Extreme Makeover

Carter and Nixon rehabilitated their public images after leaving office. Here's what George W. Bush needs to do to remake his.

On January 18, 2001, I flew aboard Air Force One with Bill Clinton. It was his second-to-last full day in office, and he had returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, for an afternoon in order to address his home state's legislature. If anyone doubted that Clinton hoped to remain in the public eye, his speech at the Beaux-Arts statehouse put their uncertainty to rest. He rattled off his administration's accomplishments-welfare reform, an improved economy-and he talked about work that was not yet done in education and other areas. On that flight back to Washington, Clinton met with a small group of reporters, including me, who had covered him during the 1992 campaign, and discussed at length how different presidents had dealt with their postpresidential lives. He mentioned Ulysses S. Grant, who at the behest of Mark Twain published a memoir that revived his image and made him a fortune.

I doubt that George W. Bush has gamed out his postpresidency in the same erudite way that Clinton did. But he ought to start, because when he leaves office on January 20, he'll be facing an image-remake challenge not seen since Jimmy Carter left office: how to reverse the legacy of a failed presidency.

Bush has time. When he walks away from the White House, he will be only 62 years old, in great physical shape from all that bike riding and running, and in possession of genes that bequeath long life expectancies. (His father, the first president Bush, is 84 and jumping out of planes.) So I queried a few professional imagemakers about what they'd counsel George W. Bush to do to restore his public standing. Here's what they had to say.

Harold Burson, the august founder of the Burson-Marsteller public-relations agency, offers this advice: "I've got a very simple solution. Go down to Crawford, Texas, and be George W. Bush. In other words, don't start some campaign to revive your legacy. He should be himself. Speaking out on public issues doesn't come naturally to him, and so he should be quiet."

Howard Rubenstein, an acquaintance of J.F.K.'s and a venerable New York public-relations executive who founded his powerhouse firm, Rubenstein Associates, in 1954, suggests a more active plan: "I would follow the pattern of Jimmy Carter and President Clinton-taking what really interests him, like the prevention of H.I.V./AIDS, and lead an organization and raise tremendous money and awareness. But I'd only pick something where he's able to put in a lot of time and cluster around him a bunch of credible people with achievements. I'd have no politicians in those efforts, just professors and scientists. As a second step, I would keep quiet about Iraq and Afghanistan and a failed foreign policy hated abroad."

Jerry Della Femina, the legendary advertising executive, has no confidence that the Jimmy Carter-style good-works model is appropriate for Bush: "Look, no matter how many houses he builds with his bare hands, people think he was a terrible president. Building houses with his hands and physical work makes him feel good, but it's impossible to change people's opinions."

Della Femina's only concrete suggestion for Bush: Write a memoir, but do it with someone like Bob Woodward, who has the credibility that Bush lacks.

Linda Dozoretz, a Los Angeles-based publicist and crisis manager who worked for tennis star Martina Navratilova, goes for the regular-guy approach: "He used to be the guy who people wanted to have a beer with. But now he looks like an elitist in his bicycle shorts, like the kind of elitist he would have made fun of. He needs to start campaigning again like a good ol' boy. For instance, Jon Stewart makes fun of Bush's dance moves. Bush should go on Dancing With the Stars, not as a contestant but maybe for a quick cameo. And he should do things like start blogging about some of his presidential experiences, and he should be more accessible, so people can send him emails. When he makes some money on a book, he has to give a lot of it to charity."

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