“I have zero desire to be in the limelight except to sell the book,” Bush said in an evening marked by a display of Mark Twain-like humor as he told stories of his presidency mixed with fatherly advice.
|Nancy Reagan with former President George W. Bush|
Bush had his audience laughing much of the evening, answering questions they submitted, among them his advice for raising three daughters.
“If they’re teenagers,” he said, “I would say, ‘I love you. There’s nothing you can do to make me not love you – so stop trying!”
His answer got perhaps the loudest ovation of the evening.
“There’s a lot of psychobabble about my relationship with my father,” he said. “Not many people who are president have a son who’s president, and there’s been a lot of speculation. But here’s the simple truth. He found the right balance. He gave me unconditional love…
“So my advice is love your kids as much as you possibly can.”
Much of the humor was directed at himself and his family, such as what traits he got from his parents – his mother Barbara and his father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush.
“I have my father’s eyes,” he said, “and my mother’s mouth!”
Or on what he missed from being the world’s most powerful man.
“I don’t miss much about being president,” he said. “I miss being pampered!”
He told the story of the early days of his presidency when two valets suddenly appeared in a White House hallway on a day when his father was visiting.
“I said to my dad, ‘I don’t need a valet,’” he recalled, “and he says, “You’ll get used to it.”
Bush’s stop at the Reagan Library was his latest appearance since emerging from self-imposed exile from public life to vigorously defend his presidency and start defining his legacy, coincidently at a moment when his successor finds himself on the defensive.
But, much like his book, in which Bush makes little mention of President Obama’s policy choices other than to praise him for sending more troops to Afghanistan, the former president steered clear of politics and took on the posture of a statesman.
Bush was also serious about his own personal life. As he did in his memoir, he spoke openly about his drinking.
“I thought I would grab the attention of the reader if I started off this way,” he said. “Can you tell me a day in which you had not had a drink?”
Those who came to hear him loved what he had to say.
They included Aila and Ronald Hillberg of Turlock who bought four copies of the Bush book from the library gift shop, on for each of her four children – including 17-year-old twins who share the middle name Reagan.
“We came here tonight to hear President Bush – and, yes, we’re Republicans,” said Hillberg. “We voted for him, and we took all our children to his second inaugural in 2005.
“We love history, and this, tonight, is history.”
Bush alluded to his accounts of his presidential decisions detailed in his book, especially how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shaped his eight years in office.
“That day changed my presidency,” he said, “and it changed America.”
But Bush also said he had never set out to be president, especially after seeing all the criticism made of his father when he was in the Oval Office.
“If I’d wanted to be president,” he said, “I would have behaved a lot better!”