Harding Magazine Spring 2010

An evening with the 43rd president

By Jennifer Hannigan, photography by Jeff Montgomery

BushSpeaking to a capacity audience in Benson Auditorium with another crowd gathered in Administration Auditorium watching a live feed, former president George W. Bush shared fond memories and tough moments of his time in office April 22. With his signature smirk and Texas drawl, he offered a glimpse into his life as president.

Even the former leader of the free world has to do housework: I’m lying on the couch in Crawford, Texas. I’ve just ended the presidency. Laura walks in. And I say, “Free at last!” She says, “You’re free alright. You are now free to do the dishes.” I said, “Baby, you’re now talking to the former president of the United States.” She says, “Consider it your new domestic policy agenda.”

Counteracting hopelessness: [After Sept. 11] we faced a group of fanatics who will kill you — us— to advance ideology based upon hate. The only way that somebody with such a backward point of view can recruit is to find hopeless people. … Ultimately, the way to defeat that point of view is to spread an alternative ideology, and there is nothing more beautiful and nothing more hopeful than a society based upon freedom, and that’s democracy.

Once an enemy, now an ally: One of the great relationships during my presidency was that of Japanese Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi. After Sept. 11, I get a phone call from Koizumi, and he says, “Mr. President, Japan looks forward to working with the United States to enhance our mutual security and spread freedom as the alternative to haters.” What makes the conversation even more profound is that 60 years earlier my dad fought the Japanese. I found it incredibly ironic that the fathers fought, and the sons worked to enhance mutual security.

“Do unto others …”: I operated on the principle that all human life is precious, and a society that protects the most vulnerable among us is a noble society.

Time in Rwanda: If 50 kids in Africa, many of whom lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, can hear “God is good,” and can say “All the time,” surely those of us who live in the most blessed nation ever can say, “All the time!”

#41: I would not be standing here as a former president without the unconditional love of President George H. W. Bush. It’s risky to run for president. You could run and lose and say, “Oh, what a pathetic candidate.” Or you could run and win and say, “Oh, what a pathetic president.” But, you know what? It doesn’t matter if you have the unconditional love of someone you love and admire.

Influential presidents: To the left side of the door for the formal entry into the Oval Office, it is tradition for the president to put a picture of his most influential president. I had a conflict … I tell people that 41’s portrait was in my heart, and I put the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, on the wall.

Tough moments: One of the things I did is I met a lot of the families of the fallen … There’s nothing tougher than to meet with family members whose son or daughter died as a result of a decision I made.

Most missed: There is one thing about the presidency that I miss, and that’s being commander in chief. It is an awesome experience to look at young men and women who have volunteered to our nation in a time of danger and have done so selflessly and in the best spirit of patriotism in America.

Religion and politics: I think it’s really important for the United States of America never to lose the vision that we can worship any way we want to in America. You can be a Jew, Christian, Muslim, nothing, and you’re equal. That is a vital freedom, an essential freedom, to the future of this country.

Power of prayer: When I was 21 years old if someone had said, “Does prayer matter to you?” I’d say, “Forget it. I don’t need it.” At 30, “Who needs prayer? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At age 63, I can testify that the prayers of total strangers provided incredible strength and incredible calmness during my presidency. Some days were rough, other days were good, but every day was joyous, and I think it’s because of the prayers of the people of the United States of America.

“The office of the president is more important than the occupant.” … The job was making tough decisions. Some of them I could anticipate; some of them just came suddenly. But there was another job, and that is to strengthen the institution, to bring honor to the office, and that’s what I tried to do for eight glorious years as your president. Thanks for having me.

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