George W. Bush avoids controversy in visit to Pittsburgh

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Former President George W. Bush renewed his call for immigration reform, warned against the rise of isolationism and critiqued the limits of congressional leadership today in an appearance before energy executives at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

He offered his observations while warning the audience that he would be his best to skirt controversy.

“If I want to make news, I can criticize the president or the Republican Party, and I don’t intend to do either,” the 43rd president said during the one-hour session in which he reflected on some of the crucial decisions of his presidency and shared a few glimpses of his post-White House preoccupations.

In a relaxed lunchtime exchange at the conference of Marcellus Shale interests, Mr. Bush explained that, “I have no intentions whatsoever to second guess the current president of the United States. I think it's bad for the country to have former presidents out there undermining the current president … and so, whatever I say, I’ll try to be as vague as possible.”

But while avoiding specifics of Washington debates, he said that presidential leadership and redistricting reform were two ingredients of any recipe for a more productive climate in the Capitol.

“It takes leadership, takes a desire by leaders in Washington to set aside party and focus on a common agenda,” Mr. Bush said. “Look, I’ll just tell you this, Congress can’t lead. Congress is basically made up of risk-averse people who have two-year time horizons. In order to think long-term it requires a chief executive to think beyond the moment, and to think beyond the horizon. I don’t think you should expect Congress, which is divided to begin with, to think long-term.”

Mr. Bush pointed to the effects of partisan redistricting where lawmakers are secure in general elections but more vulnerable in party primaries as system that reinforces polarization, saying Democrats increasingly worry about attacks from their left flank and Republicans from their right. That polarization could be ameliorated, he said, if the nation moved to “a sane form of redistricting.”

The day after House Speaker John Boehner reaffirmed his plan not to schedule a vote on a Senate passed immigration measure, Mr. Bush recalled that he had been “spectacularly unsuccessful” in his own push for immigration reform. He insisted, however, that the goal remained vital for the nation’s economy.

“The system is broken. It needs to be fixed and if you want to kill it politically, scream amnesty,” Mr. Bush said.

The former president wouldn’t be drawn into comments on the factional disputes of the current national GOP, observing only that such divisions were natural in a party out of power and predicting that they would recede as a new leader emerged. He took the opportunity to note that if it were his call, that leader would be his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But he wryly recalled that his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, had observed that there had already been too many Bushes in office.

Mr. Bush once again defended his decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and he warned that a nation turning inward after those long conflicts could jeopardize the accomplishments of the troops involved.

“The danger with the nation becoming isolationist is that the sacrifice is wasted,” he said.

Asked about the controversy over the National Security Agency’s vast data gathering, Mr. Bush defended the more assertive role that it assumed after 9/11. He emphasized that he did not know the specifics of current operations but said that the demand then was for an agency that would better “connect the dots,” on potential terrorist threats.

“It was necessary to protect the country,” he said. “Memories fade, the farther we get away from 9/11.”

Mr. Bush did have one point of implicit advice for his successor. He won the energy executives’ applause as he said that approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline should be “a no-brainer,” at a time when the economy is struggling to produce more jobs.

Mr. Bush said he was unconcerned by questions about his legacy, saying that he would be long dead before history reaches any consensus. But he did say he had history in mind as his administration struggled with the financial crisis of the final year of his administration. Recalling a “financial hell week,” in early September, 2008, he said he endorsed the extraordinary efforts to prop up banks and thaw frozen capital markets.

“I didn’t want history to say, ‘Bush could have done something about the Depression that happened.’ I didn’t want history books to say that 25 percent unemployment could have been avoided.”

James O'Toole: or 412-263- 1562. First Published November 14, 2013 6:00 PM

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