In Boca, George W. Bush takes on Trumpian America First ideology on Ukraine, immigration

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BOCA RATON — Former President George W. Bush came to the backyard of one of his successors, Donald Trump, and drew some sharp distinctions while delivering some straight talk on the state of affairs in America.

Bush, who served from 2001 to 2009, said he loathed criticizing successors in partly explaining why he is not vocal on political matters.

"I'll tell you what I'm not doing is giving my opinion about every political issue that exists in public," Bush said. "I think former presidents criticizing their successors, that's a cheap shot, the ultimate cheap shot, and I don't think it's good for the presidency to do that either. So I am content to be out of the limelight."

But in an hour-long moderated discussion at Florida Atlantic University, the former president turned outspoken — without naming names.

He flatly stated the United States has an obligation to defend Ukraine against "an autocrat" and "support Israel against a brutal assault by a terrorist organization." Bush also chafed at the global platform given to North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un.

Domestically, Bush eschewed leadership that wallowed in self-pity, called on U.S. leaders to establish an "orderly" immigration system and expressed how he was "ashamed" as he watched the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

George W. Bush calls for a change in the tone and rhetoric of our leaders

And he echoed what he said was the broad desire of Americans to see a change in the tone and rhetoric of the country's political leaders.

"They want somebody to call and say 'I am optimistic about the future'," Bush said to exuberant applause. "'I'm not going to play to your anger. I am going to try to solve why you're angry' and paint a picture about how America can be better so people have something to follow that's positive, not negative. To me, that's what America longs for."

George W. Bush speaks at conference in Florida, where his presidency saw significant moments

Tuesday's remarks were, for Bush, a return to a state that was deeply interwoven with his presidency.

Bush won the White House only after successfully contesting his 537-vote win in Florida needed for him to achieve the required 270 electoral votes. He was at a Sarasota school when he was informed of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hurricane Katrina, which was a defining moment for his presidency, first made landfall in South Florida. And the state was the scene of an intense legal battle in 2005 over allowing a Pinellas Park woman, Terri Schiavo, to die.

Bush spoke at the NobleCon19 financial conference. Hosted by Boca Raton-based Noble Capital Markets, the annual gathering is a platform for aspiring small and medium-sized companies to pitch themselves as investment opportunities to high net worth and institutional investors.

Michael Kupinski, Noble’s research director, said the summit, in its 19th year, usually brings a high-profile keynote speaker. This year, that slot belonged to Bush.

Ahead of the late morning session, Kupinski noted that while the former president was "relatively reserved" in commenting about government, he has become more outspoken in recent times.

"We're finding that he's a little bit more interested in, I guess, talking about his views where in the past he's been somewhat reserved," Kupinski said.

Indeed he was, especially on foreign affairs.

George W. Bush talks about America's role in world affairs

Bush said America's role in world affairs is a complex one, but he cited the cases of Japan and South Korea as ones where the sacrifices made by the United States have resulted in functioning, free societies. In that context, he said he was "appalled" by the world stage given North Korea's murderous dictator, Kim Jong Un.

Bush gave full-throated backing to calls to assist Ukraine in its defense against a nearly two-year-old invasion by neighboring Russia, and lauded President Joe Biden's administration for its handling of the conflict. He said Russian leader Vladimir Putin was "an autocrat" who sees the invasion as an opportunity to "reinstate Russian glory" by "conquering a young democracy with a freely-elected" government.

"It seems to me that if this country values freedom and democracy that we have an obligation, not only for the people of Ukraine, but for our own people to defend Ukraine against the autocrat, no matter the price," he said.

In this 2008 photo, President George W. Bush presents The Lincoln Medal to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, left, and Dr. Benjamin Carson, right, who later served in the Trump administration.
In this 2008 photo, President George W. Bush presents The Lincoln Medal to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, left, and Dr. Benjamin Carson, right, who later served in the Trump administration.

