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In Case You Missed It: George Bush At USC

Laura Walsh |
November 20, 2013 | 7:51 a.m. PST


George W. Bush Facebook Page
George W. Bush Facebook Page
If you walked on the University of Southern California campus between 5 and 6 PM on Tuesday night, you may have noticed that the dependable demographic of suits and ties that float into Bovard Auditorium once a month appeared more tense than usual.

The former President of the United States, George W. Bush, was in town, so the controversially select few who were invited to hear him speak underwent a screening process to check their pride and coats at the sunset of a two hour line on what felt like the first real cold night of the year.

Bush entertained unoffending questions from an audience content to wait in the long line (or, in the case of VIPs present, comfortably boozed and indoors instead). The Republican served as the 43rd President of the United States, serving as leader of the free world for eight years.

Bush really was a global health revolutionary, a man who took blame and placed affection within the dynamics of the D.C. shark tank– and a standup guy for ideals like "human freedom." This at least, was what the card stock placed carefully on every cushion in Bovard advertised to introduce an audience (noticeably composed of USC College Republicans and not USC College Democrats) to the man who was saluted by a standing ovation before he picked up a microphone.

Many conversations leading up to this moment of course, had been spent recalling the scenes for which we actually remember George Bush. People did their best to imitate their most beloved gaffe, one friend practiced his question for the former President: “Repeat after me 'Nuclear'” – and "hey, doesn't he paint pictures of dogs now?"

We thought about Sept. 11, and how foreign policy storms became a part of our systems since the day we were pulled out of class – was it really twelve years ago? These were the defining memories of the W years for many of us, whether or not they persist because we drank too much Kool Aid as kids, because one had to find humor in the gravity of the times or because the early internet years destroyed our ability to recall history as it actually unfolded. The pre-event comments may not have been gracious, but they were honest and partly born of the inconvenience of being held in corrals in order to time our entrance into the auditorium.

When Bush actually appeared in front of the curtain, awe of his sheer celebrity fanned over the audience. He strode on stage, not overly proud or confident, just comfortable and content in his shoes.

His shoes, by the way, were not the cowboy boots he flaunted in Journeys With George. The days of campaigning as an average Texan are over, instead he slipped on shiny black dress shoes and a muted navy-gray suit matched simply with a muted red tie. His whole outfit suggested he was American, but he didn't need to tell you. Or, for that matter, bore you with a definition of what this actually means.

Laura Bush appeared in a bright coral dress. She talked about the marginalization of women in societies, and her Audrey Hepburn hair and pearls never really betrayed her point because she said nothing too controversial or specific. The duo was seated on stage in very large chairs that appeared to have been crafted for medieval royalty with their tall backs and plush red cushions. Both George and Laura sat back without ever sinking in, and proceeded to talk quite simply about their lives.

The whole display suggested that George and Laura came to talk about politics – to explain why the Wall Street banks were bailed out with billions in the years leading up to the crash that recently rocked our world, or to explain the choice to join the longest, and arguably least supported war in our nation's history.

Throughout the program, however, it became clear that George and Laura had come to rationalize their policy by convincing us that they are average people. They came to describe gut reactions and crack jokes. They hoped for the audience to appreciate how George values humor, loves his dog and trusted his aides. How, in the moment that Bush became a war-time president, he immediately “felt pissed,” and then processed the three planes sequentially:There has been an accident, America is under attack, this is a declaration of war.

When Bush received word of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was reading books with schoolchildren. He remembers having to calmly address a room full of parents who expected him to congratulate their child's reading expertise and potential and bid them good afternoon. Instead, he calmly explained the grave situation at hand, and rushed into the apocalyptic scene bathing New York in dust. He then found himself consoling children whose parents were missing in the rubble, a deep and dark life-shattering mess he already knew to be suffocating. He was tasked with spreading an infectious calm to stifle a “psychological tsunami” that he rightly suspected could arise out of the ashes.

“Nobody ever asked me how I was going to act as Commander in Chief during the campaign,” reasons Bush. This statement of course, sounds silly to those of us who expect our president to be of a different fabric than the rest of us. Yet this admission by President Bush had shock value in the frame of the conversation. Bush conducted his presidency and fashioned his policy on the same transparent terms on which he campaigned – with his actual persona as his guide. Your average character is not challenged with declaring war. A typical president, of course, is faced with this decision every day in office.

This gap between the responsibility we assign to the President of the United States, and the extent to which we expect them to act like a reasonable human being--like us-- became the unintended theme of George Bush's speech. Bush did not become the president because he is overly analytical. He didn't get introduced to Russian President Vladimir Putin's dog Koni, or hang out in Graceland with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, by the demands of his own critical thinking skills. Bush was, and still is, simply able to relate to people.

His charm and charisma got him elected, but it also had him talking to other people at home and in foreign lands. The former president was quiet when Putin mocked Bush's Scottish Terrier for being stout, and laughed months later when Putin called his own shiny black lab “bigger, faster, stronger than Barney.” Bush is aware enough to tell this story in recognition that it is funny, and his quick sense of humor even had an audience member behind us uncontrollably remark “he's so sassy” at one point, to nobody in particular. Like other 67 year olds, Bush quit smoking cigars and drinking alcohol at the behest of his wife, and even took up painting after reading, of all things, Churchill's essay about “Painting as a Pastime.”

This man, who will casually snack on peanuts for a CNN camera, who smiles with the cynicism of an uncle who will have the family's adoration no-matter-what and who still gets bruises from bike riding, was the President of the United States for twice the amount of time it takes to get an undergraduate degree.

His work ethic and affinity for staying busy was suited for the fast-paced White House pressure cooker; and his culturally rooted commitments to certain issue stances and unquestioning faith helped him through a presidency that might plague another human's conscience. This is the man that committed the United States to a war with Iraq. It is the same guy who woke up on a ranch one day in Crawford, Texas, and realized that things would be very different from the day before, and for the new President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Bush may no longer be President. He may be painting dogs and cats, or running a library or even continuing global initiatives like PEPFAR initiated during his Presidency. Yet his influence, whether you liked it or not, as a policymaker, and even more so as a human being, may help us better articulate what we expect of our elected leaders. As the next few months promise offseason elections and major holidays, while calling for a revision of the United States' first universal healthcare law among other major political decisions, we may want to step back and look at our leaders' style as politicians and priorities as people. No matter how George Bush taught us the importance of public review, we do know that accountability will define the future and history of our actions at home and abroad; both as a nation of leaders and global citizens. 



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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