At this relatively mellow moment in his life, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, wants nothing more than to be a good friend and neighbor. Standing on the front step of his red brick ranch house in suburban Dallas, sipping a cup of coffee, his black Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley at his feet, he comes to life when he spots the guy next door getting ready to leave for work. "Sleeping in this morning?" he yells across the lawn with a friendly grin. "That's where Barney made his deposit," he adds, referring to an amusing story in his new memoir, Decision Points, about being leader of the free world one day and scooping Barney's mess off the neighbor's front yard the next.
Aside from a few Secret Service agents and a big American flag hanging near the front curb, there is little that sets this house apart from the others on the cul-de-sac where the former president and first lady live — except maybe the beautifully landscaped putting green that George, who loves golf, built on the empty lot he owns next door. "Laura turned it into Versailles," he says. "I turned it into Augusta."
In his book, President Bush explains why and how he made some of the most momentous — and at times controversial — decisions in his life, including his decisions to marry Laura, to stop drinking, to run for president, to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to step in and prop up U.S. banks in 2008 to avert a global financial crisis. Of his political decisions, right or wrong, he writes, "On every one, I did what I believed was in the best interests of our country."
Since leaving office, President Bush, 64, has virtually disappeared from public view, refusing to criticize his successor or weigh in on political events, including the rise of the Tea Party movement. So I was curious about what he's been thinking and how he's feeling after two years of reflection. His passion for his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as well as for the Texas Rangers (the baseball team he once co-owned) and the Republican party are a given. Our conversation therefore turned to the other six big R's that define his postpresidential life: reinvention (a word he doesn't use), risk taking (credit his Texas upbringing), his controversial reputation ("There's nothing you can do about it"), regrets (he admits to a few), relationships (he feels " blessed"), and retirement (an "old-fashioned" term).
AARP The Magazine (ATM): At 40 you gave up drinking. By 50 you were governor of Texas. At 55 you were president. What do you do for an encore? How do you go from 100 mph to 10 mph?
President Bush: (Laughs.) First of all, I'm just experiencing what it means to go from 100 mph to 10. I was able to adjust initially by plunging right into the book and the Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University. And it turns out that there is a good way to make a living by giving speeches. So I'm in a transition period from presidency to active citizenry. I want to go 100 mph again — well, maybe not 100. Maybe 80. I want to live out principles that became a part of my life in my 40s, 50s, and 60s. One principle is the universality of freedom. I'm a freedom lover. And I feel a sense of obligation to our troops and their families because of the decisions that I made. So I'm involved with veterans.
ATM: Jimmy Carter does Habitat for Humanity. Bill Clinton has worked on global AIDS. Do you have any big plans like that?
President Bush: Yeah, I do. Promoting freedom around the world, particularly with women in the Middle East. Working on global disease. Working on accountability in public schools. And advocating for a free marketplace and an economic environment in which businesses can innovate and create jobs.
ATM: What do you think of the word "reinvention"?
President Bush: It's a word that doesn't fit into my vocabulary. Reinvention means you're kind of re-creating somebody. Well, I'm the same person, in terms of values. My priorities — my faith, my family, my friends, the values of personal responsibility and universality of freedom, and "to whom much is given, much is required" — haven't changed.
ATM: Are you comfortable moving into the role of elder statesman?
President Bush: I'm comfortable moving into the role of elder person. "Statesman" presumes I'm out there giving opinions all the time about things, and no, I'm not interested in opining on a lot of subjects. I really think it's important for presidents to exit the stage gracefully. "Statesman" gives the impression that every time a major issue comes up, I'll be popping off. And that's not what's going to happen.
ATM: The reason I ask is that today there's perceived to be a lot of obstructionism, a lot of extremism, in the Republican party. Is there any role that you'll play in bringing the party and the country together?
President Bush: I think by not participating in the current political debate, hopefully I'm sending a signal that will help set a tone. In other words, I think that not criticizing my successor is a statement unto itself, in terms of trying to create an environment where people are able to have a meaningful discussion or debate without trash talk.
Now, the problem is, there was plenty of trash talk during my presidency. A lot. (Laughs.) And I did not engage in it. But a lot of the reason why the debate is acrimonious is because of the 24/7 news cycles, blogs, and people being able to just throw something out there in order to get attention. And I'm not going be out there doing the same thing, trying to trash my successor or call attention to myself. I hope that's a positive contribution to the dialogue.
ATM: You've won just about everything you've set out to get in life. What are your secrets for winning? How much is family? luck? persistence?
President Bush: I think it's a combination of all of the above. First of all, I was very fortunate to have had a mother and father who loved me in spite of my failings. And in spite of the fact that at times I would challenge their authority. They provided unconditional love.
I was also fortunate that I was raised in a part of the world, West Texas, where individualism is strong. Where people can dream big dreams and achieve them. But where people also have a great sense of community. They cared about their neighbors. And those values, I think, have stood me well.
ATM: What else does it take to win?
