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Bush, Obama, and the Power of Silence

By Michael Stubel

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nearly five years after leaving the White House as one of the most polarizing presidents in American history, George W. Bush leads a relatively quiet life in Dallas. Save for private speeches or the occasional dedication, the former president devotes much of his energy to the work of the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center that focuses on global health, education reform, and economic growth. Although his legacy has been considered anew in recent weeks—the Iraq War has cast a long shadow over the ongoing debate about possible intervention in Syria, while the fifth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ fall has sparked much reflection on the government’s consequential decisions at the height of the financial crisis—Bush’s voice remains absent from the political arena. “I’m happy to be out of the limelight. I truly am,” he told USA TODAY in an interview earlier this year.

Addressing revelations of the National Security Agency’s data mining programs in a July interview with CNN, President Bush refused to criticize President Barack Obama. “I don’t think it does any good,” President Bush said. “It’s a hard job. He’s got plenty on his agenda. It’s difficult. A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder.” Whether you approve or disapprove of the programs themselves, it’s worth commending a man with no elections left to run for his restraint and the deference he shows to the office of the presidency. That might sound like a low bar to clear to warrant praise, but today’s environment of 24/7 punditry and entrenched polarization makes it that much more impressive. With every talking head and self-described expert all too eager to broadcast their two cents, a former president capable of reaching an enormous audience has set down his microphone to avoid inflaming an already scorched political terrain.

In fact, in maintaining a low profile after departing Washington, President Bush is continuing a long tradition. As Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs described in their book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, only ex-presidents can truly understand and relate to the perilous decisions facing the sitting president. The common link has helped to forge meaningful collaborations and lasting relationships among the brotherhood of presidents. President Harry Truman called on Herbert Hoover to aid efforts to combat famine in post-World War II Europe and later enlisted the former president to lead a reorganization of the Executive Branch. President John F. Kennedy hosted Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David to review foreign policy strategy in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. After facing off in the heated 1992 election, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton worked together on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and have built a close friendship. The countless stories are a testament to the shared respect each president has for the enormity of the office and its burdens.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will recruit President Bush for an active role in some government initiative or in response to a humanitarian crisis. Despite memories of a 2008 election in which the choice was painted as a referendum on President Bush’s record, there’s no reason that the two men couldn’t rise above their history as their predecessors have done before them. At the very least, we can be sure that President Obama has taken note of President Bush’s political silence and appreciates the reprieve amid near-constant partisan chatter.

KEYWORDS: NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY, POLITICAL POLARIZATION, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER, PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, WORLD WAR II