What has the most unpopular US President of all time been doing during his first year of retirement? Telling bad jokes – and defending his reputation, discovers Alex Hannaford in Texas
George W Bush is clearly enjoying himself. Alone on the stage, mic in hand, he tells a story about a moment earlier this year when he was walking his dog, Barney, around the Dallas suburb he now calls home. "I wanted to say hello to my neighbours," says Bush, "because I was worried we'd inconvenienced them when word was out that George Bush was moving where they lived. I hadn't walked in a neighbourhood in eight years. Ain't that interesting? Barney had never walked in a neighbourhood either ... he only knew the lawn of the White House; he only knew Crawford, Texas, he only knew Camp David."
He decided to go up to a neighbour and say hello, Bush tells us. But just as he goes to shake the neighbour's hand, Bush realises that he still has a plastic poop bag covering his hand like a glove.
The image of Dubya holding a poop-scoop mitt settles on the audience who have come to see him speak at a stadium in San Antonio, Texas. Then he launches into another anecdote – an old favourite about the time Laura asked him to go out and buy a battery from the local hardware store and someone asked whether anyone had ever told him he looked just like the former President. It happens all the time, he'd replied. "The guy then takes a couple of steps away then turns round and says, 'That must make you mad'."
He soaks up the applause from his position on a stage in the centre of the stadium. I can see Bush fairly clearly from my seat, although his voice is occasionally drowned out, not just by the cheers of the crowd, but by four middle-aged women who are yelling "war criminal" at him at the top of their lungs. He can't hear them though, and after a while they're escorted out of the venue by security guards. Bush looks at ease with this crowd as he strides from one corner to the other. He is wearing a sharp grey suit, and smiles regularly as he regales us, a mostly adoring audience, with tales of how, at 63, he is now adjusting to life as a 'regular guy'.
This is the 'Get Motivated' business seminar, and Bush is top billing to a host of other speakers. Around 15,000 people have paid just $10 each, in some cases less, to be here. With tactical scheduling, Bush is one of the last on stage – at around 3pm. Most of us have been here since 6.45am. Motivational talks have been the hallmark of Bush's retirement (he is reported to charge a fee of $150,000, or around £92,000, for each appearance) – which so far hasn't amounted to much more than a gentle schedule of low-key appearances in the safety of the South.
His new life isn't just a far cry from the Oval Office, it's a world apart from the activities of other former Presidents, including his father (the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, for example, raised over $130m for victims of the hurricane).
So is Bush Jr content with his lot on the can't-complain trail? Two weeks before he left office, he told Fox News he was looking forward to going back to Texas. "I love Texas," he said. "I love my wife. And you know, I'm excited about the next chapter in my life."
After what Norman Ornstein, writing in the International Herald Tribune, described as a "gentlemanly-goodbye exit" from the White House in January ("presidential transitions are always difficult, but beginning well before the election, Bush ... removed many of the usual obstacles, fostering co-operation and harmony"), Bush and the former First Lady moved into a modest house in a Dallas suburb and promptly disappeared. Has the world's most notorious Texan become the Lone Lounger?
Daria Place is a cul-de-sac in the pleasant Preston Hollow neighbourhood north of Dallas. The Bushes' single-storey 8,500 sq ft house apparently sits on an acre plot here, and was bought by the couple for $2.7m. Just before the Bushes arrived in January, Dallas City Council approved their request to erect a security gate at the junction of nearby Meaders Lane – the only access to Daria Place.
Today, pink pansies sit in a little flower garden beside the gate, and if you look carefully you can see a discreet camera positioned to one side of the entrance. But apart from the new gate, there's really nothing special about Daria Place or its adjoining streets. Actually, it's all fairly drab by Dallas standards. Modest single-storey bungalows stand side-by-side with more elaborate Tuscan-style villas (the really big mansions are elsewhere in Preston Hollow). It just looks like any other middle-class Dallas street. It's quiet too. Leaves clutter the gutters of houses in the next street, and a couple of children play on a small blue scooter outside their home.
