Cheers and jeers greet George W. Bush

ANDREW HANON

, Last Updated: 7:46 AM ET

EDMONTON -- For every demonstrator chanting "less Bush, more trees" outside, there were four or five people inside the Shaw Conference Centre applauding the former U.S. president yesterday.

One protester managed to get through the tight security and into the hall, disguised as one of the 1,500 to 2,000 or so people who paid $85 each to hear George W. Bush talk about his eight turbulent years in the White House.

It was his first trip to Edmonton and second to Alberta since leaving office in January.

As he began his 40-minute speech, a man leapt to his feet, unfurled a small cloth banner and shouted, "Bush, what about your lies?"

Within seconds, plainclothes security surrounded the man and hustled him out of the auditorium.

Bush, arguably the most polarizing U.S. president since Richard Nixon, never skipped a beat.

He told the mostly under-35, well-dressed crowd that it's more important to "stand on principle, not chase popularity."

Bush said that when he was sworn into office in January 2001, he wanted to be "the education president" and soon launched his No Child Left Behind strategy.

All that changed on Sept. 11 that year when terrorists hijacked several airliners in U.S. airspace and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

The attack claimed 3,000 lives, prompting Bush to declare his so-called War on Terror, leading to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

He told the audience that the U.S. and its allies are fighting a war against "ideologues" and "thugs who recruit hopeless people to kill."

Canada, the 63-year-old said, has shown "great patience and perseverance" after eight years of combat in Afghanistan, with 130 casualties to date.

"This is a tough deal," he said, adding to applause, "Canada has borne a disproportionate share of the load."

The biggest applause came when he talked about the recession.

"Wall Street got drunk, and we got their hangover," he said.

Describing himself as a "free-market guy" who's opposed to government intervention, Bush said, "sometimes it's necessary to abandon ideology."

When the credit crisis began ballooning into a full-blown economic meltdown, his top advisers warned him that if the government didn't do something right away, the recession would degenerate into a crisis worse than the Great Depression.

Bush went against his instincts and agreed to government bailouts for financial institutions.

The auto industry followed suit later.

"I believe our actions saved the system," he said.

But, he added, "first of all, let's remember that free markets work." As soon as possible, governments should sell off their stakes in the auto industry, he said.

Bush also worries that governments will abandon the principles of free trade and tighten up their borders.

Policies like the Buy America provisions in U.S. stimulus packages "send the wrong message."

But while the crowd inside the Shaw applauded him throughout the speech, the 250 or so protesters on Jasper Avenue consider him a criminal who plunged its allies into unnecessary wars, ravaging impoverished nations.

"I just don't think it's right that he should be able to travel to Canada," said Mike, who refused to give his last name.

Asked if Bush is a war criminal, he replied, "I think he made people do criminal acts in war, and that makes him a war criminal."

ANDREW.HANON@SUNMEDIA.CA


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