, NEW DELHI, Oct 31 – Former US president George W. Bush stepped briefly back into the limelight on Saturday, using a conference speech in New Delhi to defend his record and to crack jokes about his retirement.
Bush chose an annual gathering of business leaders in India, a country where his reputation rode high throughout his time in power, to make a rare public appearance nine months after leaving office.
"I have a different life now," Bush, 63, said wryly. "I am an old, retired guy."
Reflecting on how his status had changed, he said he recently visited a hardware store in Texas that had offered him a job as a "greeter" who stands outside to welcome customers.
He said that inside the store a man came up to him and asked if anyone had ever told him that he looked just like George W. Bush.
Bush said he replied that it happened a lot, and the man said: "Gosh, that must make you mad."
The former president said he had suggested to his wife Laura that it was time she took up cooking, and she had suggested that he might take up washing dishes. "Nothing’s happened," he told the amused audience.
He added that he was using his free time to write, and joked that "people said I couldn’t even read a book, much less write one."
And he said he was delighted to discover that now he got paid to give speeches, though "thankfully for you, I don’t get paid by the word."
Despite the relaxed banter, the former president also delivered a passionate defence of his 2001-2009 administration ranging from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to conditions leading to the global economic crisis.
"I take great pride in the fact that, for our own interests, we liberated 25 million people," he said over the toppling of the hardline Taliban regime in Kabul after the September 11 attacks. "The work is hard and I hope we don’t abandon the people of Afghanistan."
"I believe democracy is the fundamental right of every man, woman and child on the face of this earth," he told the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. "I don’t think this is America’s gift to the world."
Referring to militant attacks in Mumbai last November, Bush told India that "both our nations are engaged in an ideological struggle against extremists who murder the innocent to advance a dark vision of extremism and control."
Bush remains widely popular in India — due in part to a deal he secured that allows it to trade in much-needed civilian nuclear technology — and he heaped praise on what he called a "vibrant, diverse and modern nation."
Admitting Barack Obama was not his "first choice" for the White House, Bush said he nonetheless wished his successor every success.
"I’m not going to spend a lot of time criticising — he’s got plenty of critics," he said.