In the welcoming atmosphere of Canada’s most conservative city, Calgary, Alberta, former president George W. Bush made his self-described “maiden-voyage” into the post-presidential world last Tuesday.
The hometown of friend and ally Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Bush had been invited to speak in Calgary at a $400-a-plate private luncheon in front of a friendly audience of Western Canadian business people whose province represents the heart of Canadian conservatism. It is the first of about 12 such speaking engagements, according to one media outlet, he has planned for this year.
More than 1,500 invited guests stood in line for two hours outside the Telus Convention Centre to hear America’s 43rd president deliver his first speech since leaving the Oval Office. During their sojourn, they were subjected to the often amusing antics of the crowd of anti-Bush demonstrators gathered outside the venue.
Missing the favourite target of their animosity already, they showed up to carry their eight years of hostility for the former president into its ninth year. Shouting and blowing whistles, protesting most, if not all of Bush’s policies, the left-wing demonstrators, according to one newspaper report, screamed insults and “shame on you all” at those lined up for the event.
Not to be intimidated, the guests filled every seat in the convention hall, where the man they came to see did not disappoint. In his 45-minute speech about his eight years in the White House, followed by a 30-minute question session conducted by a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, Bush was defiant and passionate in defending his policies, particularly his record in the Middle East, before an appreciative audience.
Regarding his most controversial decision, the invasion of Iraq, Bush said toppling Saddam Hussein was “a prerequisite” in the war against terrorism, which he called a fight against “the ideology of hatred.” He also did not believe that the Iraq conflict harmed the military efforts in Afghanistan, calling it “a spurious argument.” Bush then went on to say the Middle East situation would be worse today if Saddam Hussein were still in power.
“The world is better off, and the Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein, no ifs, ands, or buts,” Bush said, calling freedom “a gift from a universal God.’
On the floundering American economy, Bush came out against protectionism but said temporary government help was necessary. His own bailout package in the waning days of his administration, he said, went against his nature as a believer in free markets. But the solution to the crisis, Bush believes, lies with private entrepreneurs, a statement which, one Canadian paper stated, earned him the event’s biggest round of applause.
“It will be the risk-takers that will pull us out of this recession, not the government,” he said. “Markets work. Are there excesses? You bet. Risk reward is essential. Don’t substitute government for the marketplace.”
Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, also came up for discussion. Bush said “he deserves my silence” and “in no way” intends to criticise him. Showing a true generosity of spirit and a deep-rooted patriotism, the former president stated he wanted Obama to succeed because he loves America more than he loves politics.
Bush said, though, that if the new president wants his help, he just has to pick up the phone. And while he did say Obama was not his first choice for the presidency, Bush was deeply moved when he saw African-Americans “weeping on TV, saying ‘I never thought it could happen’.”
But Bush did comment on another leader, though, former Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he called “a tough dude.” During his administration, there were several areas of strong disagreement between the two, especially the war in Georgia. That, however, did not prevent the two from seeing “eye to eye on Iran.”
Bush also took time to praise the host country, mentioning the beauty of the Calgary countryside, as well as Canada’s role in Afghanistan where more than one hundred Canadian soldiers have died. Bush also had appreciative words for the Canadian banking system saying, “It seems like your banks are more sober than ours.” Wall Street, on the other hand, “got drunk and we got the hangover.”
There were also some lighter moments. Bush humorously described his transformation from his “pampered” existence in the White House to doing chores for Laura around their Texas home, including cleaning up after the dog, saying “for eight years I was dodging that stuff; now I’m picking it up.”
Bush called his time in the White House “an unbelievable experience”, during which he did not make a lot of new friends. But the former president did not care about that, he said, because he had a lot of friends back in Texas.
In reference to his unpopularity upon leaving office, Bush jokingly referred to his selection of Calgary, where, like in his native Texas, cattle and oil are king, as “my only choice”, when it came to his first foray as a speaker.
“I called Harper to tell him I was coming (to Calgary). He said you’re going to like it out there,” Bush told the audience. And from the warm reception and rounds of applause the former president received, Western Canadians showed their appreciation and affection for him too.