The opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library Thursday was one of those occasions that should cause Americans to reflect on how we select presidents, how we view them in office and how time blunts the sharp edges in those perceptions after they exit the White House.
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were on hand to mark the library’s opening. Current President Barack Obama was also there, calling his immediate predecessor a “good man.” Recent polling indicates about half the country agrees with that assessment of George W. Bush, a dramatic rise in approval ratings since Bush left office in early 2009.
The former presidents had nice things to say about Dubya, as he was known first as governor of Texas and then as president.
“Mr. President, let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” Carter said.
Clinton joshed that because of his close relationship with the elder Bush, he is considered a part of the Bush family. The “black sheep son,” as Clinton put it.
Obama seemed to pine for the days when President George W. Bush could restart “an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” If immigration reform can become law, Obama added, “it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of George W. Bush.”
There lies the twist in American politics. Partisans’ rivals always look better in the rearview mirror. Each former president takes on a special status out of office. They will most likely never again go before the voters, meaning that while they may be useful as party fundraisers, they will never again possess the incredible power they had while in the White House.
Many dig into humanitarian missions, write books and/or assume wise-man status as a statesman who can speak beyond the trivia of day-to-day politics and on behalf of national ideal. In the process, the public’s view of these ex-presidents softens. Sure, there are the hardcore dissenters who will never let go of bitterness accumulated over the years, but for most it is difficult (not to mention unhealthy) to hold a grudge that long.
“We love this country, and we do our best,” Obama told the audience in Dallas.
Of course, when these politicians were competing for the highest office in the land, they weren’t nearly so magnanimous. In the 1992 campaign, for example, George H.W. Bush referred to Clinton and his running mate Al Gore as “two bozos.” Seeking the presidency in 2008, Obama summed up George W. Bush’s two terms as “eight years of failed policies.”
The 44th president sang a different tune Thursday. Obama said that “every president gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders. And for me, that appreciation very much extends to President Bush.”
Perhaps the real lesson here is for Americans who feel so strongly about one side of the political equation or the other. If the guys at the top can learn to get along and respect each other’s differences, then maybe the rest of us should, as well.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.