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Bush uses library opening to try to polish record

Apr 26, 2013 - By Tom Benning, MCT News Service

"People ask me, 'What about the economy?'" Bush said, "and my answer is, 'Why don't you go hire an economist, or hire five economists and get 15 different opinions?'"

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- More than four years after George W. Bush left the White House -- settling in Texas with a desire to leave politics behind -- the former president remains reluctant to give up the liberation of "not feeling like I've got to be in the limelight."

But as the George W. Bush Presidential Center prepares to open, Bush and his confidants don't hesitate to defend a presidency that's taken its share of lumps over the years.

The former president is doubling down on "compassionate conservatism." He's listing no new regrets. He's focused on the center's policy institute, which builds upon the main themes of his presidency. And he delights in taking on preconceived notions of him,

Taking measure of a driving philosophy behind his presidency, Bush said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that discussion of his legacy should start with a fresh look at his record.

"The best way for people to understand what I meant by 'compassionate conservative' is to look at the programs we implemented and look at the results," he said.

The new library opens Wednesday, and Bush is ready to retake the public stage on his own terms.

He wants to share the experience of the presidency, what he calls his "area of expertise," and hopes that the Bush Center allows people to better understand why he did what he did. But he has little desire to enter the day-to-day political scrum.

"People ask me, 'What about the economy?' " Bush said. "My answer is, 'Why don't you go hire an economist? Or hire five economists and get 15 different opinions?'

"I enjoy telling people what it's like. There are some lessons inherent in sharing the stories of the presidency."

A prevalent story line of the Bush post-presidency is that he's hiding out in Dallas's tony Preston Hollow neighborhood with his wife, Laura.

Bush, a Republican, did no campaigning for GOP candidates last year, even skipping the party's national convention, rare for a former president.

In the 40-minute interview at his Bush Center office, there was little doubt he relishes the relative privacy of being back in Texas.

Wearing a light blue, open-collar shirt, Bush, 66, said repeatedly that he's "comfortable" with both life and legacy. Among his most pressing concerns was whether his hamstrings were ready for a mountain bike ride later that day.

That ease is genuine, friends and close advisers said. But they also stressed that the former president has been busy.

Confidants noted that Bush is simply approaching life after the White House differently from, for instance, predecessor Bill Clinton, though they took pains not to criticize the Democrat, now close to the Bush family.

"Bush is going to do it differently because he's a different breed of cat," said Midland oilman Joe O'Neill, one of Bush's childhood friends.

Bush also made clear that he's not interested in being idle. He described his role as "a person searching for a way to continue to serve without being involved in politics."

He's traveled the globe giving private speeches, some for lucrative pay. He's played an active role in planning the Bush Center, which includes the policy institute, a museum and the official government library dedicated to his presidency. And he's poured his time and energy into the George W. Bush Institute.

"One of the real challenges of life is that when you complete a chapter, you don't atrophy, that you continue to find ways to contribute," Bush said.

The institute is nonpartisan but reflects Bush's conservative bent. It centers on six areas: economic growth, education policy, global health, human freedom, military service and women's rights.

Clinton and Jimmy Carter have similar policy initiatives, part of a trend of presidents looking to stay engaged as they live decades after leaving the White House.

"One way of looking at a president's impact is not only what he finishes in office, but what he starts," said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "That's a perfectly logical foundation for some of the efforts at the center."

Bush described the institute's focus in broad, familiar terms: Freedom is universal. Free markets are fairest. Free societies are based upon good education. Those who fought for freedom should be honored. To whom much is given, much is required.

The former president was particularly proud that the institute, started in late 2009, has already been active -- with a cancer-fighting initiative, for instance, that has helped screen more than 28,000 women in Africa.

"People have discovered that we're advancing universal principles in a way that is constructive, results-oriented and focuses on humanity," he said.

It can be hard to discern Bush's exact influence. Fellows are given ample discretion. And Bush wants programs "based on something greater than the individual for whom the building is named."

But aides said the institute is based upon the lifelong passions of Bush and his wife. The former president, who speaks often at institute events, emphasized his desire to "defend principles and help implement policy based upon those principles."

Involvement in ongoing policy debates has on occasion brought him into conflict with the GOP. The party, particularly its presidential candidates, repudiated key parts of Bush's record in the 2012 campaigns.

Bush has championed foreign aid, which some Republican contenders pushed to curtail or eliminate. He defends federal accountability in education, a key provision of his No Child Left Behind law, even as some Republicans declared it failed federal overreach.

The former president has touted tax policy as the first step to economic recovery; other Republicans focused more on spending cuts. He called for a "benevolent spirit" in the immigration debate.

Asked what message he's sending to the GOP, Bush reverted to broad descriptions of freedom. He steered clear of giving his party specifics on how to rebuild, but he said that he stands by "the principles that guided me when I was president."

"These are principles that need to be articulated and defended as time goes on," he said.

For Bush, "compassionate conservatism," much derided by the party's harder-edged tea party adherents, is still a powerful draw.

He predicted a renewed interest in the philosophy, which he described as "the idea that articulating and implementing conservative ideas leads to a better life for all."

Bush touted in particular the Medicare overhaul he signed into law in 2003.

Some Republicans blasted the new prescription drug benefit as too costly and slammed Bush for expanding an entitlement. Bush bristled at that critique, saying the "entitlement was already in place" and that "we were modernizing an antiquated system."

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