WASHINGTON — George W. Bush was called a lot of names in the dying days of his presidency, but classy wasn’t often one of the epithets thrown his way.
But ever since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, one of the most criticized presidents in American history has been the epitome of post-presidential decorum. Bush has steadfastly refused to publicly criticize his successor, allowing Obama to do his job and revel in the odd moment of presidential glory.
Thursday’s visit to Ground Zero to mark Osama bin Laden’s death could be another one of those occasions.
Bush declined Obama’s invitation to accompany him to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida that felled the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York.
“He appreciated the invite, but has chosen in his post-presidency to remain largely out of the spotlight,” Bush spokesman David Sherzer said.
“He continues to celebrate with Americans this important victory in the war on terror.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the “invitation was last minute, of course, and we completely understand that he is not able to attend.”
Obama will meet with families of 9-11 victims and lay a wreath at Ground Zero. The spot has been transformed into a rallying site since Sunday, when Americans learned that U.S. forces finally took out bin Laden.
The mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks was killed in a raid in Pakistan, where it was already early Monday morning.
News of Bush’s decision not to travel to New York with Obama had barely broken when theories abounded about why he declined.
Was he angry that Obama failed to give him some credit in his White House announcement on Sunday night about bin Laden’s death? Is it true that the two men have a chilly relationship, and that Bush privately resents Obama’s victory?
Not likely, says a longtime political observer in Texas, where Bush is now enjoying his retirement.
“Bush has made a point of staying out of the spotlight since he left the presidency,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Wednesday.
“One of the reasons was just abject shock at the state of his administration in the end, mired in two unpopular wars and facing an economic collapse. I think he probably believed accurately that in the immediate wake of his presidency, the less Americans saw of him, the better.”
Bush prefers to believe that historians might treat him with more kindness than current-day commentators, Jillson added.
“He seems to have a sense that there just isn’t much he could do short-term to change people’s minds about his decisions and his presidency, but that history would perhaps judge him less harshly.”
And yet bin Laden’s demise is a triumph the Bush administration failed to achieve. U.S. forces came enticingly close, but failed, to capture bin Laden in late 2001 in the mountains near Tora Bora in Afghanistan.
Obama’s success comes despite Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, vehemently criticizing the president ever since his inauguration, accusing him of being soft on terror and putting American lives at risk. Cheney’s attacks on the president reportedly didn’t sit well with Bush, who was said to have privately complained that they were unstatesmanlike.
Obama, however, hasn’t always returned the favour in terms of not criticizing Bush. On national security issues, for example, the president was sharply critical of Bush for neglecting the hunt for bin Laden in favour of invading Iraq in 2003.
And yet by most accounts Obama and Bush have a congenial relationship. They talk every few months, usually when the new president is giving his predecessor a head’s up about relevant White House decisions.
Obama called the former president, for example, before announcing he was withdrawing troops from Iraq last year. He called him again on Sunday shortly after bin Laden’s death to tell him the news.
While they won’t appear together on Thursday, it’s expected both men will be on hand at the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of 9-11 at Ground Zero — uniting the president who first called for Osama “dead or alive” with the president who gave the green light for Navy SEALs to take the terrorist down in the raid on a Pakistani mansion.
Presidents and their predecessors aren’t usually overly chummy.
Historians say Dwight D. Eisenhower barely spoke to Harry S. Truman. Franklin D. Roosevelt. meantime, came close to banning Herbert Hoover from the White House after Hoover spent years maligning him and his “New Deal” policies.
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had little contact in the early months of Bush’s presidency, until 9-11, when the White House dispatched a military plane to fly Clinton home from Australia, where he was travelling.
Jillson said he doubts there’s any serious animosity between Obama and Bush. Rather, he said, Bush is someone who’s come to value his years out of the spotlight and so is happy to skip out on Thursday’s visit.
“By all accounts, he’s really revelling in his privacy, and unwilling to sacrifice it even on an occasion where he might get some positive press,” he said.
Other Bush administration officials, meantime, have been front and centre crediting their former boss for laying the groundwork for bin Laden’s demise.
“It was also important that President Bush put in place counter-terrorism strategies and policies, efforts that the military and intelligence have been making over the years,” former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said.
“To work together better to achieve that kind of level of integration didn’t happen yesterday. This is something that has been happening for quite a long time.”