When asked about the trauma of 9/11 and the experience of being a leader during wartime, the nation’s 43rd president couldn’t resist a stab at humor.
“I thought this was gonna be like, ‘What is your favorite color?’” he joked of his expectations for the evening.
Moderator James Ellis, dean of the Marshall School of Business, was quick to reply: “That might be what they do at Yale, Mr. President, but not here.”
C. L. Max Nikias and the University of Southern California welcomed former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush to Bovard Auditorium on Tuesday evening for the annual President’s Distinguished Lecture. The nation’s 43rd president and first lady talked about life during and after the presidency, and the legacy they have worked to establish since leaving the White House, to a crowd that included students, donors and trustees of the university.
The event brought a more personal perspective to a family many USC students had only seen on television and in the public eye.
“I think we have a view of the president as someone who is supposed to be perfect in every form and never mess up,” said Katya Sutil, a freshman majoring in industrial and systems engineering. “The talk brought students a humanizing perspective on leadership.”
Bush began the talk by describing the feelings he had about remaining in public life at the end of his presidency.
“I was tired of it and wanted to get away from it,” he said. “One of the sacrifices you make as president is that you give up anonymity.”
The Bushes concluded that they wanted to remain engaged in policy but disengaged from politics. Together, they discussed programs they have pioneered such as the Women’s Fellowship Program, which most recently brought a group of Egyptian women to the United States to network with national leaders and gain resources to help them succeed in their home country.
On the issue of leadership, Bush shared two of the principles upon which he shaped his administration: to hire trusted advisers, and to make decisions and act on them. He discussed this in the context of the 2008 recession, when then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told him that the $750 billion stimulus package would be most effective if given directly to Wall Street.
Bush became most passionate when discussing the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The nature of the presidency is uncertainty,” he said. “I had become a wartime president — no one had asked me in any of the debates or fundraisers or discussions before I was elected, ‘What are you going to do as president in a war time?’”
Paul Jung, a freshman majoring in business administration, said the discussion changed how he viewed Bush’s presidency.
“The things he was talking about made me sympathize more with what he was going through personally and experiencing, versus what we were experiencing on our side,” Jung said.
The Bushes were able to combine a discussion of the presidency’s most serious moments with recollections of some of the presidency’s most humorous moments. When then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to the White House, Bush recalled the most powerful man in Japan’s request to go to Graceland.
“We fired up Air Force One and went to Memphis,” he said. “As we were leaving a barbecue restaurant, [Koizumi] got up and sang ‘Love Me Tender’ with an Elvis impersonator!”
Bush also offered commentary on other world leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin is basically anti-American at his core and believes that the demise of the Soviet was bad for the world,” Bush said.
Bush interspersed advice to students throughout the event, including the discussion of his recently realized talent for oil painting. After leading the United States for eight years, the Yale graduate and Harvard Business School alumnus said he didn’t know it all.
“Just remember, you’re never too old to learn something,” he said.