In some of his most extensive public comments about the Russian invasion of Ukraine since the war began, former President George W. Bush on Wednesday compared Ukranian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Winston Churchill, while decrying the increasingly autocratic Russian regime.
“The way countries conduct elections is indicative of how their leaders treat their own people, and how nations behave toward other nations,” Bush said. “And nowhere is this on display more clearly than Ukraine.
Bush noted that Zelenskyy, whom he described as a “cool little guy,” and “the Churchill of the 21st century” was empowered by electoral legitimacy before leading the defense of his country against the Russian invasion.
Bush made the comments during an event at his presidential center at Southern Methodist University. The event examined the state of democracy and the safety of American elections in the shadow of former President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his loss to President Joe Biden, and the ensuing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which aimed to disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory.
Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a panel discussion that she thanked God for then-Vice President Mike Pence, who oversaw the certification. “I cried on Jan. 6, because I thought to myself: I study countries who do this, I don’t live in a country who does this,” said Rice, who is an expert on Russia.
But during his 10-minute speech, Bush also made a verbal faux pas while referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Bush noted has brutally stifled popular dissent and had political opponents imprisoned.
“The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq,” Bush said, before wincing and correcting himself. “I mean, of Ukraine.”
The comment left the audience in an awkward silence. Then, Bush shrugged and said under his breath: “Iraq, too.”
The crowd erupted in laughter after Bush blamed the mistake on his age — 75.
Bush oversaw the 2003 preemptive invasion of Iraq, which critics have called both brutal and unjustified. More than 4,000 American troops were killed in the ensuing war, along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Speakers at the Bush Center event included author and historian Jon Meachem, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and elections officials from New Mexico, Arizona and Florida, where the results of the 2020 election were heavily contested and subjected to audits and lawsuits.
During Trump’s time in office, Bush, keeping with political norms observed by other ex-presidents, avoided directly criticizing Trump’s policies and rhetoric. Bush began loosening that stance after Jan. 6.
During a speech in Pennsylvania last year commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush drew veiled parallels between the extremist ideas espoused by the 9/11 hijackers and those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within,” Bush said in September. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit.”
While Trump’s name was mentioned only sparingly during Wednesday’s event at the Bush Center, references to Jan. 6 and his refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election were made early and often.
“I don’t want to mention Voldemort,” historian and author Jon Meachem said during a panel discussion, eliciting nervous laughter from the crowd. “But there’s a reason we’re sitting here — a reason we’re sitting here. I decline to accept the premise of a self-interested assertion and declare there’s some kind of systemic failure.”