Former President George W. Bush had safe refuge Monday from Tropical Storm Isaac and any Republican politics.
While the Republican National Convention was gearing up in Tampa, Bush was ensconced in the friendly bosom of Columbus.
The west Georgia town on the Chattahoochee River once was devastated by factory and mill closures before those buildings were renovated to re-create a downtown that now beckons visitors.
It’s that kind of civic leadership that is being celebrated at the conference where Bush spoke Monday as the keynote speaker. In doing so, the former president was following two key women in his life: His former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was the lead speaker at last year’s conference put on by the leadership institute at Columbus State University. Former first lady Laura Bush spoke at the same event in 2010.
Bush’s appearance in west Georgia rather than Florida did raise a few eyebrows around town and campus.
Taylor McGurl, a 21-year-old junior from Pike County, said she didn’t know what to think of the juxtaposition of Bush headlining a leadership event in Columbus when Republican leaders were getting their convention started some 400 miles away.
Tampa’s loss was a win for Columbus and for her, she said.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said McGurl, who attended Bush’s speech. “But it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to share a room with him. … My mom and dad are a little jealous.”
Ralph Brown, 41, said the former president may have tired of the spotlight and politics.
“Maybe he is trying to separate himself,” said Brown, a jet-engine mechanic. “I think he is just fed up with it.”
Jim Blanchard, a former CEO of Synovous and a political veteran who founded the annual forum seven years ago, said the former president was the type of leader from which future leaders learn.
“Unfortunately, some of his decisions became very unpopular, but he was a bold leader,” Blanchard said before the speech. “I expect he will talk about 9-11 and issues he faced, and he will probably talk about his personal life and issues he overcame. I think he will refrain from any political observations.”
Bush didn’t disappoint. The former president took to the podium to hawk his book with self-effacing humor, joking that some people might be amazed he had actually written one, notably without lots of pictures. He also paid a bipartisan nod to U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
“Thank you for your kindness and the respect you showed the office while I was president,” Bush said to Bishop, noting that he wasn’t there to offer opinions on politics or policy. “I don’t think it is good for the country and I don’t think it is good for the president to have the former president out there opining.”
The crowd of 1,200 was a sellout for the event at the Georgia Iron Works Convention & Trade Center. Tickets sold for $3,400 a table.
Columbus State President Tim Mescon said Bush’s leadership conference sold out the fastest in the event’s history.
“While we hate it that he can’t be in Tampa, we’re glad he is in Columbus,” said Mescon, who said he eschewed partisan politics. “I’m president of this university, and I’m wonderfully politically agnostic.”
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is to speak Tuesday. Political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin also will speak.
Blanchard, a Carville fan, said the two would handle the political skewering.