George W. Bush, True to His Word, Lies Low After Osama Bin Laden Killing

President George W. Bush's post-presidency plan was to leave the public eye.

May 5, 2011, 1:05 PM

May 5, 2011 -- 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.

Not the Time for Policy Debates?

When someone in the crowd shouted that they couldn't hear him, Bush grabbed a bullhorn and delivered one of the iconic statements of his presidency.

"I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you," Bush said. "And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Three days later, Bush traveled to the Pentagon for a military briefing where he was asked by a reporter if he wanted bin Laden dead.

"I want justice," he said. "And there's an old poster out West, that I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'"

After those two statements came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the search for weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration controversial use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which critics said was simply torture.

In his farewell address to the nation Jan. 15, 2009, Bush did not acknowledge bin Laden by name but did mention the steps he had taken to protect the U.S. people.

"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions," he said of the war on terror. "But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.

Some Bush aides acknowledged that Bush's returning to the spotlight could reignite the arguments over his administration's policies on terrorism, but they also said that a day like today is not the time to have those debates.

Scott Stanzel, who served as a White House deputy press secretary and worked for Bush for nearly a decade, said the policy discussion is "unavoidable."

"That would be a natural discussion. It's a discussion that's ongoing even without President Bush attending the activities today at Ground Zero or doing any interviews about this," Stanzel said.

First Rule of the Former President's Club: Hold Your Tongue?

Gordon Johndroe, who served as the National Security Council spokesman during the second Bush term, said the debate about those policies started as soon as the news came out that intelligence gathered during interrogations in the Bush administration led to bin Laden.

"I think that was a natural direction for the discussion to go because the question was 'How did we find him?' and when you start piecing it all together, it goes back to a variety of things, including intelligence derived from interrogations," Johndroe said.

The Former Presidents Club is perhaps the world's most elite, and the unwritten No. 1 rule, former White House officials say, is to respect the office by withholding criticism of the current occupant, no matter what party they are from.

President George H. W. Bush was defeated in his bid for reelection by Bill Clinton and he held his tongue during Clinton's two terms in office. In recent years, the two have developed a warm friendship and even joke about Clinton being part of the family.

Stanzel said that "absolutely without question" the former president was influenced by the example set by his father.

"President Bush has patterned his post-presidency with his father's time in mind," Stanzel told ABC News. "I don't think there is anyone out there who would say that President George H. W. Bush wasn't gracious to President Clinton. Former presidents can be a resource for each other."

Stanzel said Bush appreciated that his predecessors took the same approach, showing respect to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Former President Jimmy Carter has been an exception to that unwritten club rule, publicly criticizing both the Obama administration and Bush administration on foreign policy.

Bush Has No Desire to Offer Opinion on Every Hot Issue

Last week was perhaps the most high-profile event Bush has done since leaving office, the Warrior 100K, a 100-kilometer bike ride with over a dozen U.S. servicemen and women who were seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush is an avid mountain-bike rider who put his Secret Service detail through some grueling workouts during his White House years and rode on his Texas ranch with cycling star Lance Armstrong.

In an interview with "Good Morning America" last week to promote the bike ride, the former president said that that one of the perks of being out of office is not having to give a statement every time something happens in Washington or in the world.

"I really, look, I appreciate your giving me a chance to opine on all of the issues of the day," Bush said to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos when asked about Obama's national security staff shuffle. "But as you know, I've made the decision to support causes I'm interested in without feeling like I've got to give an opinion on every issue."

Perino told ABC News that the only press that she believes her former boss will do is interviews on specific topics, as he did when he promoted his memoir, "Decision Points," last fall and the Warrior 100k ride.

"He won't be out opining and trying to get into every news cycle. Reporters always just ask him the same old things, even with the wounded warriors sitting right next to him," Perino said. "He's not obsessed with day to day news. He loves politics, he follows it closely, but he's not going to 'spew forth' on it."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events