The Bushes' home is close to a busy tollway and Dallas Love Field airport, so travel is easy. He has been spotted mountain biking (followed by a Secret Service detail) in Rochester Park a few miles up the road, and just south is the Southern Methodist University (SMU) where his Presidential Library will be built. Beyond that is the Highland Park United Methodist Church which he and Laura occasionally attend. Until recently the Dallas Police Department had posted an officer outside their house, but not any longer: budget cuts have meant the Bushes have to rely solely on Secret Service protection now.
Do Americans prefer their former Presidents to maintain a presence on the world stage, or, like Gerald Ford, do they expect them to just play golf in "retirement"?
Leaving office with a presidential approval rating of 22 per cent – the lowest in 60 years – two unfinished wars and the deepest recession since the Great Depression is no excuse for laziness.
Nixon, whose presidency was unceremoniously ended by Watergate, worked hard at rehabilitating himself for years into his retirement, writing books and counselling on foreign policy issues that commentators say were regarded by parties on both sides of the divide as being reasoned and thorough. It took time, but Nixon proved it could be done.
When Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 he launched into an ambitious second career attempting to broker peace in the Middle East, monitoring elections and helping to bring about conflict resolution. His Carter Centre worked at bringing agricultural self-sufficiency to sub-Saharan Africa, while its health programmes in Africa and Asia have helped try to eradicate a parasite afflicting 10 million people, also addressing diseases such as river blindness and trachoma.
Bill's Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) was set up in 2005 to help eradicate poverty, combat the spread of AIDS, curb childhood obesity and fight global warming.
Sure, George W Bush will have his presidential library for posterity, in a tradition which began in 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and public documents to the federal government, and which has now become a network of repositories for preserving all presidential papers.
Bush has said publicly that he wants to use his George W Bush Institute – part of the George W Bush Presidential Centre in Dallas, which will include his archives and library – to "promote human freedom" and search for "practical solutions to important public policy problems, guided by the principles of freedom, responsibility, opportunity and compassion."
But although Bush tried to make democracy a theme of his presidency (in his 2005 inaugural address he said "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"), he has very little credibility on the issues of freedom, opportunity and compassion.
"It may be a genuine aspiration, but I don't know how he can do it," says Jacob Weisberg, journalist and author of The Bush Tragedy. Bush is simply paying lip service to the tradition of a post-office public role, says Weisberg.
"There's no single template for an ex-President. I think Carter redefined the role in a significant way and that he has been a tremendously effective ex-President – in a lot of ways a much more successful ex-President than President. But he has set a fairly high bar. Clinton, while not following it to the letter, has tried to emulate Carter's best qualities. And I think the first Bush did, too, to some extent, with his international humanitarian work."
But since he left office on 20 January, humanitarian work hasn't taken up too much of Bush's schedule. Just one week after walking out of the White House, he and Laura went to a women's basketball game between Baylor and Oklahoma in Waco, where he received a "prolonged standing ovation" from fans.
In February, he paid a surprise visit to 30 students at a political science class at the Southern Methodist University, or SMU, in Dallas. When he walked in "the students applauded but you could tell they were just shocked", said SMU President R. Gerald Turner.
So what has he been doing? In March it was announced that Bush would be writing his memoirs. Publishers Crown, part of the Random House group, paid a reported $7m ($5m less than Clinton's advance for My Life) for a book entitled Decision Points, which is scheduled to launch at the end of 2010.
Instead of telling his life-story, Bush will concentrate on explaining approximately a dozen choices he has made throughout his life – from the decision to quit drinking to sending troops to Iraq. "I want people to understand the environment in which I was making decisions," he told journalists earlier this year. "I want people to get a sense of how decisions were made, and I want people to understand the options that were placed before me."
