Jeffrey Scott Shapiro talks about George W. Bush the way Buddhists talk about the Dalai Lama. "He stands for truth, compassion and freedom," he says. "Bush instinctively sees the global picture that every living person has the right to be free." It's hardly surprising, then, that Shapiro founded Honor Freedom, an organization devoted to restoring Bush's reputation. And Shapiro may actually succeed—especially since Bush, too, will be working on the same project, if not the same organization.
On its Web site, Honor Freedom proclaims its three-part mission: "UNITE BUSH SUPPORTERS by building a national network" of supporters; "CORRECT THE HISTORICAL RECORD by dispelling fallacies about President Bush"; and "TEACH AMERICA the truth about the Bush foreign policy doctrine" (all capitalization in original). Through a nationwide public education program consisting of op-eds, media appearances, and free public seminars, the nonprofit group intends to teach Americans that George W. Bush was actually a great president and an even better man.
Honor Freedom is independent of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which consists of the official Bush library and foundation. It has no ties to Bush, and a spokeswoman at the foundation says she's never heard of Shapiro's group. Presidential libraries and related foundations may serve to burnish their namesakes' reputations, but they are "not as crass or overt as this," says H.W. Brands, who has written biographies of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.
Shapiro, for his part, has written that "relying on a passive institute such as a presidential library and waiting for people to learn the truth on their own will not be sufficient in this unique case." Having launched his project in January on Strategy Room, Fox News' online show, Shapiro has yet to focus on fundraising. But he has organizers in eight states—and a representative in Australia!—and has recruited Andrew Breitbart as communications director and Bush's former deputy assistant Brad Blakeman as "chief adviser."
To listen to Shapiro is to travel back in time to 2003, when present-day critics like David Frum were calling Bush "The Right Man." Even now, Shapiro's defense of the Bush administration's record in Iraq is pretty much unqualified. Bush's critics "are selfish people who don't see the value of national liberation," he says. "They are isolationists who don't care that the U.S. freed a people enslaved by fear." To charges that Bush is unintelligent, he says: "Bush is clearly very smart. And you don't need to be a genius to be president—you need good leadership skills and good instincts." To the rap that his economic record is woeful, Shapiro says that Bush was a foreign-policy president. "He dealt with the first major attack on the continental United States since 1812 and responded brilliantly. He was a great leader."
Not all conservatives are eager to return to the partisan battles of the aughts, however. "Clearly how independents voted in 2006 and 2008 was in reaction to Bush," says Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "2010 and 2012 is about the future for Republicans. They're not going to want to look back."
But Shapiro downplays past elections and polls, which put Bush's end-of-term approval rating at a record-low 22 percent. In his travels, he says, he finds that the president is very popular. "People all over the country love him."
Shapiro also claims the support of Bush, though the former president is not involved in Honor Freedom. Shapiro recently stayed for a week at the home of Bush's nephew, Pierce, who introduced the two. * "You're doing good work," Shapiro says the former president told him. Shapiro says he regularly exchanges e-mail with Karl Rove, and Blakeman says he's had conversations with other former members of Bush's staff who are excited about Honor Freedom.
Shapiro's views of the media were shaped by experience. After covering the JonBenét Ramsey case for the Globe tabloid as a reporter, he voluntarily reported his editors to the FBI for criminal violations and testified against them in a grand jury as a key witness. Shapiro says his coverage of the Ramsey case and the Chandra Levy case led him to resent the media's abuse of the First Amendment, which "probably led to my feelings about the media lies told about President Bush." After leaving the media, Shapiro went to law school and worked for Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—and then worked as a prosecutor for the District of Columbia. *
And though Shapiro's cause may seem unlikely, it's possible—even likely—that Bush's popularity will at least partially recover. "The surest likelihood that a president's reputation will rise after he is out of office is low approval ratings when he leaves office," says Brands. Jimmy Carter left office in 1981 * viewed as a failure, but he is thought by the public to be the best living ex-president, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. One of Bush's role models, Harry Truman, was so unpopular in 1952 that he left office rather than run for reelection. Now he is often considered among the five best U.S. presidents.
Even so, it will be a long road. The Bush restoration, if it comes, may not occur in Bush's lifetime—or Shapiro's. There was zero net job creation in the first decade of the 2000s, for the first time in nearly a century. The economy is still fragile, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are far from over. "No recent president has had the problems Bush has had," says Jean Edward Smith, who has written books on Ulysses S. Grant, George H. W. Bush, and FDR. "They haven't had so much to explain away."
Their methods vary, but the foremost goal and truest vocation of every ex-president is to defend his presidency. Bush is no different. Along with former President Clinton, he led the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti. He appeared at a "Conference on Cyber Dissidents" this week hosted by his presidential center. And he is thickening his wallet giving speeches to friendly audiences. Bush may have a harder time than any president since Carter in getting back in the good graces of the public. Then again, Carter never had a guy like Jeffrey Scott Shapiro working on his behalf.
Correction, April 22, 2010: This article originally stated that former President Jimmy Carter left office in 1980. He left office in 1981. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Corrections, April 26, 2010: This article misstated that Shapiro visited Pierce Bush at Pierce's ranch. It was at Pierce's home. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also incorrectly stated that Shapiro worked for the Bush administration as a federal prosecutor. He worked as a prosecutor for the District of Columbia government. (Return to the corrected sentence.)