If Putin prevails in Ukraine, he said, there would be little to stop him from launching more invasions on European countries. He called out the neo-isolationist movement in the United States. While he didn't say it, it is a movement largely embodied by Trump's "America First" movement and bolstered by voices within the Republican Party and conservative media. Bush issued a warning about isolationism in drawing an analogy with the Sept. 11 attacks that were the watershed moment of his presidency.

"The fundamental question is, shouldn't we draw the line now? As Americans. I think we should," Bush said. There is an isolationist movement in the country that says it's none of our business, who cares? That's like saying the consequences of 9-11 weren't that dire."

Israel-Hamas conflict, China also dominated the discussion at Bush talk

Bush said that, as was the case with Middle East radicals, violent extremists and terrorist cells at the start of the century, aggressive state actors elsewhere pose a threat to U.S. security.

"9-11 basically said the human condition elsewhere matters to the security of our country," he said. "We're no longer protected by oceans. We have to be mindful of how other people live. This to me is a seminal moment for our country, and for the world."

He said much the same about support for Israel, which resumed its war on Hamas this week after a short-lived ceasefire. Bush said U.S. support for Tel Aviv was right, and indispensable given Hamas' stated desire to destroy the Israeli state.

"I think we've responded the right way," he said. "We should defend Israel."

But he also said the conflict has brought challenges to the U.S. home front that require attention.

He expressed concern about the rise of antisemitism, particularly on university campuses. He worried that the ability of Hamas to use "innocent life" as shields and propaganda pawns naturally elicited "strong emotions across" the United States and could erode support for Israel here. And he reminded Americans to be "mindful" that people have the right to express themselves, and support opposing causes, without being "castigated" for those views.

"I just don't think we ought to lose sight of a right of a democracy to defend itself against people that want to destroy it," he said.

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Bush also pushed back on the political narrative, one that is prevalent in his own party, about China.

The ex-commander-in-chief said he sees Beijing as a competitor rather than a "bitter enemy" and said areas exist where the U.S. and China can collaborate, and others where they won't. For example, he said Washington must thwart Beijing's aims in using technology to gain Americans' information and impact elections through improved cyber security.

But he particularly challenged the view that China is playing from a position of strength against Washington. Bush noted the Asian giant is struggling with the fallout of its one-child policy, has high levels of poverty and a political system that stifles innovation and entrepreneurship and it has an over-leveraged real estate market.

A flash point could be a conflict in Taiwan, but Bush said he suspects that Beijing "having made a bad bet on Putin in Ukraine is really not that interested in taking on the world" because the United States has wisely strengthened relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and India.

President George W. Bush and China's Premier Wen Jiabao shake hands as they take part in state arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House in 2008.
President George W. Bush and China's Premier Wen Jiabao shake hands as they take part in state arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House in 2008.

"Which says to China that it's not just the U.S. you are dealing with. It's nations of shared values," Bush said.

Bush also called on Washington to fix the "broken" immigration system in bipartisan fashion with border security measures and a worker visa program. He acknowledged that the porous southern border has created a gateway for cartels to traffic people but likewise that the chaos is preventing others who seek to work and be good residents in the United States the opportunity to do so.

"There needs to be an orderly way of people coming to our country to do jobs that Americans will not do in order for our country to grow," he said. "Americans want the border to be enforced."

Bush, who has taken up art and painting in his post-presidency, noted that he produced a book of 43 portraits of immigrants to promote the "beauty" of immigration in America. He lauded the recently passed Henry Kissinger and another previous secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who were both refugees from European fascism.

"No other nation can say that's possible, maybe some, but America is a welcoming place and as a result we were able to benefit from their wisdom and brain power," he said of the two.

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Bush applauded during Boca Raton appearance, but still holds a complicated legacy

Throughout Tuesday's talk, Bush's remarks received exuberant applause. Nonetheless, the 43rd president, son of the country's 41st president, is the holder of a complicated presidential legacy.

