A Visit with 43, Part I

At the Bush Center on February 12, 2016 (Grant Miller/The Bush Center)
George W. Bush expounds on his theme: freedom

Editor’s Note: In our March 14 issue, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger: “43 and His Theme: A visit with George W. Bush.” Starting today, the author expands in his Impromptus.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center sits on the campus of Southern Methodist University, here in Dallas, Texas. The center includes a library, a museum, and an institute (“the non-partisan, public-policy arm of the Bush Center”).

There is also a restaurant — Café 43 — which includes some favorites of the 43rd president, and of his wife, Laura.

‐As in the Bush 43 presidency itself, the accent here is on freedom, democracy, and human rights. The center’s signature feature, architecturally, is Freedom Hall.

When you enter the center, there is an inscription, taken from an address that Bush gave in November 2003, over in London: “We believe in open societies ordered by moral conviction. We believe in private markets, humanized by compassionate government. We believe in economies that reward effort, communities that protect the weak, and the duty of nations to respect the dignity and the rights of all.”

‐Also at the entrance, names of donors are inscribed on a wall. These include some of the first families of American conservative philanthropy: the DeVoses, for example, and the Basses.

There is also the government of Saudi Arabia. And of the UAE. And so on. This makes me wince, because, of course, their human-rights violations are legion and ghastly.

We will discuss this subject later on …

‐What especially offends my right-wing heart is to see that the Bush Center has received a “Climate Hero Award.” It came from the hands of Senator Barbara Boxer, no less. Apparently, the center is a model of environmental-friendliness.

I will forgive it.

‐On this morning, some 70 Lost Boys are having a special tour. These are men who were orphaned in the Second Sudanese Civil War. To put it briefly, some 20,000 children walked more than a thousand miles, facing every danger, to reach a refugee camp. Those who managed to survive were dubbed “Lost Boys.”

There was a handful of girls among them. And there are a few “Lost Girls” here at the Bush Center today.

‐The Lost Boys and Girls have the same birthday: January 1. That’s the birthday they were assigned when they came to America. Do they know their actual birthdates? I’m not sure, but I doubt it.

‐On the whole, they make classic immigrant stories — success stories. I hear a few, and am gladdened by them.

‐The group is in a festive mood. They are robustly pro-Bush — for he made the Sudanese civil war a focus of his concern.

After the tour, the Lost Boys and Girls have breakfast. And after breakfast, it’s time for a group photo. “Taller people in the back, please,” says the photographer. The room breaks into laughter. “That might be everybody!” someone says. We are talking about East Africans.

‐Once the group is assembled, a man strides into the room. “Are there any Lost Boys and Girls here?” It’s Bush. They erupt in cheers — jubilation — and Bush wades into them: hugging, joshing, beaming. He’s in his element. The charisma is turned on full blast.

Seeing Bush, you’re reminded:  Not for nothing did he win two gubernatorial elections and two presidentials.

‐He is with Mrs. Bush, and they take their place at the center of the group, for photos. Glancing at the people behind him, with their impressive height, Bush quips, “We’re not going to block you.”

Once the photos are taken, the former president makes some remarks and fields some questions. He opens with, “Laura and I appreciate your courage and perseverance. We can learn lessons from people who come from difficult circumstances.” The Lost Boys can remind Americans how lucky we are, Bush says. They can also remind us that “there’s evil in the world.”

At this, the Lost Boys nod, laugh, and clap. (They laugh as if to say, “Yeah, you got that right.”)

Bush continues, “But you also remind us that evil can be overcome.”

Hitting his favorite theme, he says, “Human dignity is universal, and so is freedom.” The crowd nods and says, “Yes, yes.” Bush expands: “There is a God, and a gift of the Almighty to everybody — not just Methodists — is freedom.”

Chuckles all around. Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church.

‐One of the men tells the former president that his nickname is “Bush.” “You are the Bush of America, I am the Bush of Africa.” It turns out he is not named for the 43rd president.  He got the name because he was born in the bush, not in a hospital.

Whatever the case, says the ex-president, “I’m happy to claim you as a family member.”

‐The Lost Boys come from southern Sudan. And South Sudan is a new country, just five years old. These Sudanese Americans can help that country, in various ways, notes Bush. The values they support and exemplify are not American values. Rather, they are universal values. Freedom, respect for life, and all that jazz.

‐One woman tells Bush that it’s hard to be in a foreign country, or an adoptive country, without family — without family from back home. Bush says, gently but forthrightly, that she is not the first to leave family behind, or to be without family. This has been true of immigrants to America for many generations.

Yet “it’s easy for me to say, because I’m comfortable.” That’s a typical Bush touch, in my opinion.

‐He stresses the need for a little patience with countries such as South Sudan. Countries need time to evolve. “Condi Rice’s ancestors were enslaved here for a hundred years.”

‐After Bush says goodbye to the Lost Boys, he and I retreat to his office upstairs. He moves very fast. On the way, he points out a painting of his — a painting that he himself did. It’s called — have I gotten this right? — “Homeland Security.”

Bush is doing a lot of painting these days. It seems more than a hobby — almost an occupation. He’s good at it, too. Dedicated to it, serious about it, and good at it.

As we’re sitting down, I say, “May I turn on a tape recorder?” He says, “I wish you would.” And off we go. For an hour or so, we’ll talk about sundry matters, most of them related to his “freedom agenda,” both during his presidency and in this post-presidency.

‐“That was a sweet event,” he says, referring to the Lost Boys. I say that there were a lot of nodding heads as he was talking. A lot of agreement. “Because they know it,” Bush says. “They’ve lived that. This is a group of people who escaped danger. Deep in their soul was a desire to be free of thuggery, free of brutality, free of marauding bands.”

‐“As you recall,” Bush says, with a little chuckle, “I’m a big believer in the transformative power of freedom. There is this interesting skepticism about that concept that surprised me. Maybe it’s because of politics, I don’t know, but anyway …”

‐He points out that he has had Shin Dong-hyuk here at the center. This is the North Korean who told his story in Escape from Camp 14. He has also had Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who escaped China.

I mention that, during his presidency, he saw Chol-hwan Kang at least twice. This is the great North Korean who wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.

“Well, Kissinger said, ‘You need to read this book.’” So the president did, and he encouraged all those around him, in foreign-policy jobs, to read it.

Dr. Kissinger recommended that book? The great Realpolitiker? Huh. I’m impressed.

In any event, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll see you tomorrow for Part II.

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