And that’s why this team is such an unusual group of people.

Q: Let’s go to the Bush Institute. The themes are very familiar to this crowd: freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion. All the work of the Bush Institute falls under those pillars.  A lot of people here worked on PEPFAR. Can you reflect on that for us?

Yeah, most Americans have no clue what PEPFAR is. “You know, have you ever heard of PEPFAR?” “Yeah, I bought some at Walgreens the other day.” (Laughter.) It’s one of the greatest humanitarian acts, ever by a nation. Over 25 million people live who would have died. Because of the generosity of the American people, they lived. So, the question for our country is, does that matter, is that in our national interest? And you know, isolationists say, “Let them worry about it themselves.” The Bush administration said, ”Yeah, it matters.” We’re a big nation, we’re a wealthy nation — and big, wealthy, compassionate nations do big things. And saving 25 million lives is about as big as it gets.

And when we got back from Washington, we discovered that women who had been saved from AIDS were needlessly dying of cervical cancer and nothing was being done about it. So, we put together an initiative [through the Bush Institute, now called Go Further] and now…six million have been screened. We are principle-based, but we’re also action-oriented.

Q: Can you talk about what a great team you and Mrs. Bush were at the White House?

She was an awesome First Lady. I read a lot of history and I studied Lincoln a lot. I think he’s one of the great presidents. Lincoln ruled, made decisions based upon solid principles like all men are created equal under God, which in 1864 was not that easy to say. And he hung tight and meant it. He had one of the great presidential decisions. The president has got to be able to look beyond the moment and look over the horizon, and he decided to have a non-punitive peace with the South, therefore enabling us to remain the United States of America. I thought about him a lot, what it would be like to be president during a civil war. And if you study Lincoln, you realize his wife was miserable. And I thought about what it must be like to be going through all that trauma and go upstairs and your spouse and friend is miserable. I can testify that, although there were dark moments, Laura was never miserable. She was so comforting and uplifting, and she deserves a lot of credit. Although one time when I said, “We’re going to get Bin Laden dead or alive,” she said, “You need to worry about your language.” And I said, “Yeah, but at least they understood me in Midland, Texas.”

Q: What advice do you have for Bush-Cheney alums who are considering running for office?

I know it looks ugly, but our democracy is only as solid as the people willing to show up and serve. And I hope you do seriously think about it. I would strongly suggest not trying to parachute into what looks like an attractive district and show up out of the blue and say, “Hey, I want to be your Congressman” without having served in some capacity, like showing people you actually care about their lives and are compassionate about their future.

But yeah, I hope you do. It’s a noble calling, sullied somewhat recently. It’s necessary for the future of our country that good people run.

Q: As president, you talked about your prayer life and faith a lot. What role should prayer and faith play in America today?

I sought solace from a higher power, and even though the world has changed, the higher power hasn’t. My favorite Bible verse for politicians is “I should not be taking a speck out of your eye when I got a log in my own.” You can find that in Matthew, by the way. And secondly, mixing religion and politics is dangerous because it basically sends the message, I am better than you, which religion teaches you’re not. Thirdly, it says that there’s only one religion. If you base your whole campaign on religion, you’re in essence saying, my religion is the only religion in a democracy. That’s wrong because the great thing about our country is you can worship any way you want to worship, or not worship at all and we’re equal. That’s the beauty of the American system. And one of the smartest things I did was – Andy Card probably thought of it – was to go to a mosque after 9/11, because I wanted to send the message that we’re not going to allow a bunch of extremists to ruin the beauty of what religion means in our country.

It’s still important as I come closer to death. It’s really important.  My dear mother left me with an evangelical message and here it is. Laura and I go visit her in the hospital and (my mother) looks at me and– you know, she’s kind of a blunt speaker.  She said George, “I want to die.” Like, wow. I said, do you fear death? She said, “I don’t fear it at all.” You know, I’m kind of an overeducated simple guy in a way. And so, I’m saying to myself, she’s just saying that to make me feel better. About three weeks later, I get a phone call from the house where she is in hospice and [I’m told] your mom will be dead soon. I said, put her on the phone, please. “Mom, I’m calling to tell you how much I love you and what a fabulous mother you have been.” And she said “George, I love you too. You’re my favorite son – on the phone.” (Laughter.) And those are the last words my mother spoke, thereby proving she did not fear death – because if you fear death, you can’t quip into the grave.

BONUS: What do you want to leave our Bush Cheney alumni with in terms of reasons for hope and optimism?

First of all, democracy heals itself. If you don’t like what’s going on, get involved with the system. We have been through dark periods in America, like 1968, when Laura and I got out of college. It was a brutal period, really brutal. I didn’t think it could survive. But what I came to realize after that period was the institutions of our government are more important than the people in it. And therefore, we can survive a lot of turbulence.  Take January 6th, one of the most pathetic moments in American history when a bunch of bullies tried to overturn the will of the people. And yet it was a positive moment in the long run, because the legislative body met and ratified the election, courts all across the country met and ratified the election. And shortly thereafter, I watched a peaceful transfer of power on the steps of the Capitol. Here’s another way of putting it: The institution of the presidency is much more important than the occupant of the office. And once you realize that and see that our institutions get stressed and survive, it’s got to make you optimistic about the future.

Secondly, we’re an unbelievably creative nation. What’s going on in the high-tech world?  AI. I don’t understand it, but I feel very confident in telling you that, for example, healthcare is going to change dramatically for the better as you’re able to diagnose diseases and solve them more quickly than ever.

Thirdly think about the innovation when it came time to coming up with vaccines for COVID. It was unbelievable. Out of nowhere, these vaccines came to be.

I’m very optimistic. I’m also optimistic because our country is unbelievably compassionate. if you look at systems of government around the world, most governments have taken over the compassion agenda. But in America, it’s neighbors helping neighbors that make our compassion so unique. De Tocqueville saw it in 1830. It is still strong today. And to that end, I hope you continue to serve your communities by feeding the hungry or teaching a child to read or doing the compassionate act.