President Bush: It's important to take risks. I'm talking about living life to its fullest. Running for governor of Texas against a very popular governor [incumbent Ann Richards] was deemed to be risky. Everybody thought I would lose. As I put in my book, my mother said, "You're going to lose!" (Laughs.)
I could have easily not run for president, and people would have come up and said, "Oh, man, you would have been a great president." Or even a lousy president. But I never would have known had I not chosen to run. Part of life is seizing the moment.
ATM: Your private image is often different from what is portrayed in public.
President Bush: (Smiles.) A number of people walk up to me and say, "You're much taller than I thought."
ATM: Do misperceptions ever sting?
President Bush: No — I mean, there's nothing you can do about it. I didn't fake it, and I didn't try to be something I wasn't. The key thing about life is to be true to a set of beliefs. And to be genuine. What mattered to me was that I didn't compromise my soul in order to try to achieve a kind of popularity. The only thing you can do is just live your life.
Look, I was popular at some times and not so popular at other times. But what mattered was trying to solve problems and deal with circumstances. Some of which I was able to anticipate. Some of which caught us totally by surprise.
In terms of what people think about me, the truth of the matter is, I guess I care to a certain extent, but not enough to try to go out in the public and plead for some kind of new understanding of me. I served. And now it's time for the new man to serve. I have zero desire to be in the limelight.
ATM: I think a lot of folks respected that you weren't armchair quarterbacking the new guy.
President Bush: Well, sometimes armchair quarterbacks are doing it to enhance their own image. I'm just not comfortable with that idea.
ATM: Your whole book is about being the decider, but detractors say, "Well, it was really Dick Cheney."
President Bush: If they read the book, they'll realize it wasn't Dick Cheney.
ATM: And what they say doesn't bug you?
President Bush: No. First of all, it wasn't true. So I didn't pay attention to that. And I don't think many other people did either. It's kind of the Washington, D.C., chattering class. They kind of talk amongst themselves. No, Dick Cheney was a fine vice president. Glad I picked him. I was pleased I picked him from the beginning, and I was pleased I picked him in the end. He didn't agree with me on every issue. I didn't expect him to. But when I made up my mind, he supported the decisions, as did everybody else in the administration. And frankly, if they couldn't support the decisions, it was time for them to move on.
ATM: You seem to be somebody who's remarkably free of second-guessing the past.
President Bush: In terms of trying to re-create an image, I think that's a waste of time. I have no interest in doing that. The decisions I made are done. And history will judge whether or not they were correct. There's no such thing as accurate short-term history. So I'm comfortable that I made the best decisions I possibly could.
ATM: In your book you say that Social Security reform was the single biggest missed opportunity.
President Bush: I regret that we weren't able to reform Social Security. The fact that we weren't able to when we had majorities in the House and the Senate I think reflected poorly on our political party. People expect those in authority to take on big problems and to solve them. We had an opportunity to reform Social Security in a way that would have protected people's benefits and created a solvent system. Younger workers would be confident that the money they were putting into the system would be available to them when they retired. It was a missed opportunity. I regret that.
ATM: The economic crisis didn't change your mind about that piece of the Social Security plan that would have put money into private accounts?
President Bush: That gave people the option to put money into private accounts. I still think that would be a meaningful option. The main thrust of the Social Security reform was to get the benefit structure in line with the realities of the Trust Funds.
That is to say, if you're a poor worker — this is for new workers coming into the workplace — your benefits will increase at the current rate of increase. If you're a wealthier worker, your benefits would increase at the rate of inflation. And those changes would affect positively the unfunded liabilities inherent in Social Security. I'm the only president who really put it out in the State of the Union and was very specific about how I felt we ought to do it.
ATM: Other regrets?
President Bush: I regret not finding Osama Bin Laden. I regret the fact that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction that we thought. I don't regret removing him from power.
President Bush: He could have easily reconstituted a program. He was a threat to peace before we went in. He'd have been a threat to peace had we left him in power. Oftentimes history judges you on the decisions you make. They don't judge you on what would have happened in the absence of a decision. I believe the world would have been a lot worse off if Saddam were in power today.
ATM: The public thought Colin Powell got a raw deal because he took the fall for the weapons of mass destruction and left with a black mark on his sterling career.
President Bush: I didn't feel that way. I thought he did a fine job as secretary of state. I think the key anecdote in the book is when Colin and I were discussing Iraq. Colin was upstairs in the Treaty Room, in the residence. And he talks about his concerns about the use of military in Iraq. And I said I felt the same concerns, but it might be that we have to use it. In which case, he said, "I support you."
ATM: Your chapter on Afghanistan is fascinating. But how do you feel when things that seem to be a win start looking like a long shot?
President Bush: This is a very difficult assignment for the United States, to hang in there and help this young democracy survive. Just like we did in Japan, in South Korea. Just like is happening in Iraq. Laura and I feel very strongly that if the United States were to leave, Afghan women would suffer. And we think it is in our nation's interest that Afghan women — or any women around the world — not suffer.
ATM: Is there a point at which, if it becomes completely unwinnable — ?
