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Hundreds pack Book Center to meet Bush

Photo: George W. Bush at the Vero Beach Book Center.

The line inside the Vero Beach Book Center last week weaved throughout both levels of the building, where more than 700 people waited patiently for the opportunity to meet the 43rd president of the United States.

Outside, in the sun-baked parking lot, a second wave stood dutifully in an equally long line, enduring some of the warmest, most humid conditions of the season and waiting to clear a Secret Service security checkpoint.

All of them wore wristbands that cost $37.50 apiece and guaranteed wearers an autographed copy of George W. Bush’s new book – “Profiles of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” – and a face-to-face moment with the former president.

Bush made his local book-signing event worth the price ... and the wait.

Though the line moved quickly, he made the effort to establish eye contact and engage in a mini-conversation with each person that appeared in front of him. He made sure everyone there could say they had met him.

Bush shook hands with some, fist-bumped with others. He exchanged salutes with those wearing military uniforms and with book buyers who identified themselves as veterans, never failing to thank them for their service. He leaned across the table to interact with people in wheelchairs.

He seemed to especially enjoy chatting with children who accompanied their parents.

“How’re you doing, dude?” Bush said to one boy. “Thanks for coming out.”

Bush smiled easily, joked occasionally and laughed often throughout the 2 1/2-hour session. He cared enough to ask about the length of the line and how long some had waited. He thanked the buyers and reminded them that all the revenue generated by the book would go to help veterans.

He was grateful when anyone expressed concern about his 92-year-old father, our 41st president, who was in a Texas hospital recovering from a bout with pneumonia.

In fact, when one woman told him she had once met his dad, Bush replied: “That’s the A-team. Now you’ve met the B-team.”

There was no doubt Bush was among friends, and he knew it.

He has longtime ties to our community through his grandmother’s wing of the family, and the barrier island has been especially supportive of the Bushes in national and state politics, dating back to his father’s unsuccessful run against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination for president in the late 1970s.

Vero Beach again backed the elder Bush, running as Reagan’s vice president, in his victorious presidential campaign in 1988, as well in his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.

The local community also supported Bush’s younger brother, Jeb, who served two terms as Florida’s governor. Last year, island donors contributed nearly $2 million to his run for the Republican nomination for president.

And when he triumphantly ran for president in 2000 and for re-election in 2004, Bush had the Vero Beach area – and its island donors – in his corner.

“This is Bush country,” said Indian River County Tax Collector Carole Jean Jordan, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “The Bush family has been coming to Vero Beach for years, and they’re such a wonderful family. They care about each other, and they care so much about this country.

“I know politics, and I know people get attacked and criticized, but the country is so divided now that we too often get so caught up in the politics that we forget about the people,” she added. “The Bushes are good people. That’s why I get upset when they’re maligned.”

There’s no point in defending Bush’s eight years in the White House, or re-litigating his case for invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein, or suggesting that he was merely the unluckiest American president who wasn’t shot – his two terms forever remembered for the tumult and devastation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Compelling arguments could be made, but who would listen? Fact is, most Americans already have made up their minds about Bush’s presidency and, given the increasing polarization of the country, their opinions aren’t going to change.

His detractors can cite a number of questionable decisions and costly mistakes that were made – just as they could with any of Bush’s predecessors – but his supporters will enthusiastically challenge those claims, offer valid explanations and provide examples of his successes.

They’re not going to agree on much, and that’s OK.

What’s disturbing, however, is the visceral hatred of the man by those detractors, too many of whom believe Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, concocted a lie to go to war in Iraq and deserved blame for the collapse of the economy.

It was those venomous attacks on Bush by the political left that later provoked the political right to respond in kind to President Barack Obama. And over the past 20 months, the political divide has only widened, the political discourse has become even more shameful.

“We’re in a different world now,” Jordan said. “There’s not the same civility.”

Most of us know why.

Perhaps that’s why Bush received such a warm, enthusiastic welcome when he returned to Vero Beach, a still-special community where class, character and civility still matter to most.

As people waited in line, some struck up conversations with those nearby. Inevitably, some of them talked about politics. Many spoke wistfully, shaking their heads at the nasty tone and harsh rhetoric that now dominates the nation’s capital.

“I wish he was still the president,” more than a few people said, in some form or another, referring to the man they had come to see.

Most of them, to be sure, were Republicans. Many of them, you’d assume, voted for Donald Trump. Probably, given the same choices, they’d do so again – but not with the same zeal with which they had cast their presidential ballots in 2000 and 2004.

Three years ago, Bush sold out both sessions as a speaker at the Riverside Theater’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. Last week, he did the same with his appearance here.

“This is one of the largest book-signings we’ve had,” said Cynthia Callander, the book center’s marketing and publicity director. “We probably could’ve sold 2,000 wristbands.”

Bush’s book tour has taken him across America and included television appearances with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and the syndicated “Ellen Degeneres Show,” where he danced his way onto the set to the 1970s hit song, “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Bush previously authored “Decision Points,” a memoir of his presidency, and “41: A Portrait of My Father,” a personal biography of our 41st president. His latest book is a collection of oil paintings and stories honoring the sacrifices of America’s military veterans, particularly those who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Proceeds from the book’s sales will help fund the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which was created to help post-9/11 veterans and their families “make successful transitions to civilian life” by assisting them in finding employment and overcoming their combat-related injuries.

For those who don’t know: Bush didn’t learn to paint until after he left the White House.

“I want to help the veterans as much as I can,” Bush told one person in line. “I’m proud to be here.”

The book center was delighted with the turnout. The 1,500 people who showed up were thrilled with their brief-but-personal interaction with the former president. And Bush clearly appreciated the genuine affection shown to him.

“I hope the wait wasn’t too long,” Bush said to one woman as he signed her book.

“It was worth it,” she replied. “I got to meet you.”