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Former President Bush opines on immigration, Iran, bank bailout, more

| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Former President George W. Bush addresses the crowd as the keynote speaker at the Hart Energy Sponsored 2013 DUG East Conference & Exhibition in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Thursday, November 14, 2013.

Former President George W. Bush expressed skepticism about Iran's recent diplomatic overtures and predicted an end to the Republican Party's internal battles during a wide-ranging conversation on Thursday at an energy conference Downtown.

As keynote speaker at a 2,500-person lunch on the first full day of the DUG East convention for the natural gas industry, Bush defended his namesake foreign policy doctrine of pre-emptive force, as well as National Security Agency surveillance that began under his watch.

He discussed comparing dogs with Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the oil painting he has taken up since leaving the White House in 2009.

“I don't miss Washington, and I don't miss being president,” Bush said. He acknowledged the job had perks, though. On the ride to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, sans motorcade, “it was inconvenient stopping at all the stoplights. I miss that. I mean, Air Force One was nice.”

A former oil company CEO in Texas, Bush met with energy executives, conference speakers and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl before his luncheon discussion, an informal, hourlong question-and-answer session with Richard Mason, chief technical director for convention sponsor Hart Energy.

The former president, a Republican, alternated between jokes and drama from his eight years at the country's helm, including a 2008 conversation in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in which Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned him the country might plunge into a depression without a $750 billion bank bailout.

“This is the fundamental question I faced: Do I adhere to principle in this place and let the market sort out winners and losers, which I told the American people I believed in, and risk a depression?” Bush said. “I didn't want history to say, ‘Bush could've done something about the depression that happened.' I didn't want history books saying ‘25 percent unemployment could've been avoided.'”

As the White House and State Department try to stop the Senate from tightening sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, since negotiations last week failed to produce a deal, Bush seemed skeptical of the Islamic republic.

“The sanctions are working. Are they trying to ease sanctions in return for nothing, or are they trying to ease sanctions in return for substantial change? I think we need to be very cautious,” Bush said.

He immediately clarified that he's not trying to “undermine our president.”

“I think it's bad for the country to have former presidents out there undermining the current president,” Bush said.

A day before Bush's address, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he won't negotiate with the Democratic-controlled Senate over immigration reform, which Bush tried to push through during his tenure.

“It's a very complex, difficult issue to get done, and therefore it needs to be the primary focus of Congress and the president. It can't be a secondary objective,” Bush said.

Leadership has to come from the White House, he said.

“Congress can't lead. Congress is basically made up of risk-averse people who've got two-year time horizons,” Bush said.

He traced discord within the Republican Party to its consecutive losses in presidential elections, casting it as a predictable political cycle.

“When you've been out of power for eight years, without a leader, there's going to be diverging views,” Bush said. “Ultimately, the party will make the decision to win, and nominate somebody, and then it'll change.”

Allen Gilmer, CEO of the data analysis company Drillinginfo, said Bush told CEOs with whom he met privately that he enjoys being out of the public spotlight.

“And we said, ‘Well, how so?' ‘Well, I go home, and it's fun to be able to just be running down the street,' ” Gilmer said. “ ‘People wave at me, and they're using all their fingers.' ”

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com. Staff writer Timothy Puko contributed to this report.

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