But it is this year's schedule of low-key ex-presidential glad-handing that has raised eyebrows. This summer Bush and the former First Lady surprised residents of the small town of Woodward, Oklahoma by turning up to their 4th July celebrations. "It's nice of you to give a retired guy something to do," he told them. Johnny McMahon, editor of the local Woodward News tells me the couple was well-received. "He met a few dignitaries in town. He's very popular here. He gave a fine speech but it wasn't political – it was more about the 4th July. It's an extremely conservative area."
Then, in October, Bush gave the keynote address at the "Celebrators" conference in Sevierville, Tennessee – an evangelical Christian outreach event for "seniors" organised by Phil Waldrep Ministries. "Around 8,500 people came and it was sold out," Waldrep, a Southern Baptist evangelist, says. "We could have had 20,000, but that was all the facility would hold."
Waldrep says Bush didn't give a political speech but that it was a "patriotic event celebrating our country and its war veterans". Bush told attendees about pictures he had hanging in the Oval Office, and also most of the usual anecdotes he likes to tout around the speaking circuit.
"He was extremely well-received," Waldrep says. "Particularly when he talked about his love of our country and for his mum and dad. I had the opportunity to spend some time with him privately beforehand. He's a very engaging, gracious man. This is probably a phrase from the American South, but we like to say, 'He's very down to earth'."
When Bush left office he said he wasn't going to criticise incoming President Barack Obama. "He deserves my silence," he told guests at a private event in Calgary in March. But some say that the attacks on his policies from the Obama administration have been relentless (Obama recently told a group of Democratic donors, "I don't mind cleaning up the mess that some other folks made, but while I'm there mopping the floor I don't want someone saying 'You're not mopping fast enough'"), and that it's as if Bush no longer cares.
"I give him credit for being true to his word and butting out – but is it indifference?" Jacob Weisberg asks. "There is something of a tradition of not criticising your successors, but it's a tattered tradition. And he has taken going silent on world affairs to the extreme. He has so vanished from the scene that you could think, boy, he shouldn't have been there in the first place, that he is simply not engaged in these subjects."
Weisberg wonders whether he is saving it for his memoirs. "Bush's genius has been setting expectations low. I think Sarah Palin may have helped him out here – the bar has just dropped to the basement."
According to Bruce Bartlett, former domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a US Treasury official under George Bush senior, Bush Jr has left the attacks on Obama to his former Vice President, Dick Cheney.
"I can't help but notice that Cheney has more than filled the gap in terms of making obnoxious and irresponsible statements about the current administration's foreign policy," Bartlett says. "Bush may simply feel he has nothing to add to what Cheney is saying."
Bartlett suggests that Bush may be biding his time, and that his silence so far will pay off. "It may be that the expectations for Bush are so low that as long as he can walk and chew gum at the same time, he may find some extremely modest little thing to do in the future that people will say, 'Oh, he wasn't such a bad guy after all'."
Other commentators believe that Bush does care about criticism of his presidential record, but is biting his tongue. Brian Roberts, a politics professor at the University of Texas, describes attacks on the Bush by the Obama administration as "gratuitous".
"They're very aggressively pointing to Bush administration policies – one after the other – as being the root of all evil, and Bush hasn't risen to the bait. If he was to engage that agenda it would not serve the country well – and it wouldn't be becoming of a former President. But Cheney has – and he's gone beyond in many instances.
Roberts points to the library project as the cornerstone of Bush's fightback. "Presidential libraries often have public policy schools appended to them and tend to be the focus of post- presidential fundraising. One of the things that Bush W is doing is aggressively seeking that bricks-and-mortar legacy that other Presidents have. He's not coming out of the gate and launching some Carter-like human rights initiative. As with Clinton or his father or Reagan, he's getting the library infrastructure in place because that becomes the physical legacy of the presidency and the forum for setting the record straight – or at least setting it in a certain way."
What do Bush's own people say about his post-presidency plans? In a telephone call, his spokesman David Sherzer tells me that Bush believes he must allow his successor to govern and not "weigh in on that".
"The role of a former President and former Vice President – or anyone else who served in the administration – is vastly different. He appreciates [former] Vice President Cheney's service very much and he appreciates him and his strong advocacies of the policies he implemented," says Sherzer.
