Column: The return of the uniter
WASHINGTON -- Former President George W. Bush, on his recent trip to Africa, toured Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. He then sat down for an interview that may qualify as the eighth.
The man who started two wars abroad and introduced a new level of hostility to domestic politics spoke with ABC News' Jonathan Karl in Tanzania in a conciliatory and reflective manner that bore little resemblance to that of the divisive figure who left Washington in 2009.
In the segment, which aired Sunday, the 43rd president cautioned those who have been "overly critical" of gay marriage. He defended President Obama against criticism that he hasn't devoted much attention to Africa, and he resisted an invitation to gloat over Obama's continuation of counterterrorism policies that he had created. Of most importance, Bush put in a plug for the comprehensive immigration legislation that is at the top of Obama's agenda but has divided Bush's Republican Party.
"I think it's very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect and have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people," said Bush, who failed to enact such reform.
For Bush, who has been under a self-imposed gag order for much of the time since he left office, this amounts to something of a re-emergence. It's likely not a coincidence that he's beginning to return to public view now that it's safer to do so: More Americans are forgiving, or at least forgetting, what they didn't like about him.
A Gallup poll last month found that for the first time in his ex-presidency (actually, the first time since 2005), a plurality of Americans have a positive view of Bush. Forty-nine percent viewed him favorably, compared with 46 percent who viewed him unfavorably. This puts him on par with Obama and is a healthy recovery from the depths of the economic collapse in March 2009, when 35 percent viewed him favorably.
It's standard for former presidents to grow in public esteem as memories fade. In Bush's case, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and the economy is finally recovering. But Bush's rebound could be accelerated, particularly among Democrats, by the type of assist he gave Obama in the Karl interview.
That's in marked contrast to his former understudy, Dick Cheney, who in his retirement regularly and rudely denounces Obama. As The New York Times' Jonathan Martin reports, Cheney is now also antagonizing fellow Republicans by boosting a challenge by his daughter to Sen. Mike Enzi, a popular conservative in Cheney's Wyoming.
Bush was all bonhomie as he sat in a shaded garden with his wife, assuring Karl that he didn't talk substance with Obama when their Africa tours overlapped in Tanzania. "He's busy, and I'm retired," Bush joked. That's long been his official line. "The only way I can really make news is either criticize the president, which I don't want to do, criticize my own party or weigh in on a controversial issue," he told Karl. "And I'm off the stage."
But for a guy who's "off the stage," Bush had quite a few lines about the issues of the day. Earlier in his trip, Bush invoked a biblical admonition when asked whether gay marriage conflicts with Christian values: "I shouldn't be taking a speck out of somebody else's eye when I have a log in my own." Bush told Karl "it's very important for people not to be overly critical of someone else until you've examined your own heart."
Karl's interview had all the rehabilitative imagery Bush could want: clips of him in a T-shirt, painting a medical clinic in Zambia and dancing with the locals -- and video of Obama asserting that Bush's devotion to Africa has meant "millions of people's lives have been saved."
Bush, never one to put himself on the couch, dismissed as "absurd psycho-babble" the notion that the good works he is doing in Africa is "to make up for mistakes you made in Iraq," as Karl put it.
But he seems to have grasped that his own place in history can be improved by generosity toward Africa -- and magnanimity toward opponents. Asked by Karl about the criticism that Obama hasn't done much for Africa, Bush disagreed, saying that Obama "cares deeply" about the continent and that his administration "has been incredibly helpful."
With a laugh, Bush added: "It doesn't surprise me that presidents get criticized."
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.