Applause erupted on the set of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as Kimmel welcomed his latest guest: a 70-year-old painter from Texas. The guest was on the show to promote a new book of oil paintings highlighting the portraits and stories of US military veterans. During a brief interview, the self-taught artist discussed his journey from painting portraits for pet owners to crafting his newest work documenting the lives of nearly a hundred veterans, some of whom sat in Kimmel’s live studio audience. As the interview closed, Kimmel turned towards the camera, ready to go to commercial break. “Thank you very much, Mr. President. We’ll be right back with Adam Pally,” he said.
The self-taught painter from Texas was the 43rd president of the United States: George W. Bush ’68. Bush was on Kimmel promoting his book of oil paintings entitled Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. The interview marked one stop along a two-month press junket that spanned a diverse set of media outlets including Ellen, TODAY, and Fox News.
This series of talk show appearances contrasted with the low profile Bush quickly established after leaving the Oval Office. Since his departure from the White House, Bush has rarely voiced his opinion on political happenings and has only marginally involved himself in presidential campaigns. Over the past eight years, he has seldom made headlines, often coming out of the shadows only briefly to promote a new book or give an occasional lecture.
Bush’s 20 apolitical minutes of smiles and Dick Cheney jokes on “Kimmel” underscored the precarious position in which former commanders-in-chief often find themselves. A respect for the peaceful transition of power typically trumps personal desires to maintain influence in Washington. Tradition suggests that an ex-president must be sometimes seen and rarely heard.
Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, took a far different approach after leaving office. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, Blair, who served as leader of the UK’s center-left Labour Party, worked closely with President Bush. The two had a famously strong relationship that lasted from 2001 to 2007. Despite the close alliance between Blair and Blush while in office, their approaches to public life have dramatically diverged.
Blair has attracted criticism for his recently revitalized engagement in UK politics. Nearly ten years after his resignation from the office of Prime Minister, Blair has become an outspoken critic of current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The former Prime Minister has repeatedly made headlines for undermining Corbyn’s agenda to the press. Blair received public disapproval after he defied party lines by refusing to support Jeremy Corbyn in his bid for Prime Minister earlier this year while also complementing conservative Prime Minister Theresa May.
Blair has made his political goals clear. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, he explained his public re-emergence, saying: “I am really serious about remaking the center-left in British Politics. I think there’s an urgent need for progressive politics to recapture its traction.” Blair’s efforts to reshape UK politics following the 2016 Brexit vote differ strongly from Bush’s more reserved approach to life out of office.
When not in front of the press, Blair has found other ways to insert himself back into the political arena. Over the past several months, Blair shut down many of his philanthropic efforts in order to open up time and money for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which launched in December 2016. According to its website, the Institute aims to “help make globalization work for the many, not the few.”
The move was a clear attempt to reignite Blair’s political profile and resist the progressive populism pushed by Jeremy Corbyn. Recently, Blair published an article through his Global Change Institute warning against the “risks of an unchanged Corbyn programme.”
In the article, entitled “Brexit and the Center,” he wrote: “If a right-wing populist punch in the form of Brexit was followed by a left-wing populist punch in the form of unreconstructed hard left economics, Britain would hit the canvas, flat on our back and be out for a long count.” Later on, Blair made an argument for a more centrist politics that avoids populist rhetoric. “The center may appear marginalized; but in the hearts and minds of many, it simply needs to be renewed.”
Though Blair’s adversarial relationship with Jeremy Corbyn didn’t appear to impact the results of this year’s general election, the former Prime Minister’s attempts to undermine Labour and revitalize centrist politics has demonstrated the potential influence of former heads-of-state. Corbyn has been forced to confront Blair’s criticisms, fending off skepticism as he attempts to move the Labour party farther left.
During a time in which party unity will prove critical in deciding the next prime minister, the escalation of Blair’s political activism could prove dangerous for the party he once led. The emergence of a new centrist political party, emboldened by a politically active Tony Blair, could cut Labour in half, further securing the Conservative Party’s control of Parliament.
Bush and Blair both forward two radically different brands of post-office leadership. The 43rd President of the United States has quietly displayed restraint by making few public appearances and refraining from criticizing his Washington colleagues. Prime Minister Blair has used the stature of his office to re-enter the public sphere in an attempt to salvage what he sees as misguided party leadership. While Bush has allowed two different presidents to lead without fearing their predecessor’s criticism, Blair continues to undercut trust in his own political party. Where Bush has been hushed, Blair has been outspoken.
The patterns of leadership forwarded by Blair and Bush aren’t necessarily static. On August 16th, George W. Bush and his father, 41st President of the United States George H.W. Bush, ‘48, released a joint statement condemning the racial bigotry and anti-Semitism following a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The statement came amidst a flurry of similar releases by both current and former elected officials censuring white supremacists after President Donald Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville.
The attention garnered by Bush’s statement underscores the authority of an ex-premier. The Office of the President will continue to follow Bush, irrespective of whether or not he chooses to exercise the full influence the office affords him. His choice to refrain from meddling in politics serves not as a resignation from public life but as an assertion of how former presidents might exercise leadership.
Just as Tony Blair redefined the role of a former Prime Minister by actively engaging in political life Bush continues to define the role of the presidency by choosing when to speak out and when to stand down. In their action, and inaction, both men hold the power to pressure and influence policy and politics. Regardless of their differing approaches to public life, Bush and Blair teach a powerful lesson in leadership: the office doesn’t end simply because your term is up.