DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Former U.S. presidents often subscribe to this unwritten rule that they will be respectful of others in the job. And George W. Bush, no exception, he said he's just not going to criticize President Trump. Bush has been busy. He was just in Africa talking about programs he has championed to combat HIV, AIDS. And he released a new book called "Portraits Of Courage." Its his own oil paintings of veterans.
I sat down with President Bush in Dallas this week to talk about foreign aid but the conversation expanded and we covered an issue President Trump is dealing with - immigration. Bush thinks there will eventually be a compromise on immigration reform that will give people in the U.S. illegally a chance for citizenship.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I laid out what I thought was a comprehensive plan that would work in the Oval Office address when I was the president. I still think that's going to be the plan that ends up being adopted at some point in time.
GREENE: You still think that the plan that you supported, I mean, that would have given a path to citizenship to...
GREENE: ...The millions of people in this country illegally, that that's going to...
BUSH: OK. Let's discuss the issue of people here illegally. What are the options? Do nothing? I think that option's been bypassed 'cause the election. People talked about it a lot. Secondly, legalize everybody. And that option simply won't work. So then what do you do?
So - and my judgment is is that there needs to be a way for somebody to be able to get in line to become a citizen so long as they met certain criteria. The border, the idea of building a wall, well, I built a wall. But the point is is that it's not going to...
GREENE: Seven hundred miles long, I think.
BUSH: Yeah. But it's not going to be a brick wall all the way across Texas. And so a lot of times in politics the rhetoric is different from reality. But I think it's very important for us to recognize the importance of Mexico. We want Mexico to succeed. It's in our national interest they succeed. And we want to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.
GREENE: It sounds like you're telling Americans to just don't worry about what you're hearing, all this talk about...
BUSH: No, no, no...
GREENE: ...A big wall, all this talk about kicking people in the country illegally out of the country, this talk of tensions with Mexico...
BUSH: Oh, I'm not telling - I'm really not telling the American people anything. I'm just opining for - one of the rare times - about what I think is ultimately going to take place. There's just something about this job as president every president faces, you know, that you think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.
GREENE: I want to ask you about your new book...
BUSH: Yes. Thank you.
GREENE: ...The oil paintings of veterans. I wondered after seeing you and covering your presidency, I mean, you would talk about the gravity of the decisions you had to make, if there is something personal in helping you deal with some of those decisions in these paintings?
BUSH: You know, that's a good question. Not really. What's personal is my great pride and respect for our troops. I know these men and women quite well. There is not an ounce of self-pity in their being. They need help. And so the book's purpose is to call attention to their courage but also to the need to help them transition from the military life to civilian life. Getting to know them has been uplifting. And that's what this book's all about is honoring them.
GREENE: When you say uplifted, I guess I just wonder what that means. Like, if you think about that, you know, I was the only person who made the decision to send you to Afghanistan...
BUSH: Yeah. Right. Well, I...
GREENE: ...To send you to Iraq, if that weighs on you?
BUSH: Yeah. Of course I thought about that at the time. But - and I made, you know, a deliberate judgment. And people willingly volunteered. And as I say, you know, I guess if the troops had come back and said I can't believe you did this to me or, you know, I'd feel a lot worse or I'd feel worse but I don't. Look, I've had - we'd do it again, Mr. President.
A couple of those guys I painted were back in combat on one leg. And it was remarkable. And so there was a lot of passion in the paintings. What I thought you were going to ask is I can't believe you're a painter. And - most people can't.
GREENE: Like, I mean, it's not what I saw you doing after the presidency, I'll have to admit, but...
BUSH: And neither did anybody else who knows me well (laughter).
GREENE: During your presidency - Iraq, other issues - there were a lot of partisan debates. There were a lot of Democrats who did not love you.
BUSH: No, it's OK.
GREENE: I just think now, I mean, you're getting a lot of love from folks who might not necessarily be considered your base. I - on Facebook, Twitter, there's one publication, the New Statesman in Britain, that said you have gone from war criminal to the Internet's favorite grandpa.
BUSH: (Laughter) Well, that's nice of them. You know, that's just the way history works. The job of president is complicated and difficult, no matter who holds the office. And, you know, after eight years, people got pretty tired of me. And after eight years of President Obama, some people got tired of him. And everything's kind of relative. I always oftentimes told people that, you know, we - one shouldn't worry about the legacy because history - it takes a time to write the history of an administration.
And, you know, it's like Harry Truman. You know, he made a very difficult decision - the Korean War - which was highly unpopular. And I'm sure that, you know, British magazines wrote kind of snarky things about him. And yet, Korea has become an ally and helps maintain peace and is a trading partner. And yet, Harry Truman wasn't around to see it.
GREENE: What do you think - I mean, I hope you're around as long as possible - but is there something you think about that I won't be able to see but that someone might point to and say, you know, that was a decision George W. Bush made?
BUSH: Well, I think it's very possible that Iraq is a, as I stated, an ally - during the time, an ally in the war on terror and a functioning democracy.
GREENE: You still see that future? I mean, a lot of people look at the situation today and say there's just no way that country is ever going to get there.
BUSH: Yeah. Well, I understand that but a lot of people looked at Japan and said no way Japan would ever be an ally. But yeah, I do think democracies can and must evolve in the Middle East.
GREENE: This is my last question. And I beg your forgiveness but I'm compelled to ask it as a journalist and try and set the record straight.
GREENE: This has been talked about a lot. There were several people who say they overheard you after Donald Trump's inaugural speech...
BUSH: Oh, really?
GREENE: ...Saying, quote, "that was some weird [expletive]."
BUSH: (Laughter) You know, I don't - I can't - if I said it, I don't remember it. But I'm glad I went to the inauguration. You know, it's a really beautiful experience to watch a peaceful transfer of power. I wish that I had gotten the rain poncho on a little more cleanly.
GREENE: It was a little sloppy.
BUSH: Yeah. My daughters were aghast. You know, Dad, you're, you know, a national tweet sensation or whatever they say, you know, you're trending or whatever the words are. And I said, I don't know what the heck that means. But then I saw the pictures and you can see why I was trending.
GREENE: But that doesn't characterize your reaction?
BUSH: You know, I just don't remember, David, I really don't. What should characterize my reaction, it was a beautiful experience.
GREENE: Mr. President, thank you.
BUSH: Yes, sir.
GREENE: As always, I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CODES IN THE CLOUDS' "FRACTURES - THE SOUL'S RELEASE REMIX")
GREENE: Former President George W. Bush. We sat down together at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.