Recap: George W. Bush Speaks in Edmonton

Last night, I attended George W. Bush‘s talk in Edmonton, courtesy of Chris LaBossiere. Bush was speaking at an event titled “A Conversation with George W. Bush”. Like most events involving a current/former President of the United States, there was much spectacle surrounding it. Here is a short recap, and some of my thoughts on what the 43rd President had to say.

“This is What Democracy Looks Like”

Protesters gathered outside the Shaw Conference Centre, and across the street in front of Canada Place. They chanted, shouted displeasure at attendees, and at least one person was hit with candy. As I waited in line to get in, a protester repeatedly shouted “shame on you! shame on you!”, pointing at those of us in line. I found it amusing to think that, in almost every situation, I likely agree with their end goals; I just disagree on methods and means to get there. I wondered what the protesters were hoping to accomplish. Protest is a valid and valuable form of social action, but I think it loses its effect when overused. What was the point of protesting here? We all know Bush led the US into Iraq under false pretenses, that under his watch the government tortured prisoners. We know that he mismanaged the economy, running up increasing deficits while also cutting taxes, especially for the highest income earners. So again, what is a protest going to accomplish in this situation?

Protesters outside the Shaw Conference Centre.

As we stood there being shamed, another part of the crowd chanted “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” I found this entirely appropriate. Some people exercise their democratic right to dissent and protest peacefully, another chooses to listen to a former leader speak about his time in office and his views on the world, regardless of how they perceive and judge his deeds and words.

After the Talk
Protesters remained until after the talk.

“Rational Discussion” on Historical Events
President Bush spoke for about 40 minutes, saying he wanted to have a “rational discussion on historical events”. He started with a few paeans to Canada, and some folksy, self-deprecating jokes. I was immediately reminded why, once upon a time, many people liked him. He seems very down to earth, and easy to relate to.

Bush talked about some of the major events from his two terms, framing them in the context of lessons. For example, he stressed the importance of how you handle the unexpected – using 9/11 as an example from his time in life. He said that he never wanted to be a wartime president – “no one should”, he wanted to be the “education president”. Instead, he was forced to turn to foreign policy.

He also talked about the economy, particularly how they responded to the financial crisis of 2008. In his view, the actions they took “saved the system”. I will note that he made good points about the importance of trade, and the dangers of retreating into protectionism when times get tough.

Foreign policy was a central part of his speech. He talked also of the importance of staying engaged in the world. As proof that countries can change, he gave the example of Japan, who 60 years before 9/11 was at war with the United States. In present times, Japan is a strong ally. He spoke of individual rights, especially women’s rights, and mentioned that he’s setting up a mentorship program for women in the Middle East through his new institute at SMU. He also spoke about the importance of hope – that when people become hopeless, they are susceptible to join terrorist groups. I actually agree with this, to a point – I see extreme poverty (and a corresponding lack of education) as being major drivers for recruiting terrorists. Poverty anywhere drives people to extreme conditions – crime, gangs, etc. Bush didn’t hone in on the specifics, but in broad terms, he was on to something.

Which brings up a really interesting point. If I knew nothing about him or his time in office, his speech would sound pretty good. Speaking not to the methods of how to achieve them, many of the broad themes and goals Bush spoke about would resonate with most people – even progressives. The importance of giving people hope, of not seeking out war, of supporting young democracies and individual freedom. Unfortunately, much of what he did in office contradicts or works at cross-purpose with these stated ideals. I felt a real cognitive dissonance as I listened to him speak.

He was also disingenuous at times. After his 40 minute talk, Bush was joined on stage by Kelly Hrudey, who sat down to ask him a few questions, mostly about the Iraq War. Bush stated that the US was in Iraq “at the invitation of a democratically elected government”, which ignores the fact that this government was installed (before later winning an election) by the Coalition, and that the US went into the country before anyone invited them in. He also made some tenuous claims about his treatment of prisoners, claiming that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities were treated very well, and arguing that the US is not bound by the Geneva Convention when dealing with those who attack them but aren’t uniformed combatants. He defended the use of certain interrogation techniques, which I assume most would consider torture (he didn’t specify which techniques), claiming they only used it three times, and they got valuable information that saved American lives. Based on what he said, I’m assuming the “three times” meant “three prisoners”, and he was talking about waterboarding, since he gave the example of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. President Bush’s last statement, about the use of these “interrogation techniques”, drew a standing ovation, which prompted a protester in the audience to shout at the crowd for applauding torture.

What Do I Make of All This?
Unlike many of the audience, I wasn’t there because I am a fan of President Bush (I saw pretty much every young Tory from my university days in the lineup to get in). Rather, I was curious to see what he had to say, as I feel it’s worth listening to anyone’s view, and I hoped he would shed some insight into some of the major issues from his term.

I wasn’t sure what to make of President Bush at times during the speech. Certainly, I agree with Chris’ summation that he is an idealist. He talked in broad ideals, and as mentioned before, most would agree with them. Rather, it was knowing how his term played out, and some of the specific examples he gave (such as the comments on torture) that I fundamentally disagree with.

One of the instructive parts came towards the end. When asked for lessons he’s learned, Bush stressed the importance of “surrounding yourself with capable people”, then delegating. I have heard this characterized of Bush from a couple of political insiders. Bush is very much a hands-off leader, and likes to delegate. I think this could explain a lot of his presidency, at least in terms of foreign policy. He surrounded himself with people he saw sharing his broad goals, and from his comments on delegating, you could infer that he relied on them for the means to get there, especially since his circle of advisers (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, etc.) were more experienced that he was.

Nothing in his speech made me think higher of his actions of president, but it was instructive to listen to his speech. Hearing someone’s perspective is never a bad thing, and gives you a better feel for why he made some of the decisions he did.

More coverage:
My Flickr set of the protests
Graham Thomson: Edmonton Gives Bush Warm Welcome
Unlimited Blog: Democracy Wins as George W. Takes Edmonton
Steven Dollansky: Thought George Bush was fantastic.

Also, if 1200 words on this isn’t enough for you, please ask me questions.