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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Pres. Bush Visits USC, Admits Lacking in Wall Street Knowledge

In a wide-ranging conversation at USC, the 43rd president defended his decisions to prevent economic depression while recounting the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks.

[A correction has been made to this story. Please see the details at the bottom of the article.]

Former Pres. George W. Bush emerged from several years mostly out of the limelight Tuesday to address a closed-door, invitation-only audience at the University of Southern California, where he reviewed his two terms at the White House, quipped on life as a retired grandfather, and chastised those who look down on his successor's occasional round of golf.

But it was two controversial periods in Bush's presidency that dominated the evening's conversation: the economic meltdown of 2008 and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that spawned the War on Terror, including the start of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an expansion of American intelligence-gathering and defense operations.

Sitting alongside his wife Laura before a crowd of more than 1,200 in the university's Bovard Auditorium, Bush was folksy and candid, and in his characteristic drawl, he said the largest attack on U.S. soil in history made him "pissed."

Other words, he joked, might be more appropriate. "My instincts flared," he said in a mocking tone.

Although his review of 9/11 stoked emotion among the crowd, Bush framed his remarks on the attacks as a lesson on leadership, explaining that the "unexpected" defines one's presidency.

"I had been in crisis before, and the first lesson in a crisis if you're leading an organization is to project calm," said Bush, adding that a "psychological tsunami" could have overwhelmed the country if his attitude intimated fear.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias, former first lady Laura Bush, former President George W. Bush, USC Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis. (Steve Cohn)
USC President C. L. Max Nikias, former first lady Laura Bush, former President George W. Bush, USC Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis. (Steve Cohn)

While Bush showed little doubt about how he shepherded the country through the aftermath of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks, he was less certain about his handling of the 2008 economic meltdown, seeming to shift blame on his deputies.

"Even though I went to Harvard Business School, I didn't know much about Wall Street," said the 43rd president, explaining that he relied on those with sharper financial acumen than his own.

His strategy, he said, was a sort of case study in management -- fitting for the night's lecture, which was moderated by the Dean of the Marshall School of Business, James Ellis.

"One of the key things to leading an organization is to know what you don't know," Bush said. "And find people who do know what you don't know."

He singled out former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and then-Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Ben Bernanke as "two men whose judgment I trust." And the former governor of Texas credited the implemention of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, as staving off economic depression. TARP was a federal program that sought to ameliorate the subprime mortgage crisis with $750 billion granted to Wall Street banks.

Former Pres. Bush and Mrs. Bush came to campus as part of the President's Distinguished Lecture Series, which has previously brought to campus Dr. Henry Kissinger, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush.

Media were barred from recording and photographing the event, but students were allowed to attend as guests in the audience, not as media representatives. 

Bush has kept a relatively low profile since the end of his presidency - a stark contrast to his immediate successor President Bill Clinton. Clinton leads the Clinton Global Inititative while campaigning for Democratic candidates including his wife Hillary's failed bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008.
But Bush did use his the microphone Tuesday to address a wide range of contemporary issues.
On energy, he said the present era is undergoing "one of the biggest economic transformations in the history of our country because we are going to be not dependent on Middle Eastern sources of energy."

He minced no words in his support of fracking: "There's been hundreds of thousands of wells fracked, and the damage has been miniscule."

On President Obama, Bush was mostly mum - but he called it unfair to criticize his playing an occasional round of golf.  
"The country ought not to excoriate our president for playing golf," Bush said.
And explaining his choice to keep a low-profile - unlike his running mate, former Vice President Dick Cheney - Bush said weighing into the affairs of his successor "undermines the institution of the presidency."
"It's the institution of the presidency that provides great stability to our ship of state," Bush said.
But the conversation regularly circled back to the defining moment of U.S. foreign policy for more than a decade: the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He recalled the morning of the attacks, when he was visiting a school in Florida and had the duty of informing the parents present.

“You are in a bubble as a president, and I had to see the horror, doubt, infusion of sadness that was rippling throughout the country firsthand which is pretty unusual for a president,” he said. "This time I was out of the bubble.”


Despite the somber subjects, Bush injected levity in the evening. He took jabs at Ellis, the moderator, and joked about his history of smoking and drinking - both of which he gave up at his wife Laura's insistence.

And in one of the more memorable exchanges of the night, he poked fun at his decision to take up painting, acknowledging the hobby is an obvious break from stereotype. His inspiration: Winston Churchill, who also painted.

But even his instructor was taken aback by the former president's decision to paint, and questioned his objectives.
Bush's reply:  "There's a Rembrandt chapter in this body."
[FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article read
Media were barred from recording and photographing the event, but the University allowed student media outlets ATVN, Neon Tommy, and the Daily Trojan to cover the event.
The article has been corrected to read
Media were barred from recording and photographing the event, but students were allowed to attend as guests in the audience, not as media representatives.]
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