Though the main attraction at a private gathering at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens Monday, July 16, included former President George W. Bush, it was a mostly nonpolitical evening.
The 43rd president neither excoriated nor overtly praised President Barack Obama, for example, nor did he wade much into the health care debate despite the occasion of his visit being related to a hospital – specifically, to the 100th anniversary of Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp.
Bush was accompanied by his wife, Laura, and “interviewed” by his daughter Jenna Bush-Hager for what was set up to be a question-and-answer session at the Dixon. The main theme was what the Bushes have been up to since leaving the White House, and guests at the event included civic leaders, hospital board members and community partners.
The visit was part of Baptist’s yearlong centennial celebration, which kicked off late last year with a fundraiser for the hospital’s new comprehensive cancer care center that featured recording artist Patti LaBelle.
When the talk turned to political topics throughout the evening, Bush stayed generally around the edges without venturing into controversy, according to multiple sources in attendance for the gathering, which was closed to the media. He talked about the importance of family and about the things he’s been busy with lately, both the major initiatives and the little things, like his new hobby of oil painting.
That’s not to say the evening was completely free of politics. For example, reflecting on things he wishes had gone differently during his presidency, Bush allowed that he’d like to have been able to pass things like immigration and Social Security reform.
“Human life matters. To whom much is given, much is required.”
–George W. Bush
43rd president of the United States
Regarding the latter, he told the crowd – which included both Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. – that Social Security is “flat broke” and described it as “shameful” for workers to be paying into what he described as a broken system.
“The problem was, I couldn’t even get my own party to agree with me,” Bush said.
He only ventured into the health care debate in a philosophical sense. One of the questions Bush’s daughter asked him was why he asked Congress to boost spending for health care efforts around the world.
He recalled how during his presidency the country spent billions of dollars “saving lives in Africa.”
“First, human life matters,” Bush said. “To whom much is given, much is required.”
He described the United States as “by far the richest nation in the world” and that leading the richest nation in the world while not being focused on helping others is “shameful.”
About the domestic health care situation, he praised the country’s health system, doctors and technology as first-rate, while at the same time warning that “we have to control costs.” One thing that helps do that, he said, is competition, though he cautioned against a government that gets too “heavy-handed.”
“He was very conversational,” Luttrell said. “He did not get into anything like the Affordable Care Act, though he talked about how a country as rich as America has the potential to do so many things in the health care area.
“It was a very nonpolitical evening. What was probably most touching and moving for me was the way he talked about the value and strength of family.”
Wharton said the main thing he recalled was Bush’s descriptions of his closeness to his family, “how that gave him an ability to withstand criticism and not become arrogant based on the awesome power of the office.”