A conspicuous absence in Tampa: George W. Bush

Since exiting the White House in January 2009, George W. Bush has effectively managed to keep himself out of the spotlight. While a handful of news stories have captured Mr. Bush's promotion of his cancer initiative in Africa and furnished updates on the progress of his presidential library, the former president has deliberately resisted the temptations of political life. Even his endorsement of the GOP presidential candidate, made public through a spokesman — "President Bush is confident that Mitt Romney will be a great president" — seemed tepid at best.

Given this hands-off approach, it is unsurprising that Mr. Bush plans to sit out his first Republican National Convention as an ex-president. Beyond his own desire to remain on the sidelines, other factors are conceivable explanations of why he would choose Crawford, Texas over Tampa, Florida. With Romney reeling from a disappointing summer of campaigning, a polarizing former president directly associated with the current economic malaise could become easy fodder for President Barack Obama partisans. And GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's slash and burn fiscal policies would only provide greater contrast to Mr. Bush's bloated deficit spending. Finally, by absenting himself, Mr. Bush pre-emptively fends off a potentially unenviable speaking slot on the convention floor, a fate several earlier ex-presidents had to weigh seriously.

Back in 2008, it was easier for Mr. Bush to stay home. Given his dismal approval ratings toward the end of his second term, his video appearance was a tactically astute path of least resistance. Yet four years later, Mr. Bush appears unconcerned with the customary ex-presidential anxiety of legacy burnishing to inspire even a cameo at the party's main event.

In this regard, Mr. Bush is a historical outlier. Other polarizing ex-presidents who oversaw economic calamity were eager to join their party's nominating conventions. Herbert Hoover, a person whose very name among Democrats had become a simulacrum for the Great Depression, would have never missed the chance to be present. Despite his manifold liabilities, there he was in Cleveland in 1936 swatting away at the New Deal — the Obamacare of its day to the conservative wing of the GOP. Calling it "a revolutionary design to replace the American system with despotism," his broadsides received a 30-minute ovation from the party's faithful.

Almost a half-century later Jimmy Carter took the podium in San Francisco before tens of millions of television viewers. The man who oversaw the harsh economic reality of stagflation was aware of his potential burden on the party, going so far to say, "I would hope I would not be a detriment to anybody, particularly the ticket." Party leaders agreed and sought to keep him from center-stage, but the former president was able eventually to secure a prime-time speaking role.

Hoover and Mr. Carter were both well aware of the fundamentals behind political rehabilitation. Mr. Carter's speech in San Francisco focusing squarely on human rights themes presaged his passions and commitments later on. For his part, Hoover would show up at every convention through 1960, always on the ready to advance his ideas for how the party should be effectively run.

George W. Bush has also chosen to deviate from his own father's path. George Herbert Walker Bush was present at the first convention following his bitter loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 and showed keen interest in the country's political course. Trying to reset his party's moral compass, he averred that "leadership means standing against the voices of isolation and protectionism." Bush senior saw the convention as a platform to remind the party of what should be its true political core and to ensure that Mr. Clinton not obtain a second term.

Ultimately George W. Bush's trajectory may be closest to Richard Nixon's, who never attended a Republican convention after he resigned office (there would be five more before his death in 1994). At the 1980 convention in Detroit one journalist reporting on his radioactivity noted, "Nixon's name is never mentioned. His poster adorns no wall. His acts are never recalled. ... His campaign buttons are not for sale, even as curios." By the time Nixon finally received an invite to address the Republican delegates in Houston in 1992, he had been enjoying a revamped role as foreign policy doyen and chose to spend those days vacationing in Montauk instead.

If there is a road to George W. Bush's rehabilitation, it will likely develop outside the political stage. Nominating conventions may offer a distinct opportunity for former presidents to address the nation and the world, but for Mr. Bush that reality seems to repel more than it appeals. Will he feel differently come 2016? There are scarcely any present signs pointing in that direction.

Leonard Benardo (lbenardo@gmail.com) and Jennifer Weiss (weissj2003@yahoo.com) are co-authors of Citizen in Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents (Harper, 2010).