How George W. Bush Can Redeem Himself

Modern presidents don't retire -- instead, they embark on their post-presidency. Society demands that they take up some cause greater than themselves, as Jimmy Carter has done by building houses for Habitat for Humanity and Bill Clinton by working to stop the global spread of AIDS. The idea is to devote their time and celebrity to a worthier purpose than simply buffing their image for the history books, but a post-presidency properly pursued has exactly that effect. No president's legacy is more tarnished than that of George W. Bush, and in a few weeks he'll formally launch a campaign for rehabilitation by publishing his memoirs. Bush hasn't yet settled on a big issue. He should choose clean energy. Not only would it boost him significantly, it would also benefit the American economy and the planet.

To get the most from a post-presidency, the former chief must champion an issue of unassailable merit, though not one that appears crassly self-serving, desperate, or hopeless. The ideal issue is one whose outcome is still uncertain but that stands a good chance of prevailing someday, so that the ex-president would be credited for having made a decisive difference. The more difficult the fight, the better.

That's why clean energy is a wonderful fit for Bush. Right now, the issue is dead in Washington. But it won't be forever. And while this may come as a shock to some people, Bush can legitimately lay claim to a legacy that could serve as the basis for something larger. That legacy, buried beneath so many other things, has been all but forgotten.

On a personal level, Bush long ago embraced green living in his own home. His Crawford ranch, the "Western White House,'' is a marvel of clean technology that is built from discarded limestone, features geothermal heating and cooling, and uses purified wastewater to irrigate the garden.

As governor, he had a big impact on Texas. In 1999, Bush signed into law what has come to be regarded as a model renewable-energy standard -- the requirement that a certain proportion of the state's electricity come from clean energy, which often spurs innovation. This law helped Texas to become a leader in clean technology, especially wind power, and it surpassed the statutory requirements years ahead of schedule. Today, Texas generates more wind power than Denmark, and most states have adopted renewable-energy standards of their own. As president, Bush's administration promoted the objective of obtaining 20 percent of the nation's energy from wind power by 2030.

True enough, Bush did not do much to realize that vision during his time in the White House. He consistently opposed limiting carbon emissions, which most environmentalists and energy entrepreneurs believe necessary for clean technology to really take off. But a post-presidency is not meant to follow in a direct line from one's actions in the White House; freed from the strictures of electoral politics, its very purpose is to transcend them. Bush himself appears to understand this and is flirting with the idea: in a rare public appearance in May, he delivered the keynote address to the American Wind Energy Association's annual convention, invoking his Texas record.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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