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.
Why should environmentalists want to embrace a president so thoroughly associated with oil (and worse)? The short answer is: because they need him. Last summer, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a climate bill, but it went no further. The fact that it died when President Obama was still popular and Democrats controlled the Senate by a decisive margin was a clear indicator that it will take more than just a partisan majority to bring about real change. It also showed that environmental concerns alone will not compel Congress to act. The challenge now is to broaden support.
The best bet to generate meaningful Republican interest is to press
the business case for clean technology. A number of major companies,
including Shell, Ford Motors, and
Any venture capitalist will attest that clean energy is an idea whose time is coming -- the economic reasons for it are simply too powerful to ignore. The question is whether that technology, and the jobs that come with it, will arise in the United States or in China or India. Bush's brand of business-venerating Texas entrepreneurialism, and its impressive results, makes for a compelling pitch. He could make a real difference.
The economic case for clean technology is so strong that Bush could, if he wanted, simply ignore the environmental aspects that many conservatives find objectionable or overblown, and focus strictly on the business opportunities and concerns about American competitiveness. Conservatives would be more receptive if they weren't made to feel as though they were capitulating to a liberal cause. The result would be no less beneficial to all parties.
This evangelism would be no easy thing. The recent setbacks in Congress have thoroughly politicized the issue of clean energy. Bush would undoubtedly draw criticism and scorn from some quarters. But he could make his commitment confident that the issue will only grow over time, and with it his own stature. The point is not to grasp for an easy public-relations hit, but to gain a place in the vanguard of an important cause that will unfold across the long arc of a post-presidency.
One day, years from now, the world will have embraced clean technology, and we'll all look back at the poisonous struggles of today and shake our heads. What was all the fuss about? If he is shrewd, and manages to execute his post-presidency more deftly than he did his actual presidency, the world may also look back and wonder the same thing about George W. Bush.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.