President Bush: Well, I don't know how you can say that: something that is completely unwinnable. I mean, it becomes unwinnable if we decide to leave.
ATM: And if we stay, you think it's possible that we could make a difference.
President Bush: I believe that people want to be free. And that we face an enemy that murders innocent people to try to shake our psychology to get us to leave. They're very patient, and they're tough. They want us to pull out so that they can impose their ideology. I believe that democracy will prevail, so long as the United States stays with these young democracies to help them. And when it does, it'll be transformative. It will help other societies realize the benefits of freedom. Nothing's as big as that, in terms of peace.
ATM: You seem like a really happy guy most of the time.
President Bush: I am. I am that guy.
ATM: Is there a secret to being happy?
President Bush: Look, I try to live a faith-filled life. I'm a believer. I recognize I am essentially a failed human being in the sense that I can't possibly live up to the expectations of an Almighty. On the other hand, I try to. I'm joyful in my religious belief.
ATM: When your conversion happened, did it make you a happier person?
President Bush: Well, first of all, it's not a moment. It's a walk. It's a continual journey. I think once you recognize the unconditional love of an Almighty, it tends to put joy in your heart. Which in my case, it did.
ATM: What's the secret to your strong marriage?
President Bush: It starts with being married to a remarkable person. And I am. I jokingly say that I stood up in front of a crowd once and said, "Laura's the greatest first lady ever," and then realized my mother was in the audience. But I meant it when I said she was the greatest first lady ever. Because she viewed the presidency and being first lady as an opportunity to improve people's lives. It wasn't a burden. She put her heart and soul into the experience, just like I did. So we had a shared experience. That makes a good marriage better. In many ways our marriage is great because she has made it great.
ATM: When people retire, they can start getting on each other's nerves.
President Bush: We spend less time with each other now than we did during the presidency. When you're president, you're usually out and back in the same day — at least I was. I just came from a trip to the Middle East last week, where I was gone for five nights, and when I left, Laura was out of town. And when I came back she was gone, so we had a pretty good chunk of time where we didn't see each other. My point is that she's busy and I'm busy, which makes our marriage not only interesting but exciting. It's exciting for me to see her busy and out there enjoying what she's doing. But we always make time to be with each other as well.
ATM: What about the empty nest? Your girls are gone.…
President Bush: I'm excited for my little girls. When they left the nest, I was excited because they were winging their way into life. I think for Laura it was kind of a sense of remorse because she is very close to the girls. They're busy little souls, and so we don't see them as much as we'd like to. But Laura talks to them all the time.
ATM: Do you look forward to the role of grandpa?
President Bush: I do, and I'm a little disappointed that hasn't happened yet. But the more disappointment I show, the less likely it is things are going to happen on the timetable I want.
ATM: You were the only president to have both parents alive when you left office. Do you worry about them?
President Bush: I think I'm the only president other than John Kennedy who had both parents alive during the presidency. I'm not that worried about them right now because they are happy people. I'm pleased that in their later years, in spite of physical ailments, they're upbeat.
ATM: How do you feel about retirement?
President Bush: First of all, you never retire. At least I don't retire. I'm playing golf. I ride my mountain bike. A lot. I think it's very important for me and other people my age to continue to exercise. I'm going to baseball games. I'm also combining my love of outdoors with my desire to help others. I teamed up with the PGA of America to help promote a weekend of golf that raises scholarship money for kids who lost a parent or whose parent was severely wounded in combat.
My advice to seniors — and I consider myself one — is to first and foremost take care of your body. Secondly, find something where you could say, "I'm helping somebody else." And it may be just helping raise a grandkid. Or teaching a child to read — one child to read.
ATM: Having purpose.
President Bush: Yeah. Having purpose. I had purpose during my presidency, and I've got purpose after my presidency.
ATM: Do you view your parents as role models for you in retirement?
President Bush: Well, hopefully I'm not a grumpy old guy sitting in the corner, yelling at people and demanding things. I hope I'm as graceful and gracious as they are. It's hard for me to project how I'm gonna be if I make it to 86.
ATM: What else would you love to do?
President Bush: I'm just beginning to live the next chapter of my life. In other words, politics — being governor and president — is not the end of my life. It's a chapter. Check back with me after I've had a little more time to live out this chapter.
ATM: Any lessons for young people?
President Bush: People who plan their life when they're 18 years old and say, "This is my life plan," would generally be surprised and maybe disappointed. I think you ought to be open-minded as to where life takes you. One of the things I learned as president is that your life is just not going to unfold the way you want it to. There will be surprises, challenges, and therefore the question is how you deal with the unexpected.
ATM: Are you surprised by the way your life turned out?
President Bush: I am, yes. If I look back to when I was 20 and somebody said you'd be president, I would have said no way. And I ended up being the 43rd president of the United States. It was an awesome experience, and I'm glad I did it. And I've written a book that hopefully will give people a sense of what it was like. I hope my friends read it and say, "Now I understand." I hope my detractors read it and say, "Well, I better understand." In terms of how I am viewed, I'm comfortable with how I lived my life as the president.