George W. Bush went to bed at around 9pm every night when he was president — except for Cinco de Mayo, that is. It’s a fact that former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says embodies Bush’s legacy with Latinos.
“Dinner was over by 9, 9:30 at the latest. The only night when he would stay up past 10:30 was Cinco de Mayo in the Rose Garden,” Gutierrez says. “Having lived in Texas, he loved immigrants and he loved Latinos.”
With the George W. Bush Presidential Center‘s official opening today, many are looking back and reflecting on Bush’s eight years in office. The former president left office with a dismal approval rating of just 33 percent. Contemporary critics of Bush’s tenure in office hail him as one of the nation’s most divisive presidents. Critics say he led a war in Iraq based on false evidence of weapons of mass destruction and his final months in office led to one of the worst recessions in modern times.
But with respect to Latinos, Bush’s record is viewed much more favorably. In the 2004 election, he won a record breaking 44 percent of the Latino vote. It’s a record that no Republican candidate has since topped. In the last presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney garnered just 27 percent of Hispanic votes.
Arizona State University political science professor Rodolfo Espino says that Bush worked the hardest to build a coalition of Latino voters.
“Bush set the standard for what Republicans who want to be president need to do. We’ve seen Republican candidates not follow the guidelines for the platform he was pushing for and he paid the price,” Espino says citing John McCain’s lackluster performance with Latino voters.
Members of Bush’s administration say that his comfort with Latinos may have stemmed from his Texas roots. Not only did the former Lone Star state governor grow up around many Latinos, but he also has a first generation immigrant in the family. His younger brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is married to the Mexican-born Columba Bush.
Rosario Marin, former United States Treasurer, says that Bush’s comfort with Latinos was tangible in his everyday interactions — from his use of Spanish in conversation to his body language.
“Bush came from a state that had a lot of Latinos and he was obviously very comfortable. His body language was very much at ease — talking to him was like being part of the family. I think that people realized that you can’t fake that,” Marin says.
For Espino, however, Bush’s support from Hispanics represents more than simply his ability to attract voters.
“The legacy that Bush has left is showing that Latino voters are malleable. A majority vote Democratic, but they are persuadable to vote Republican as well,” he says.
One issue on which Bush gained much Hispanic support was on immigration. He tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but was stymied by Republicans in Congress. Though he has stayed out of the recent immigration debate, at a 2012 speech in Dallas he asked that the issue be discussed with a “benevolent” spirit.
“Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical gap in our labor market. They work hard for a chance for a better life,” The Washington Post quotes Bush as saying “Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”
Marin believes Bush laid the foundation for the immigration debate that unfolded after the 2012 presidential election.
“Bush worked very hard to give us immigration reform. Today we have the gang of eight, but at that point in time it was the gang of two — him and Senator Ted Kennedy,” Marin says. “He was so concerned with small businesses and he really recognized the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hispanic community.
Gutierrez believes that the GOP still has much learning to do and should take a page out of Bush’s book on dealing with Hispanics.
“Republicans would do very well to try to emulate president Bush’s stance toward immigrants and his understanding of the importance of immigrants,” he says.
It may take many years for historians to finish a a complete revision of Bush’s presidency. Yet, his polling numbers among Hispanics is still shifting. According to a new Washington Post poll, Bush’s approval rating among Latinos is on the rise, up to 40 percent approval in 2013 from 24 percent in 2008.
The opening of the presidential center will most likely not change to his low-profile life post presidency. Bush has said that he is content to let history judge him. One of the exhibits at the museum, Decision Points, gives visitors four minutes to get advice from aides and advisors before making major decisions on issues that occurred during the George W. Bush presidency.
“I think that this will help people understand things from his vantage point,” Marin says.