George W. Bush: Angela Merkel 'is not afraid to lead'
Washington, July 14: The Bush estate is located directly on the Atlantic Ocean near Kennebunkport, a car trip of just less than two hours from Boston, Massachusetts. While our camera team prepares the brightly lit living room with screens of blackout fabric, George W. Bush suddenly appears, an hour ahead of our scheduled interview time. He is wearing shorts and a bright green T-shirt splattered with paint, a cold cigar stub is wedged into the corner of his mouth and he has an iPad in his hand. "I am happy to do [this] for my dear Angela," he declares.
He speaks in a captivating and heartfelt way, first about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then about his artwork. Bush shows us his paintings on the iPad, all while talking about how working at the easel structures his day and how his paintbrush has become a means of political expression for him since he left the White House.
As he goes off to change his clothes for our television interview, I find myself thinking: "No ice that needs to be broken here."
'Not afraid to lead'
George W. Bush generally keeps his distance from the political arena. These days, when the 43rd president of the United States gives interviews, it is usually only to discuss his art. But this time around, he's making an exception for our documentary on Angela Merkel. He welcomes us into his home and is sure to give us plenty of his time.
"Merkel brought class and dignity to a very important position; [she] made very hard decisions, and did so with what's best for Germany, and did so based upon principle," Bush tells me. "She is a compassionate leader, a woman who is not afraid to lead."
Merkel: A rock of stability in a changing world
For George W. Bush — as for many Americans — Angela Merkel personifies the "American dream." A woman who grew up under a repressive communist regime, she made it to the top echelons in the free world. And not just anywhere, but in Germany — the country that, from an American perspective, was liberated from a dictatorship twice by the United States: first as all of Germany from the Nazi regime, and then as East Germany from the clutches of the Kremlin.
Especially during the four years of former President Donald Trump's administration, Merkel was regarded among leftists in America as the leader of the free world. Until then, that position had only ever belonged to the US commander-in-chief. And as the European Union and individual European countries were shaken by political turmoil, Merkel was seen as a rock of stability, a reliable constant in an ever-changing world where problems seem to get ever bigger and possible solutions ever more complicated.
"Merkel has survived in a pretty tough environment for more than eight years. That's pretty amazing when you think about it," Bush says, alluding to the impression that US citizens seemed to have had enough of him after eight years in office. "And it reflects the German voters' trust."
When the newly elected chancellor first shook George W. Bush's hand back in 2006, relations between Germany and the US were frosty. Shortly before the end of his term, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel's predecessor, had strongly criticized Bush for getting into the war with Iraq. Many suspected this was purely an election campaign tactic by Schröder.
George W. Bush recounts that the fact the US-German relationship quickly improved had, among other things, a lot to do with the fact he and Merkel got on exceptionally well from the very beginning.
Differences of opinion on Russia
Like current US President Joe Biden, Bush is also critical of the construction of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Bush says the pipeline would increase Germany's dependence on Russia, but also complicate the situation for Ukraine. However, Bush says he understands how Angela Merkel is pursuing a different Russia policy with President Vladimir Putin than the United States. Every country has to find its own way, he remarks.
When I ask him about Angela Merkel's immigration policy, he tells me that he respected her decisions. "My first reaction was: 'There's a woman with a big heart.' And I'm sure she was motivated by human compassion. And, you know, it was clearly a tough political decision for her — but she took a lead."
Bush himself was unhappy with the Trump administration's harsh immigration policies. He recently released a coffee-table book showcasing portraits of immigrants — his own way of engaging in political discourse.
A role model for girls
Bush, who is a father of two daughters, also sees the outgoing German chancellor as a role model, for girls in particular: "There're a lot of girls who watch Angela Merkel and say, 'I, too, can have a position of responsibility and power,'" he says.
Now, Angela Merkel is traveling to Washington for the last time as chancellor. Her first meeting with the new US president, Joe Biden, is both an inaugural and a farewell visit.
In political America, there is a growing awareness that an era is coming to an end, one that is even greater than Angela Merkel. The trans-Atlantic relationship will need to be redefined, and not only because global politics is getting progressively muddied as other large powers play an increasingly influential role on the world stage.
Angela Merkel was the last German chancellor to deal with a United States where a close relationship with Germany and Europe was a given.
Inspiring young people to trans-Atlanticism
When Angela Merkel first took office nearly 16 years ago, almost every US family had a very vivid and personal relationship with Germany. There were veterans, including high-profile politicians, who themselves had fought against Nazi Germany in World War II, or had been stationed in West Germany in the many years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It is among the unexpected twists of history that the hundreds of thousands of "occupiers" who lived in Germany as young soldiers have become true ambassadors of German-American friendship.
Whoever succeeds Merkel will have the huge task of inspiring a younger generation to support a close trans-Atlantic relationship. Now, there is a generation for whom the horrors of World War II and the Cold War are in the distant past. But that may not be enough.
"Has Angela Merkel done a good job?" I want to know as we conclude our interview. "I think so," George W. Bush nods. "Both she and I need not to worry about short-term history, because we're not going to know where we stand until long after we're dead."