Like a child who begrudgingly has to invite his weird cousin to his birthday party, there are some things a president simply must do. So it must have been when President Obama asked George W. Bush to join with U.N. special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton to raise funds for the earthquake-ravaged nation. After all, despite Bush's formidable fundraising prowess, his presidential record on disaster response and Haiti in particular does not exactly inspire confidence.
That did not prevent the right-wing Heritage Foundation from calling on Obama yesterday to seek "high-level, bipartisan leadership" for the Haiti relief campaign by choosing former President George W. Bush "to lead the bipartisan effort for the Republicans."
To be sure, "bipartisan" is not a word normally associated with George W. Bush. But fundraising surely is, as his record-breaking hauls in 2000 and 2004 from "Pioneers" and "Rangers" like Jack Abramoff and Enron's Ken Lay demonstrate.
But when it comes to disaster preparedness and response, President Bush's experience was not a happy one.
Hurricane Katrina, after all, didn't merely devastate the Gulf Coast; as even his own closest aides admit, it largely washed away Bush's presidency. The indelible images of Katrina drowning New Orleans also include Bush sharing a birthday cake in Arizona with John McCain, strumming a guitar with Mark Wills, and ultimately staring blankly out the window of Air Force One. Even still, Bush's jaw-dropping claim that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" didn't sum up his catastrophic failure as much as the line that became the epitaph for his presidency:
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
The horrific December 2004 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people across Asia, too, presented problems for President Bush. To be sure, the massive U.S. mobilization ultimately delivered $1 billion to Asian nations in need, an amount doubled by the private fundraising led by the President's father and Bill Clinton. (And to Bush's credit, that effort paid dividends in subsequent years, as public attitudes toward the United States in Muslim Indonesia improved substantially in the wake of American assistance there.) But as I noted at the time:
Much of the coverage and debate in the United States has centered around whether or not the initial U.S. $35 million aid package is, in the words of U.N emergency coordinator Jan Egeland, "stingy."
Given his Katrina experience, it came as no surprise that George W. Bush didn't show up at all when a cyclone washed over Burma in May 2008. That First Lady Laura Bush was trotted out in her husband's place to speak to the press raised eyebrows at the time:
Q: Mrs. Bush, why such an historic interest? This is a first, for a First Lady to come to this podium and talk about a cyclone. Why such a historic interest?
MRS. BUSH: Well, you know I've been interested in Burma for a long time. It started really with an interest in Aung San Suu Kyi and reading her works and just the story of a Nobel Prize winner who's been under house arrest for so long,
Then there's the uncomfortable matter of President George W. Bush's personal history with Haiti. In 2004, the United States stood by as chaos swept Haiti, ultimately forcing President Aristide from power. A popularly elected if corrupt official, whose election was made possible by the Clinton intervention in the mid-90's, was pushed aside by the Bush team.
At the end of the day, it is both right and fitting that President Obama turn to his predecessor to help raise money for the victims in Haiti, even if that means dragging Dubya away from his upcoming speaking engagement at the Safari Club International Annual Hunters' Convention designed to "replenish the ol' coffers." It's not merely a requirement of political decorum at a time of crisis. As George H.W. Bush showed in his joint appeals with Bill Clinton after the tsunami, the Bush family stepped up to the plate to make a difference.
The only caveat? Dubya should probably leave his mom at home. Speaking of "underprivileged" Katrina victims who made their way to Houston, Barbara Bush announced "this is working very well for them."