George Bush, in Political Exile, Says He's Found His 'Freedom'

The ex-president sneaks back into Washington for a day.

ByABC News
May 15, 2012, 6:00 PM

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2012 -- George W. Bush crept back into the Washington scene Tuesday morning, and he left a few hours later, as briskly as he arrived.

We don't see much of Bush these days. He's the president that a lot of people would like to forget, still so toxic that he's widely considered more likely to hurt than help the Republican Party by participating in the 2012 campaign.

Bush's speech Tuesday morning was a rare exception. He spoke in a small, nondescript room to about 200 people about democracy activists, promoting a human rights campaign that's part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

His presence on the national stage is perhaps best seen in his presence on the small stage at 1777 F Street. At the end of the affair, Bush and his wife were called back up to be presented with writings by Czech human rights icon Vaclav Havel. They posed for pictures as the audience clapped, and when they were done, Bush glanced around as if unsure what to do next.

He walked back to his seat, but then quickly walked back onto the stage and behind the lectern. He leaned forward into the microphone, paused, and said slyly, "Thanks for coming."

Bush waited a second or two. Then he said, "See ya later."

He waved, and then he left.

Bush was in a familiar neighborhood: a block away from his old residence, the White House. He spoke about freedom and joked, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington." But he said he felt good to "be back and to see old friends."

Some of his old friends were there, listening to him, and afterward shaking his hand and taking pictures.

"It dawned on me as I was walking here -- we're getting awfully close to the place where I used to go for meetings," said Tom Woods, the president of an importing company who worked in Bush's State Department as an assistant deputy.

Bush sat in the front row of the room as advocates for democracy took turns speaking. It wasn't like his days in the White House. He watched as the staff struggled to get the sound working for a documentary he narrated, leaving the audience in a full minute of awkward silence. The slides that accompanied his introducer's speech looked like a middle-school PowerPoint presentation and were too small to read.

When he took the stage, he looked around the room and spoke softly, not hard-charging. He spoke of hope and freedom and those sorts of platitudes, and he stayed away from politics.

But politics didn't stay away from him. Bush, who has been invisible in the 2012 campaign, was forced to endorse Mitt Romney for president by virtue of being in a public place with the press. Though his assistants tried to push reporters away as the ex-president left the room, Bush piped up in response to ABC News about whether he'd endorse Romney.

"I'm for Mitt Romney," Bush said as the doors of an elevator began to close in front of him.

Like that, he was gone.

Bush may be "for" Romney, but the chance of him campaigning with the GOP candidate is about as likely as President Obama sharing a stage with Nicolas Sarkozy. Bush's popularity has risen since leaving office, yet more people still view him unfavorably and blame him for the economic collapse, according to polling.

The Obama campaign published a statement on Bush's endorsement of Romney before the Romney campaign did.

John Simon, a former special assistant to Bush on the National Security Council, told ABC News that he doubts Bush will be campaigning this fall. When a reporter noted that based on the reaction to his speech, people still seemed to love him, Simon replied, "We do."

Human rights is a noble cause for Bush, who no doubt wants his legacy to be something more positive than being the person in charge during an unpopular war in the Middle East and the crippling recession.

Jay Winik, a historian, said Bush's more public foray into the world of human rights is a "wonderful role" for him.

Winik added, "He's coming out into his element."