The way he united the country in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks still serves as a model. He visited a mosque and urged America to distinguish between loyal U.S. Muslims and the foreign terrorists who attacked the nation.

It is a valuable lesson in the wake of the surge in antisemitism and Islamaphobia following the Israel-Hamas war. On Tuesday, in fact, the presidents of Ivy League universities appeared before Congress to discuss the hateful atmosphere faced by Jewish students, while three Palestinian college students were shot last week in Vermont.

Bush's foreign and domestic policies during two terms, however, remain a source of divisive controversy, and in numerous ways are repudiated by today's Republican Party.

Bush left office with historically low approval ratings amid a stock market meltdown and the onset of the Great Recession. The federal, taxpayer-financed bailout of Wall Street firms was seen to have abandoned millions of homeowners to foreclosure, eliciting stinging resentment that lingers today.

The seeds of much of today's anti-government sentiment, which views federal institutions with suspicion and dismisses the idea that government agencies are benevolent paternal actors, were sown as the public came to understand that U.S. intelligence agencies failed to protect America from the Sept. 11 attacks and were ineffective and slow to respond to other crises, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Former President Trump has been among Bush's harshest critics. Trump's references to "neo-cons" and "endless wars" are a direct criticism of the way the Bush administration conducted the war in Afghanistan and convinced the country to support an invasion of Iraq.

Bush has not been a fan of his successor, either. After Trump's "American Carnage" inaugural speech in 2017, Bush reportedly remarked the address was "some weird sh--.”

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Bush ended talk with call for humility in leadership, optimism

But part of Bush's legacy is the bipartisanship consensus on the No Child Left Behind education reforms and the Medicare expansion. He has also embraced the post-presidential traditions that are hallmarks of the American peaceful transfer of power.

On Tuesday, he reiterated those views.

He lauded his father, President George H.W. Bush, who he said was defined by his commitment to country and family and was never defined by political victories or losses. He spoke of being "content" in seeing his children succeed as adults.

He said "mastery" of U.S. history should be a prerequisite for seeking the presidency. His readings on Abraham Lincoln, and the trials of the Civil War, taught him that his own challenges in the White House were surmountable.

Another hallmark of leadership, he counseled, was to own the trials of the moment rather than wallow in self-pity or bemoan that his predecessors were dealt an easier hand. As it relates to his own reflections on history, Bush said, he had this response to anyone who might suggest he was dealt a raw deal during his two-term presidency: "Read Lincoln."

Bush touted that he remained happily married to former first lady Laura Bush, who he said was a critical partner during his two terms because she "wasn't pissed off" that he made her move to Washington but instead consoled him and kept him calm during tense times in the White House.

And he added this advice to the business people in the audience.

"Here is a key to leadership, humility," he said. "You got to know what you don't know, find people who do know what you don't know, and work with them."

Bush didn't offer a prediction on the 2024 presidential election, but said the country yearns for a change of the political guard.

Former President George W. Bush, seen here before an NFL football game between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 12, 2023, in Arlington, Texas, spoke in Boca Raton on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2023 and spoke of the how U.S institutions held the line after the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks. "So long as our democracy is vibrant we will heal," Bush said.

"Most Americans think we are too damn old at the top," he said. "I'm 77 and I'm too old to be president. I know what it takes to be president, and I'm younger than Biden and Trump."

He added: "Most Americans want change, they want something different, whether the system yields that or not."

He called the Jan. 6 attacks a "terrible moment" in which "bullies" tried to overturn the will of the people. But he said he was encouraged that U.S institutions held the line, from the Congress that eventually ratified Biden's victory to the courts that heard the allegations of electoral fraud and fairly decided to dismiss them.

"So long as our democracy is vibrant we will heal," Bush said.

Antonio Fins is a politics and business editor at The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach him at afins@pbpost.comHelp support our journalism. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: George W. Bush in Boca Raton criticizes Trump on Ukraine, immigration