Has George W. Bush Become a More Sympathetic Character?

Taking another look at the 43rd president

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In his first in-depth interview since leaving office, President George W. Bush spoke with NBC's Matt Lauer in an hour-long program Monday night. From 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the Wall Street meltdown, Bush reflected on the major decisions of his presidency, as discussed in his new memoir "Decision Points." Though he expressed remorse about a number of moments during his reign, he stood behind his most controversial actions.

Here's what pundits are saying about Bush's reemergence in the spotlight:

He told the very personal story of how as a teenager he drove his mother to the hospital after she suffered a miscarriage, and discovered how “straightforward” she was when she showed him the remains of the fetus in a jar.

He also gave an example of how out of control he could be before he gave up drinking. “So, I’m drunk at the dinner table at Mother and Dad’s house in Maine. And my brothers and sister are there, Laura’s there. And I’m sitting next to a beautiful woman, friend of Mother and Dad’s. And I said to her out loud, ‘What is sex like after 50?’ ”

There were other moments when Mr. Bush was defensive, but for the most part he looked more relaxed and unguarded than that at any time in his presidency, even chuckling.

  • Will Inevitably Help Explain His Pro-Life Views, writes Leonard Greene at The New York Post:

"I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital," Bush writes..."There was a human life, a little brother or sister," Bush told the "Today" host...

Bush said his mother gave him special permission to recount the private story in print. But "the purpose of the story wasn't to try show the evolution of a pro-life point of view," Bush insisted to Lauer. "It was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship."

  • Gives a More Nuanced Understanding of President Bush, writes Mark McKinnon, Bush's former campaign media advider, in The Daily Beast:

I'm glad President Bush has published Decision Points—not so much because I think it will help rehabilitate his image or improve his place in history, though I think it will help on those counts.  I'm glad because I believe readers will get a sense of the George W. Bush who I've known for 15 years—a man who is very different than the distorted public image many have come to accept as accurate.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, President Bush is very smart, quietly reflective, often contrite, and deeply humble.  He is also a strong leader who, while relying on the strong counsel of many around him, makes his own decisions.  He was secure enough to hire a vice president like Dick Cheney, and strong enough that it was never in doubt who was the boss. Just ask Scooter Libby, who Cheney said Bush was going to "leave a soldier on the battle field" by refusing to pardon him.

  • He's Still Delusional, writes liberal columnist Steve Kornacki at Salon:

The self-styled “Decider” is as maddeningly unreflective as ever, confident that he got all of the important stuff right as president and unwilling to cop to mistakes that involve anything more serious than optics.

Thus, picking Dick Cheney as a running-mate in 2000 was "a very good" decision and refusing Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation in the spring of 2004 "was the right decision." Waterboarding wasn’t torture "because the lawyers said it was legal" (and because "I’m not a lawyer"), he "really didn’t" have any doubts about the pre-war intelligence on Iraq and WMD, and “we just didn’t have any solid intelligence” warning that 9/11 was possible. Oh, and the idea that his administration could have done something between 2001 and 2008 to prevent the Wall Street meltdown? "I frankly don’t think this was a crisis of a lack of regulation."

  • He Dodged Every Question, writes liberal columnist Jesse Singal at The New Republic:

“I’m a deliberative person,” he told Lauer. But he isn’t. Deliberative people can smoothly handle follow-up questions, and follow-up questions remain the proverbial mice to Bush’s lumbering elephant. He said he was sure he was for waterboarding, but, when Lauer asked if he’d be OK with a foreign country waterboarding Americans, Bush dodged the question, instead saying that people should read Decision Points. He was absolutely certain about that Iraq intelligence, he assured Lauer, but, when asked if he’d make the same decision to go to war again, all Bush said was that Iraqis are better off without Saddam. He referenced his bailout-era “I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market system” line with something like pride, but, apparently, he’s never taken the obvious next step and asked himself whether the meltdown should spur a full reexamination of his thoughts on the free market.

  • He Thinks History Will Absolve Him, writes Daniel Stone at Newsweek:

History has always been the anticipated salvation for Bush, who governed during consequential times and figured, as a result, that the long view would be more flattering than his close up. He’ll be dead, he joked, by the time that verdict comes in. In the mean time, he had a confident, yet simplistic, message for historians: “I'm comfortable knowing that I gave it my all, I love America, and I'm proud to have served.”

  • The Interview Was Well Played, writes Avi Zenilman at New York Magazine:

George W. Bush didn't do Hannity, he did Matt Lauer for a reason. And it was a reminder of Bush's ability to avoid the fringe: the praise for Islam, the empathy with Hispanics during immigration reform, his personal commitment to a cross-racial kind of easy-going, good ole boy politics. He may have been as partisan as they came, but the fights over mosques and border fences offer a reminder that George W. Bush wanted everyone, or at least conservatives, to get along and expand their horizons.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.