DALLAS - In the eight years since President George W. Bush boarded the Marine Corps helicopter waiting to take him and his wife, Laura, away from the U.S. Capitol after President Barack Obama's inauguration, he's rarely looked back. And for the most part, he's avoided the media spotlight.
Bush says that's by "design."
"I don't want to undermine our presidents," he told VOA in a recent interview at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
"I didn't want to undermine President Obama and I don't want to undermine President Trump," he explained.
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That doesn't stop supporters and friends from encouraging him to weigh in on issues dominating national headlines.
"What's interesting is when President Obama was president, people from Texas in the heartland would call me and say, ‘You've got to speak out.' Now when President Trump's the president, people from the coast call me and say, ‘You've got to speak out.'"
And occasionally he does, such as during his appearance on NBC's "Today" show when he commented on Trump's characterization of some media organizations as an "enemy of the American people."
"I spoke about the free press and people said, ‘You are criticizing President Trump.' That's not the case at all," he explained to VOA. "I am a believer in the Constitution, which talks about freedom of religion, freedom of the press and I'm a defender of that.I fully understood that power can be addictive and power can be corrosive and so an independent voice holds people like me in check and so I think it's very important."
Bush admits struggling with the way he was sometimes portrayed in the media during his own presidency. "I mean sure there's a caricature that has developed. People didn't think I could read and I've written two books that are best sellers, now a third," he said.
His latest book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander-in-Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors, features 98 paintings he created in tribute to wounded veterans he encounters while working to draw attention to challenges servicemen and women face transitioning to civilian life.
"I'm sure there's going to be some art critics that say this guy's not a very good painter, that's fine," he said. "My objective is not to say I'm a good painter. My objective is to draw attention to the vets and to the extent that somebody criticizes the art, at least they're paying attention to the veterans."
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Regardless of how the media characterized him, Bush says, he doesn't have regrets. "I had a set of beliefs that I was willing to defend.One thing I never did was chase popularity because it's fleeting. I think a leader must defend a set of values and I did so, and lived by it. And my actions reflected the circumstances of the times, plus the belief system that I told people I have," he said.
War on terror
The "circumstances of the time" included the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, which transformed Bush's nascent presidency into a wartime administration.
"I can vividly remember what the country was like after 9/11," he told VOA."People were, you know, very supportive of U.S. action to protect us. People understood that threats overseas be taken seriously."
But he says American resolve to defeat terrorism is increasingly under pressure.
"I think that time has dulled our senses," he said. "It's gonna be a long struggle and therefore it's incumbent upon … people, you know, leaders, to remind people the long struggle and understand there's political consequences at times when you take the lead.
"Both my successors have said ISIS must be defeated and they understand the threat to the homeland, that's good. Then the question's got to be asked, ‘Do we have the policies in place to defeat them?' "
Bush points to his 2007 decision to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq – called "The Surge" – as a successful tactic to address escalating violence and instability.
"U.S. troops along with local Iraqis defeated what was then called al-Qaida. Remember they had 10,000-strong, Zarqawi looked invincible, and in we go and in 2009 the country had free elections again. It was - relatively speaking - violence-free, and then we decided to leave and all of a sudden this — I call them thugs - regrouped and now we're dealing with them again."
While relishing his successes in office, the former president was also frank about the shortcomings, most notably his speech aboard the USS. Abraham Lincoln in the early months of the war in Iraq.From the deck of the aircraft carrier — in front of a large banner that read "Mission Accomplished," — he announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
"It was a mistake to put the sign up there," he says. "If you read the speech however, I made it clear that major combat operations were over but the struggle goes on because I understood it was an ideological struggle… Now it's going to take a long time to lay the foundations for peace."
That peace is still elusive to his successors, though Bush offers no direct criticism. "I don't think it serves the presidency well, nor the country well, to have me second-guessing," he said;
He also says they haven't sought his advice.
"Neither of my successors asked and that's fine. Doesn't hurt my feelings at all, I'm just a sensitive artist now, painting," Bush said.
Optimism about the future
Despite the sometimes contentious differences over political and cultural issues in the U.S. today, the former president doesn't believe the divide is as wide or as troubling as it was in the 1960s.
"When I got out of college the divisions in this country were, in my opinion, much worse than they are today," he said, reflecting on the turbulent time when opposition to the war in Vietnam and demands for civil rights sparked violence in the streets.
"This country gets divided at times but somehow has had the remarkable ability to work its way out of the divisions. And so I'm very optimistic about the future of the country."
He's also optimistic about the health of his parents. His father, former president George H.W. Bush and mother, Barbara, were both hospitalized in January for respiratory issues.Their illnesses kept them from attending President Trump's inauguration on January 20..
Both made full recoveries, and took the field as honored guests at the NFL's Super Bowl on February 3.
"When they came out to flip the coin at the Super Bowl, it was an incredibly uplifting moment," Bush told VOA."Dad's had some pretty tough health issues and yet his resiliency and the strength — overwhelms any disease he's had. Mom's doing great too."
While the Bushes are the second father-son team to serve in the White House (the first was John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams) there is another historic milestone that George W. Bush points to with pride.
"I'm the only president with both parents alive after the presidency, which is a great blessing," he says.
His mother turns 92 on June 8, and his father's 93rd birthday is four days later.
Bush celebrates his own birthday July 6, and as he turns 71, he plans to spend much of the year the same way as the past several — focusing on U.S. military veterans.
"Keep the country's attention on helping our veterans and also reminding veterans that if you want help, you gotta seek help."