This was the week that George W. Bush met in Texas with his former A-Team — Condoleezza Rice, et al. — to discuss politics and the world at large. On Tuesday, when Bush and Rice were on the campus of Southern Methodist University, students tried their best to glimpse the proceedings but were turned away by Secret Service agents, one of whom dismissed a student with the refrain, “Are you from America?” (The student, Erin Devlin, had mispronounced Rice’s first name as “Condelina.”)
Devlin shouldn’t worry her little heart — she can still hang out with people who once occupied the White House and other Washington corridors. In fact, she can vacation with them — even lounge around in the same hotel lobby, at the same dinner table, in the same pool. The only requirement: Come up with $20,000. That’s what scores of people did for a recent luxury cruise that featured James A. Baker, Bush’s former legal adviser and the former Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush. The sold-out cruise, aboard the yacht called Silver Wind (which has four restaurants, in-suite butler service, etc.), is part of an ongoing “World Leaders Symposium” travel series that’s geared to wealthy people wanting to learn more about world events.
Baker’s cruise, which ended two weeks ago, took participants around the Persian Gulf, with stops in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. For their $20,000, people got to hobnob with Baker and such other Washington insiders as William J. Perry, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense; and Dennis Ross, a current advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While George W. Bush has yet to sign on to the travel series, his father – the 41st president of the United States – already has, giving a keynote speech last year in Beijing, where he talked about U.S.-China relations. That tour took hundreds of well-heeled people across Asia, aboard the luxury yacht named Silver Whisper (which, like Silver Wind, has four restaurants and in-suite butler service).
For people who don’t have $20,000 – or the $39,000 it takes to get the best suite on the travel series’ yachts – there are always vicarious ways to participate. You can read the brochure for Baker’s trip, for example, and see flattering photos of the former Bush confidant, along with images of sand dunes, and the promise that the trip affords “the highest levels of luxury and access.” You can even see photos from the trip that featured Baker, Ross and Perry. The three diplomats aren’t in the images, but some anonymous people are (including a Western woman standing next to a camel’s nose). For some reason, a participant took a photo of an Arabic McDonald’s sign. The photo has no caption, but it may prove one thing: Even on an expensive lecture series in the Middle East, people are attracted to things that feel familiar. This “familiar factor” is why George W. Bush – a president with the lowest approval ratings in modern history – still draws impressive crowds wherever he goes, even this week at Southern Methodist University, where the student newspaper noted that “many students (ended up) missing class to have a chance to greet the former President and his staff.”