The end of the Presidential Lecture Series began with two presidents in two armchairs.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels sat down with former U.S. President George W. Bush, who he worked under as the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget until June 2003, when he left to pursue his successful campaign for governor of Indiana.
Bush said that while he doesn’t miss the presidency, he does miss the position of commander-in-chief.
“I can't tell you what an honor it was to look in the eyes of people who volunteered in the face of danger,” he said.
There was heightened security for the event, with long lines for metal detectors and ticket-takers checking photo ID. The Purdue box office told The Exponent over the phone that the Secret Service, which did background checks on everyone registered for the event, prohibited photo, video and note-taking.
A crowd of about 60 people protested Bush’s arrival outside of the event and were surrounded by the Purdue Police Department. The protesters vocalized their opinions against the Patriot Act, a measure created after 9/11 which expanded law enforcement surveillance capabilities.
Daniels, reading a question submitted by a student, asked Bush what he thinks about the Patriot Act now and if it had the effect he believed it would.
“I know it was very controversial, there was a lot of debate about it, but there were a lot of civil liberty guarantees built into the Patriot Act,” Bush said. “We needed to have a better sense of what the enemy was saying to each other, particularly if they were within the United States.
Bush said it was an “effective tool” for prevention of further attacks, and while he didn’t know its current status, urged Congress to not let it expire.
After the Presidency
Discussing his time after leaving the presidency, Bush said he took up painting after a Yale professor gave him Winston Churchill’s book “Painting as a Pastime.”
“I read it, got home to Laura (Bush), said ‘Honey, if Churchill can paint, I can paint,’” he said. “I know it sounds cocky, Mitch, but you gotta be pretty cocky to run for president.”
After painting portraits of family members’ pets, Bush was pushed by a well-known artist, who he didn’t name, to start painting the leaders that he served with. After doing so, he started painting veterans in his Portraits of Courage series.
“I painted 98 vets, all of whom were wounded as a result of my commands,” Bush said, gesturing to one of the paintings behind him. “(The subject of the painting) wrote a letter about being a shut-in. He couldn't leave his house after he came out of combat, and so I tried to capture the essence of (his) loneliness.”
The portrait, of a man’s face in black and white with highly contrasted shadows, was directly behind Bush.
“The whole purpose of the book on the vets was to help vets recover from posttraumatic stress and say, ‘There's a way forward. You're not the only person dealing with it,'” he said.
Bush also painted the portraits of 43 immigrants, because he was the 43rd president, he said to Daniels, and didn’t like anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“It's one thing to stay and force the border and hold the law, which I fully agree with,” Bush said. “I don't like denigrating immigrants. I think it's bad for our country and bad for our soul.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, is important for the competitive natures of Canada, Mexico and the United States, Bush said.
“I think when we're able to pool labor, resources and capital and focus on manufacturing in this hemisphere, we need not fear China so much,” he said. “If you're concerned about people trying to swarm the border, one reason they're doing so is trying to escape poverty.”
Bush said Americans need to be proud that they’re a “welcoming society and give people the chance to succeed.”
“You’ve got that basketball player (Zach Edey) from Canada,” Bush said to Daniels with a laugh.
“We’re going to make sure his green card is worth at least two years,” Daniels responded.
Daniels asked Bush about his assessment of the “terrorist threat of today.”
Bush said that while a lot of safety polices and procedures were put into place post-9/11, terrorism still remains a threat, and one that is constantly changing with modern technology.
“There are threats toward our democracy by autocratic regimes and people trying to affect the outcome of an election,” he said, “which by the way is a page out of the old Soviet playbook because in the late sixties, the Soviet Union was trying to foment dissent in the United States by funding radical groups to create doubt about whether democracy was the right sort form of government.”
On Ukraine, Bush referred to Putin as “bully,” and said that while President Biden has given aid to Ukraine, the war is just beginning.
“It's gonna be interesting to watch Europe as it gets cold, as they foolishly got themselves hooked on Russian natural gas and now that will determine whether or not these democracies are able to withstand the gripes of the people that are getting cold,” Bush said.
Putin himself changed as he became president, Bush said, leaving his wife Lyudmila for a “water ballerina” that was 25 years younger than her.
“He became infatuated with money, sex and power. And if those become the standards of life, you'll never get enough and you'll be miserable,” he said. “I'm afraid that they became his false gods.”
Daniels asked Bush about his stance on education, his time as Texas governor and the No Child Left Behind Act, which focused on increasing standards for schools and restricting federal funding from schools that did not have their students assessed for basic skills.
Despite his mother thinking he was going to lose his race for governor of Texas, Bush said he ran because of his deep worry surrounding the “soft bigotry of low expectations” when it came to children’s education
“(When you’re) saying that certain people can't read or write, but let's just move them through the system (anyways), I felt like it was degrading to the future of the country, and I wanted to do something about it,” he said. “And so I've insisted that we have strong accountability measures in Texas, because how can you solve a problem unless you measure?”
In the era of constant politicking, Bush said a pivotal moment for No Child Left Behind was a movie night at the White House with the Kennedys where he told Ted Kennedy he wanted to work with him on education reform.
“That was the beginning of a courtship and a relationship,” he said, “and he helped pass the bill.”
Bush said that especially after COVID-19 affected the learning environments of children across America, standardized testing is important to get them back on track.
“People on the right say there's no role for the government to test, and people on the left say it's unfair to test,” Bush said. “My attitude is, if we don't test, how are we going to know?
“We better start testing, particularly in the post-covid period, because a lot of kids are starting to fall behind. To me, a great challenge now facing our society is to make sure these kids get caught back up and they can read a grade level early before it's too late.”
They also discussed PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which Daniels said is cited as one of the greatest public health achievements and has “saved 20-plus million lives.”
The initiative was launched by Bush in 2003 after then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told him that “‘there was a pandemic destroying an entire generation of people on the continent of Africa,’” he said.
Bush said he brought together a team of experts to assess the situation, and decided that they had the manpower to create a working plan.
“I believe to whom much is given, much is required,” he said. “I told the American people that, and we've been given a lot in this country. And so we decided to do something about it.”
25 million people are currently alive because of PEPFAR, Bush said, and he believes the program is really “one of the most beautiful stories about the government actually working.”
Bush said that when it comes to history, and how his presidency will be viewed, he’s going to give it time.
“It does take time for history to unfold, and it's important for presidents to understand that you can't force history to happen quicker than it's going to,” he said. “And I'm comfortable with what I did, and I gave it my best shot."