As for retirement, Sherzer says Bush is "done with politics but not with policy. He's a young man and feels like he has a lot of energy left. He and Mrs Bush are excited about using the Institute as a force for peace, to promote human freedom, global health, accountability in education and economic growth.
"He's excited about continuing to promote these things at a policy institute in the heartland of America." Sherzer points out that since 20 January, Bush has actually given 30 speeches (including the motivational seminar in San Antonio), not only in the US but in India, Korea, China and Japan. In Delhi he told an annual gathering of business leaders the hardware-store anecdote – again – and flew to Korea to give a speech on Seoul-Washington relations at the World Knowledge Forum. "He enjoys sharing reflections from his presidency, his decision-making and management style," Sherzer says.
And for the record, says his spokesman, Bush is 5/6ths of the way through his book ("he's one of the most disciplined people you'd ever meet") and works on it every day – not, Sherzer adds, with a ghost writer, but with a team of researchers and fact-checkers.
As for the anecdotes he likes to relay in his paid speeches, he apparently really did go to the hardware store – Laura sent him out to buy a battery as they'd just moved into their house the day before. He took his secret service protection because, Sherzer says, "he will never regain his anonymity, but he has had a great opportunity to become part of the Dallas community."
Laura too has been busy speaking at conferences around the country. "And she is very involved leading the women's initiative at the presidential centre. They both believe that women will be at the forefront of freedom in the Middle East," Sherzer says. "She has been involved in designing the library. And she's working on her own book, due out in the spring."
I ask if Bush is still friends with anyone from his administration. "He is in touch with a lot of different folks," Sherzer says. "He doesn't miss being President but he misses the team – he sees Condi Rice, Don Evans [former Secretary of Commerce], Josh Bolten [former White House Chief of Staff] still."
On stage at the San Antonio arena, Bush is half-way through his 30-minute speech. "I sat behind a desk given to the US by Queen Victoria," he tells a crowd that is now feeding from his hand. "Franklin Roosevelt used that desk. He was in a wheelchair. 'Course, I'm the guy who ate the pretzel and passed out," he jokes, referring to the 2002 incident. "Everyone knows I ate the pretzel, and hardly anyone knew Roosevelt was in a wheelchair."
There are lots of soldiers here today, in full uniform, and he plays up to them and this largely Republican crowd (to be fair to Bush, he and Laura recently attended Fort Hood in Texas to speak to those injured in the shooting last month, but told senior army officials they wanted the visit to remain private and didn't want the media there). He says it dawned on him shortly after 9/11 that the busts he had chosen to stand in the Oval Office, of Churchill, Eisenhower and Lincoln, were all wartime Presidents.
"I didn't put them in there because they were wartime leaders," he says. "When I campaigned I never said 'Elect me, I look forward to being a wartime leader'. It's the worst thing a President ought to be, and it's the last choice of a President to put his troops into harm's way. But I made the decision that the best way to protect the country from cold-blooded killers was to go on the offensive, stay on the offensive and bring them to justice before they hurt us again."
If anybody here this afternoon remains ambivalent, a reference to his Southern roots and a touch of homespun wisdom should seal the deal. "I came to Washington with a set of values, many of which I learned here in Texas," Bush goes on. "And I wanted people to understand I wasn't going to change those values. The temptation in life is to try to be the popular guy, but the important thing is to look in the mirror and be proud of what you see."
The stadium erupts with whooping and applause. Some people are standing. "It wasn't popular," Bush says. "But I believe it was right."
It seems Bush is defending his record in retirement – but at home, in front of crowds of adoring fans. On one politics blog, a commenter (presumably someone who had been in the audience at one of his many speeches and heard the much-repeated dog-walking anecdote) wrote: "I'm sure the former President is much more relaxed in his speaking style now that the pressure's off. We aren't worried about his 'faux poos' reflecting on our national image, and neither is he." Quite.