No matter how people remember President Bush’s time in office, let there be no doubt about how he wants to end it: gracefully.
Never mind that Democrat Barack Obama spent all that time deriding Bush for “failed policies,” or mocking him for hiding in an “undisclosed location” because he was too unpopular to show up with his party’s own candidate, John McCain. This is transition time. Outgoing presidents support the new guy.
And on that front, Bush is going well beyond the minimum. He has embraced the role of statesman with such gusto that it has been hard to miss.
The result is that Bush’s last image at the White House will be one of a magnanimous leader. Whether it will improve his legacy is another matter.
“This has been a very good moment late in his presidency, and, I think it’s fair to say, much appreciated by the nation,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, the home of Bush’s planned presidential library.
On Monday at the White House, Bush warmly welcomed Obama, whose dominant win last week was largely seen as a referendum on the Bush years.
The two leaders spent more than an hour discussing domestic and foreign policy in the Oval Office. And then Bush gave Obama a personal tour all around.
The world saw video images that were replayed all day and night: Bush and first lady Laura Bush greeting Obama and his wife, Michelle, as if they were old friends; Bush strolling with the president-elect along the famous Colonnade adjacent to the Rose Garden, both men waving and smiling.
Translation: Smooth transition.
The scene was the latest in a flurry of moves by Bush, all designed to show he is serious about making Obama’s start a success on Jan. 20.
Mere hours after Obama handily ended eight years of Republican rule, Bush commended Americans for making history. “They chose a president whose journey represents a triumph of the American story — a testament to hard work, optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation,” Bush said.
If that effusiveness wasn’t enough, he called Obama’s win an inspiring moment and said it will be a “stirring sight” when the whole Obama family arrives.
Then Bush called together about 1,000 employees on the South Lawn and told them to embrace the transition earnestly. This could have been handled in a press release, or even an internal memo to staff. Instead, it was a big, showy expression of support for Obama, with Bush’s Cabinet standing behind him.
“The peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy,” Bush said. “And ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my presidency.”
In case anyone missed the point, Bush underscored it in his Saturday radio address. He pledged an “unprecedented effort” to help Obama take power.
Obama’s team is noticing. “So far, cooperation has been excellent,” said transition chief John Podesta, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House.
It was Bush’s father, the 41st president, who bitterly lost to Clinton in 1992. But George H.W. Bush ordered his top aides to cooperate with Clinton’s transition team. He was quoted at the time as saying, “Let us all finish the job with the same class with which we served.”
Echoes of that comment can be found in nearly ever statement his son has made since Obama won election one week ago.
“I think grace is a very good word for the way Bush is responding. And I’d say there’s a little bit of the fact that there’s a Bush 41 and a Bush 43,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at The Brookings Institution and the author of a new book about presidential transitions.
“There is now a presidency stamped in their DNA,” Hess said. “There is a very exclusive club of people who have been president, and they know they may be called on if there’s a crisis. They even somehow bond with other former presidents with whom they were not particularly friendly.”
The former President Bush and Clinton, in fact, have become friends and successful humanitarian partners. The two have raised millions of dollars for victims of hurricanes in the United States and an Asian tsunami.
Back in the day when Clinton was president-elect, he deferred to Bush 41 and said, “America has only one president at a time.” The line sounds familiar: Obama has been saying the same thing about the current President Bush.
Presidents take transitions seriously because they know the world is watching. The goal is to show that the same petty politics that can define an election will not undermine the transfer of power in a democracy.
In other words, statesmanship is expected.
What’s more, Bush has indicated he takes this transition particularly seriously because the nation is in such precarious times. Obama does not inherit a decision about how to spend a budget surplus. Instead, his government will face red ink, an economy in shambles and wars ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In calmer times, presidents incoming and outgoing have allowed their emotions to run more freely, to show some displeasure and tension,” Jillson said. “Bush is aware enough to know that the times don’t permit that.”
All this doesn’t just help Obama. Bush’s cooperative approach could serve him well, too. It puts him on the right side of public sentiment.
Ending a tumultuous second term on a positive note certainly can’t hurt his standing as he returns to private life.
But it won’t be enough to alter Bush’s legacy, said Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and advised presidents Ford and Carter.
“The encyclopedia is still going to read: `George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, who created a war in Iraq’ or `who let the country be flooded by Katrina,'” Hess said. “It’s not going to be, `George W. Bush, who left the office gracefully.'”
Ben Feller covers the White House for The Associated Press.