George W. Bush declined President Obama's invitation to join him at Ground Zero today to meet with firefighters, police, first responders and families who lost loved ones during the 9/11 attacks, an event that defined his presidency.
With news that Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden Sunday, the former president was suddenly thrust back onto the stage as the world looked back at the Sept 11 attacks and the nearly decade-long hunt to find the world's most notorious terrorist.
But several top officials from the Bush administration said they were not at all surprised that Bush declined the invitation, in keeping with his pledge to stay out of the spotlight and let Obama be the president.
As Bush's second term wound down in January 2009, he did not mince words when it came to his plans for life after the White House.
"When I get out of here, I'm getting off the stage," he told reporters a week before Obama's inauguration. "I believe there ought to be, you know, one person in the klieg lights at a time. And I've had my time in the klieg lights."
Exit stage left; that was Bush's plan, so he remained in Dallas today.
And for nearly 2½ years, the former president has kept his word, declining interview requests and keeping a low-profile in Dallas as he wrote his memoir and developed his presidential library.
Bush has notably stayed on the sidelines and withheld judgment on Obama's policies, even when many top officials from his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have been openly critical.
On Sunday evening, before addressing the nation, Obama called Bush to inform him that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces.
Later in the week, the president extended an invitation to his predecessor to join him at Ground Zero today, but Bush declined.
"He appreciated the invite, but has chosen in his post-presidency to remain largely out of the spotlight," Bush spokesman David Sherzer said. "He continues to celebrate with all Americans this important victory in the war on terror."
Bush will attend the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"President Bush always said during his tenure that once he was off the stage, he was going to be off the stage. He doesn't seek the spotlight nor the headlines," former Bush White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. "[Bush] issued a statement Sunday night that was perfect. It praised President Obama and our military and intelligence officials, and it gave tribute to those who lost their lives in the attacks."
The statement was not political ; it took no credit for playing a role in bin Laden's death nor did it weigh in on the terror policies of the Obama administration.
"This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001," Bush said. "The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."
In many ways, the hunt for bin Laden and the war on terror defined the Bush administration.
On Sept 14, 2001, Bush traveled to Ground Zero where the World Trade Center had stood three days earlier. There he stood on a pile of still smoldering rubble, put his arm around a firefighter and addressed the emergency rescue teams who had been working around the clock since the attacks three days earlier.