DALLAS -- In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush famously grabbed a bullhorn while speaking to those gathered at ground zero, telling them: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
Almost 10 years later, the now former president declined an invitation from President Barack Obama to attend a somber remembrance Thursday at New York’s ground zero to mark the killing by U.S. forces of Osama bin Laden.
Bush’s decision is consistent with his desire to keep a low profile.
"He’s made the real decision not to enter into politics or the public eye," former first lady Laura Bush told The Associated Press on Thursday after appearing at a Dallas elementary school to announce grants from her foundation to school libraries.
Bush said she and her husband were at dinner Sunday night when they received word that Obama wanted to speak with him. The former president went home to take the call informing him that U.S. military forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a raid of his compound in Pakistan, she said.
He issued a statement Sunday night saying he congratulated Obama and military and intelligence personnel and called bin Laden’s death "a victory for America." But his spokesman said later in the week that while the former president appreciated the offer to attend the ground zero event, he chooses to remain out of the spotlight in his post-presidency.
George Bush was in power on Sept. 11, 2001, when agents from bin Laden’s al-Qaida network hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, killing nearly 3,000 people in the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Bush sent U.S. forces against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001 and proclaimed that the U.S. wanted bin Laden, "dead or alive."
Laura Bush told the AP that Thursday’s event in New York was "for President Obama to do at this point."
Presidential experts say deference among most former presidents is an unwritten rule.
"In terms of having a lot of sound bite quotes about their successors, I just haven’t seen that," said Dennis Simon, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "I think it demonstrates an appreciation for what it’s like to be in that office. It’s your time now. I understand what you’re coming through because I’ve gone through that myself."
Laura and George Bush moved to Dallas after he left office in 2009. Both released books last year and made several media appearances to promote them, but otherwise they have stayed largely out of the public eye. They do make appearances for events related to the George W. Bush Institute, which is part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center being built on the campus of SMU, set for completion in 2013.
Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas, said he was unsurprised by Bush’s decision to not attend ground zero Thursday.
"I think it was for the right reasons," said Updegrove, who has written a book on the activities of presidents from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton after they left the White House. "I think both Bush father and son are very conscious of not detracting the limelight that should be cast on our incumbent president."
George Edwards III, political science professor at Texas A&M University and founder of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, adjacent to the George H.W. Bush Museum and Presidential Library, said Bush’s father took the same approach when he left office.
"It was his personal preference not to take stances and he had a good excuse because his son was involved in politics," Edwards said.
Brian Montgomery, who held various posts in the Bush administration including deputy assistant to the president, said the president often would say that a current president doesn’t need to hear from a former president what they are doing right or wrong.
"I think he just wanted it to be about President Obama," Montgomery said.