Bush equals entertaining lunch

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National Post, Friday, October 23, 2009

For about $200,000, you can invite George W. Bush to lunch with 1,500 of your closest friends. Of course, wherever Bush goes, demonstrators are sure to follow, and they were out in force yesterday at Place Ville Marie, across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where Bush was speaking at a $4,000 a table lunch.

"Bush equals terror," read one sign. "Bush persona non grata," went another.

The riot squad, including police on horseback, kept the protesters at a distance, and inside the packed ballroom of the Queen E., Bush was greeted with a standing ovation, the first of three during his presentation.

The word on Bush on the speakers' circuit is that he's a surprisingly engaged, animated and good humoured performer. Even people who don't like him end up liking him.

"I believe in free speech, except for today," he began, to appreciative laughter. He was on a roll.

On life after the White House, and walking his dog Barney, he said: "Thirty days after the presidency, I'm the guy with the plastic bag in his hand." On the reaction to his description of his wife, Laura, as the best First Lady in American history during a speech: "The place went wild -- everyone except my mother." On writing a book on his presidency: "Some of my critics claim that English was not my strong suit." On polls and popularity, he quoted John Diefenbaker that polls were good for dogs, adding the only time it's important to be popular is on election day.

This is a man enjoying his post-presidency, evidently uninterested in the verdict of history because by then, as Ronald Reagan once noted, he'll be dead. Though that doesn't mean that, like all former leaders, he isn't into legacy management -- writing his memoirs and getting a lot of money to make speeches.

The presidency of the second George Bush is defined by transformative events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008 when, as he said, "Wall Street got drunk and we got the hangover." And then there was Iraq, where some critics thought he took out Saddam Hussein because he couldn't find Osama bin Laden.

On the financial meltdown in the final months of his presidency last fall, he said he and his advisors, then treasury-secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, faced a simple choice: "Depression or no depression." Faced with an unprecedented liquidity crisis, they pumped $700-billion of liquidity into the system, rescuing Wall Street from its own greed and habit of "inventing products to get in front of the money train."

Washington expanded the G8 to the G20 at the heads of government level. "We intervened early," he said, "and we intervened together."

And having said he wouldn't criticize Barack Obama, he did so inferentially when he went after the Buy American procurement provisions in the $800-billion National Recovery Act. "The Buy American provisions are bad and ought to be taken out," he declared, provoking the strongest applause of the day.

After his speech, Bush sat down for a half-hour Q&A with John Parisella, an inveterate student of U.S. politics who has just been named Quebec's delegate-general to New York. Parisella wanted to talk about Iraq, and he pulled no punches, telling Bush he "took [his] eye off the ball" in Afghanistan. Startled at first, Bush gave as good as he got, though he acknowledged that landing on an aircraft carrier and declaring "Mission accomplished" in 2003 was a mistake. And he lamented the toxic nature of public discourse in the U.S., driven by cable channels: "People who yell the loudest to get market share to justify their existence."

When Parisella reminded him of the far right in the Republican Party being part of the problem, he replied.: "You don't get elected on the fringe, you make noise on the fringe. You can't get elected on the extreme of either party. The American people tend to reject extremes."

Which was precisely, as he pointed out, the difference between Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. It's the difference between a movement conservative and the conservative movement.

He left them on their feet, standing and smiling.

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