George W. Bush has been one of the most polarizing presidents in recent history. But he has shown a strong spirit of cooperation and graciousness toward his successor, which has surprised his critics and serves as a reminder of what might have been.
The wonder is why he hasn't reached out like this before. It might have helped him bridge the partisan divide in Washington and mute the nasty tone that has degraded politics for nearly his entire administration. "If he had done this type of thing a few years ago, reaching out, it might have made a real difference," says a senior Democrat who worked for President Bill Clinton.
During his 2000 campaign, Bush promised to be a "uniter" not a "divider," but he failed to achieve that goal. Instead, under the guidance of political strategist Karl Rove, he governed from right of center and too often dismissed the ideas of his opponents. His critics say that, over time, he became quite inflexible in his policy making. This complaint is especially strong among Democrats who say Bush pushed them away early on as he sought to appeal to his conservative base and the Republicans who at that time controlled the House and Senate.
His critics argue that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he might have ushered in a new era of conciliation by advocating some big, unifying projects, such as a renewed commitment to reducing reliance on Middle Eastern oil or a campaign to promote volunteer action on a vast scale at home. None of that happened.
But in recent weeks, something new has been occurring. For one thing, Bush has turned introspective. He admitted to interviewers that one of his biggest disappointments was his failure to improve Washington's rancorous atmosphere. And since Election Day, when voters repudiated his party and his policies, another side of George W. Bush has emerged—the man who, as governor of Texas, did reach out to the other side.
Since Barack Obama won the White House, Bush has encouraged his staff to ease the president-elect's transition as much as possible. To that end, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten hosted a dozen of his predecessors for breakfast in early December in a session designed to give incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel a clear picture of what his job will entail. Emanuel got plenty of helpful suggestions from insiders ranging from Bolten to Leon Panetta, who served Bill Clinton, and Ken Duberstein, who worked for Ronald Reagan. Participants said Emanuel took copious notes and seemed very appreciative of the suggestions. Press secretary Dana Perino also has been very informative and gracious to incoming spokesman Robert Gibbs.
But the most important moment of outreach is yet to come—the extraordinary luncheon that Bush will host January 7 at the White House for Obama himself. It will include all three living ex-presidents—Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. This exclusive club is expected to give Obama some tips about his new life in the White House, how he can deal with his lack of privacy and, overall, the challenges he can anticipate as the leader of the free world. "These men share experiences that no one else can imagine," Perino told reporters. "It will be fabulous to have them all here together." It apparently will be the first time such a conclave of former presidents has been held under the auspices of an outgoing administration to demonstrate solidarity with a new commander in chief.
"It is a magnanimous gesture—to help the new president with the voice of experience from the people who actually sat in the Oval Office," says Duberstein. "And having the former presidents share their insights collectively is absolutely the way the American people want our government leaders to act. This should be heartening for both sides of the aisle." Adds Duberstein: "You have enough bumps in the road anyway. Maybe this will let him [Obama] avoid some." Obama's advisers say he is looking forward to the session.
Democratic strategists, including many linked to Congress who have battled the Bush administration for the past eight years, say such a spirit of comity is long overdue. It's unclear whether it will last much beyond Inauguration Day.