Among the many side debates that have emerged since the death of Osama bin Laden, one has surfaced concerning George W. Bush’s refusal of an invitation by President Barack Obama to visit Ground Zero on May 5, 2011 to lay a memorial wreath. Explanations have been offered concerning Bush’s motives, but none seem sufficiently definitive to end the discussion.
In October 2009, President Bush was invited to speak in Montreal as part of a North America tour ahead of the launch of his book. I was asked to be the moderator of the event and was invited to a private one-on-one meeting with the former president before the event. Bush was friendly and gracious as we discussed the conference format. Not long into the conversation, the president emphasized two points: first, he specified there should be no questions about President Obama; and second, he made clear his desire to remain out of the ongoing political debates. I believe this is the main reason why Bush said no to the invitation to visit Ground Zero.
His acolytes have not been as reluctant to engage the discussion about bin Laden. Last week, some Bush-era officials toured the TV news shows to claim some of the credit for the demise of bin Laden, even after failing to complete the mission themselves. Some even rekindled the debate on torture at Guantanamo. Others hinted that they thought Bush deserved more credit for locating and eventually ending the bin Laden reign. Finally, some left the impression that Bush was slighted by the Obama team in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death. Put together, this had the effect of creating a different narrative—of Bush being slighted and taking it out on Obama.
On the Chris Matthews Show last Sunday, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius offered a third possibility: that Bush stayed away from Ground Zero for political reasons. Ignatius claimed that a Bush-Obama photo would guarantee the reelection of Obama, something the Bush people do not want.
Whatever the reasons, the facts are the following: three presidents—Clinton, Bush and Obama—went after the world’s most wanted terrorist and he was finally killed. On that point alone, the world can rejoice. Bin Laden was a mass murderer that needed to be caught. And it was Obama that made the call and followed the operation in real time. Given these circumstances, that President Obama was the only president present at Ground Zero was appropriate.