Like most political science majors at Vanderbilt, I spent many undergraduate hours crafting papers, honing arguments, and developing frameworks for analyzing presidential decisions. For all the work, however, I hardly imagined that a few months out of Vanderbilt, I would have the chance to apply that type of critical thinking to a personal conversation with an American president. Then a Facebook competition came along and presented that very opportunity.
Last October, I paid a visit to the embattled country of Iraq on the Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship, a Vanderbilt grant that supports a year of international exploration on issues of democracy and citizenship. While cruising Facebook from my hotel room in the northern city of Erbil, I came across a contest to interview former president George W. Bush about his recently published memoirs, Decision Points. A few questions, a video, and thousands of Facebook votes later, I was selected as the winner among more than 13,000 entrants. To term such an opportunity “surreal” does little justice to my emotions at the time.
I spent hours preparing for the interview. In addition to reading President Bush’s memoirs a couple of times, I engaged people I met in my travels from Beijing to Bavaria about the most pressing issues in their countries, so that I might form a series of broad, internationally-grounded questions to pose to the former president.
I worried over syntax, debated over word choice, and wrung my hands over tone. By the time I boarded a flight for Dallas in early February for the interview, however, I decided to ignore the worry and treat the opportunity like a respectful, yet hopefully challenging conversation.
Once in Dallas, I hardly had time to be nervous. My driver got lost on the way to the meeting, and I entered the former president’s building in a rush, several minutes behind our appointed meeting time. Any lingering apprehension melted away the instant I entered the room, however, as President Bush belted out in his characteristic Texas twang, “How you doing, big boy? So glad you’re here.”
Bush dressed casually in a blue sweater and sat behind a simple wooden desk as he welcomed me into his surprisingly understated post-presidential quarters. While the pressures of his time in office may have been reflected in the grayness of his hair, any hints of fatigue were belied by his high degree of energy. It seemed evident that he was enjoying his retirement.
After a round of small talk—including his experiences at the Super Bowl in Dallas the night prior—we dove into a wide-ranging conversation on a host of international and domestic issues. We covered his views on the importance of U.S. aid to Africa (America faced a moral imperative to assist victims of the “raging pandemic” of HIV/AIDS), the ongoing unrest in the Middle East (“people everywhere want to be free”), controversial interrogation methods used in the post-9/11 world (“by taking actions that were legal, we saved lives”), and America’s relationship with China going forward (“we should attempt to resolve our differences without disrupting strategic linkages”), among other topics.
President Bush calmly answered most of my questions, but grew animated on the subject of Iraq and our failure to find the weapons of mass destruction in the wake of invasion. I asked the former president if he regretted the decision to engage troops in ousting Saddam Hussein. While he expressed “regret” for the loss of life, he said that “the liberation of 25 million people is an important milestone in the ideological struggle” between the forces of good and evil in the world. At no point in his presidency, he insisted, did he cast doubt on the Bush Doctrine principle of preemptively invading countries that might do America harm.
Beyond that telling exchange, President Bush’s most interesting answer came in response to my question about his expansion of executive power in the federal government. Instead of expressing concern about the executive branch becoming even more powerful in the future, Bush reframed my question: Congress and the president, he argued, exist in a constant state of tension. When the president feels the legislative branch “encroaching” on his authority, it is incumbent on the executive to “protect presidential power” using methods like the veto or presidential signing statements that couch his support for legislation under certain caveats. I found the illustration to paint a fascinating picture of President Bush’s perspective on the role of the executive branch in our system of government.
As our interview neared its conclusion, Bush revealed a few of the many talents that led to his rise in politics. Displaying interest in my future plans, he offered encouragement about my decision to join the Teach for America organization, counsel about pursuing graduate education in business to widen my worldview, and graciousness in calling my father to congratulate him on “doing his duty” as a parent. It was a kind gesture that my dad will never forget.
While our time together was short, my conversation with President George W. Bush left an impression on me unlikely to fade with time. He struck me as a man of deep conviction and a clear, if not always perfectly articulate, view of the world. While many of his decisions remain controversial—and I am the first to admit misgivings about the black and white nature of his worldview—I believe future events may redeem Bush for predicting the onset of democratization in the Middle East.
While Bush waits for history to be his true judge, he remains confident in the rightness of his intentions and actions as president, even as outcomes have not always developed according to plan. If our interview revealed anything, it is that no amount of second-guessing will shake him from that viewpoint.