Everyone gets a second act in Hollywood, even one of Tinseltown’s prime targets throughout much of the 2000s: President George W. Bush. But with President Donald Trump in the White House, some are looking back on the Bush years through rosier glasses.
Taking the stage to healthy applause during a Wednesday lunch session at the Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills, the former president started off by talking about one of the most successful parts of his legacy — his work to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa as part of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief — and how that squares with today’s “America First” position taken by current President Donald Trump.
“When you talk about somebody else’s problem, ‘let them take care of it themselves,'” Bush said, adding, “I wish taxpayers knew.”
The former president said combating AIDS in Africa was in the country’s national and security interests, but he indicated he is motivated by something deeper.
“When you’re told a pandemic is destroying an entire generation of people and you’re the president of the most powerful nation, it would be morally shameful not to act,” he said.
Bush told interviewer and Milken Institute Chairman Michael Milken that he hid his plans to take on AIDS from members of Congress, because he didn’t want it to devolve into social issues, like debates over contraception. And he said he’ll never forget the reaction from Congress when he unveiled his plan during a State of the Union address.
“I’ll never forget the faces of the members of Congress when I said $15 billion, we’re going to defeat AIDS,” Bush said. “They were shocked. I guess Republicans aren’t supposed to care.”
However, Bush mentioned one pillar of his foreign policy that is more traditionally Republican — and which he acknowledged might put him at odds with some in the room.
“Often times I believe it takes strong U.S. leadership to make things happen,” he said.
The 43rd president, a longtime proponent of immigration reform, also weighed in on an increasingly hot-button issue, as Trump campaigned on a border wall and implemented (an ultimately pulled) travel ban.
“I was raised in Texas — we were Mexico,” Bush said. “The culture didn’t make me nervous. I always felt like Texas is a richer place because of the Latino influence.”
Bush said a lot of the vitriol currently directed toward people not born in the United States is simply anger — a phenomenon with some historical precedent in the country.
“When people are angry it’s easy to blame somebody else,” Bush said. “Oftentimes the easiest target is immigrants.”
He referenced how in the 1920s and 1930s, plenty of people believed there were too many Jews and Italians in the country.
“About the same time, we had an ‘America First’ policy,” he said. “You can figure that out.”
Bush also elaborated on his views of the Middle East, which hasn’t changed much since his presidency — despite the war in Iraq costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. He still believes the long arc of history bends toward freedom — even if it needs to be given a push.
“If you study history, freedom always wins if given a chance,” he said. “And freedom yields peace. I believe women will lead the freedom movement in the Middle East.”
He also had a strong rebuke for those who have criticized his outlook by claiming “Muslims can’t self-govern.”
“That’s what we said about Condi Rice’s relatives for too long in this country,” he said, referencing African Americans.
Milken took time later in the conversation to point out things he and the former president have in common, including the fact that both were cheerleaders in high school. One big distinction: future actress Sally Field was a high school classmate and fellow cheerleader of Milken’s, while Bush’s squad had no such star sizzle.
“That’s the difference between California and Texas,” Bush said. “Hanging out with the movie stars. Not exactly my base of support, by the way.”
It also wouldn’t be an interview with the former president without at least one “Bushism” — and this one came after he laughed about another misstatement.
“English has not always been my long suit,” he said.