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Bush Looking for Answers

George W. Bush seems to be fully aware that people think he’s a failed president but he’s amazingly calm, hoping he will be vindicated by history, Peter Baker reports in a long feature on page 1 of today’s WaPo.

At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.

[...]

And yet Bush does not come across like a man lamenting his plight. In public and in private, according to intimates, he exhibits an inexorable upbeat energy that defies the political storms. Even when he convenes philosophical discussions with scholars, he avoids second-guessing his actions. He still acts as if he were master of the universe, even if the rest of Washington no longer sees him that way.

[...]

Other presidents have been crushed by the pressure. Lyndon B. Johnson was tormented by Vietnam War protesters outside his window shouting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Nixon swam in self-pity during Watergate, talking to paintings and once asking Henry Kissinger to pray with him. Bill Clinton fumed against enemies and nursed deep grievances during his impeachment battle.

But if Bush vents like that, no one is talking. Kissinger, who advises Bush, said the president has never asked him to kneel down with him in the Oval Office. “I find him serene,” Kissinger said. “I know President Johnson was railing against his fate. That’s not the case with Bush. He feels he’s doing what he needs to do, and he seems to me at peace with himself.”

Bush has virtually given up on winning converts while in office and instead is counting on vindication after he is dead. “He almost has . . . a sense of fatalism,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who recently spent a day traveling with Bush. “All he can do is do his best, and 100 years from now people will decide if he was right or wrong. It doesn’t seem to be a false, macho pride or living in your own world. I find him to be amazingly calm.”

This serene self-confidence is Bush’s greatest strength as a leader as well his greatest weakness. The presidency is a ridiculously stressful job and one that famously ages its occupants at a rapid rate. Constant self-doubt and withering under criticism makes doing the job impossible; that’s doubly true during wartime. Still, obstinacy is problematic as well; again, especially during wartime.

And this is just classic:

[Peter] King, the GOP congressman, introduced him backstage to a soldier injured in one eye. Bush teared up and asked the young man to take off his dark glasses so he could see the wound, King recalled. “Human instinct is when someone has a serious injury to look the other way,” King said. “He actually asked him to take them off. He actually touched the eye a little. It was almost as if he felt he had to confront it.”

As they headed back to Washington a few hours later, with the televisions aboard Air Force One tuned to the New York Mets game, King mused that Bush must be feeling the weight of his office.

“My wife loves you, but she doesn’t know how you don’t wake up every morning and say, ‘I’ve had it. I’m out of here,’ ” King told him.

“She thinks that?” Bush replied. “Get her on the phone.”

King dialed but got voice mail. Bush left a message: “I’m doing okay. Don’t worry about me.”

This exchange is both weird and comforting. The man is fully aware of his responsibility for the toll the war has taken and clearly cares about others. Still, there’s an odd detachment at work here.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    This is creepy as hell.

    I’m not sure that it matters though, because Cheney is still setting policy.

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  2. Steve Plunk says:

    Odd detachment or necessary adjustment? Doctors could also be said to have an odd detachment but in reality they recognize in order to do the job you must make adjustments away from what ordinary do to cope.

    Stories like this make me like our President even more. He’s doing the best he can in these trying times and few appreciate it.

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  3. Mike says:

    Sorry – i just don’t feel sorry for him – he surrounded himself w/ yes-men and ignored reality for far too long and b/c of his arrogance, we see failed policy after failed policy – my God, the man thought that the immmigration bill was a good thing… – then again he thought the prescription drug plan was a good thing – don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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  4. cian says:

    Steve,

    To extend the doctor analogy, displaying an odd adjustment while cutting off the wrong leg would be the kind of self-confidence generally not appreciated in your average hospital and would likely lead to immediate disbarment.

    As to President Bush’s concern over his place in history, the verdict’s in- in terms of the real war we need to be fighting, the war on terror, Iraq will be seen as a colossal mistake, one that has weakened America militarily, economically and politically while strengthening the enemy.

    For four years we have been fighting shia and Sunni in the back alleys and deserts of Iraq, losing hundreds of soldiers a month and shipping home thousands of crippled and maimed troops to inadequately funded facilities.

    In that time Bin Laden and his cohorts have being re-grouping in the mountains of Pakistan, re-invigorated by the incredibly stupid tactics employed by this administration.

    I respectfully suggest your admiration is misplaced Steve. Bush may very well be a decent man, but he is a bad commander in chief unable to think smart or inspire the country and has left us a divided nation (though not so much anymore with 68% understanding just what a serious mistake the raq invasion was) with a dangerously weakened army and few allies left who are willing to support us in any meaningful way.

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  5. legion says:

    He’s doing the best he can in these trying times and few appreciate it.

    Unfortunately, the best _he_ can do is still far less than America needs. Mike pretty much says everything else that needs saying…

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  6. legion says:

    Actually, on further reading, there is one more thing I’d like to say.

    Beyond Gonzales, the discontent with the Bush presidency is broader and deeper among Republican lawmakers, some of whom seethe with anger. “Our members just wish this thing would be over,” said a senior House Republican who met with Bush recently. “People are tired of him.”

    I don’t know how many (or if any) people in actual political power read this blog. But on the off chance someone on a Congressional staff or something does, let me put this as succinctly as possible:

    If you’re waiting for George W. Bush to change, you’re a God-damned idiot.

    If you want anything in this country to change, anything at all, before the next President takes office, you’re going to have to make it happen yourselves.

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  7. [...] 3. Better late than never? [...]

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  8. LaurenceB says:

    The one word that best describes Bush:

    Disinterested.

    The man is supremely incurious. I honestly think he has no emotional reaction to the looming disaster that is his Presidency simply because he never had any deep emotional investment in it.

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  9. HastingsPete says:

    Creepy and hard to read. He is talking to people about why things came off the rails and yet is oddly serene? He faces the wounds of a soldier, given what he has done in Iraq, and is serene? There’s a long list of adjectives historians will apply to this man now and 100 years from now. None of them will be flatterin, unless you consider “resolute” (when you meant stubborn) in the face of facts and changing situations, or “focused” (when you means obsessed). The guy is a disaster for conservatives, for the war on terrorism, for budgets, for rule of law, for balanced government, for the Republican Party, and most of all, for this country. May god help us all, and damn him.

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  10. ken says:

    The guy is a disaster for conservatives, for the war on terrorism, for budgets, for rule of law, for balanced government, for the Republican Party, and most of all, for this country. May god help us all, and damn him.

    Yes and god damn every conservative pundit and republican party hack who lied and connived, smeared and jeered, bashed and trashed the better candidates in order to put this piece of sycophantic trash in the white House.

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  11. Another Matt says:

    Born again or not, I believe Bush when he says he is a strong believer in God. His election, some of his policies, and his rhetoric are rife with religious influences. It would not surprise me that some of his ability to handle his disaster of a presidency can be attributed to his belief in a higher power.

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  12. M1EK says:

    I too can only hope that Bush gets what he deserves after he dies – because thanks to the yes-men who have taken over the Republican party, he will never face any kind of judgement on this earth. That includes James, who bends over backwards to avoid calling Bush what he is.

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  13. Steve says:

    As to President Bush’s concern over his place in history, the verdict’s in- in terms of the real war we need to be fighting, the war on terror, Iraq will be seen as a colossal mistake, one that has weakened America militarily, economically and politically while strengthening the enemy.

    cian,
    I’m so glad you have the ability to see so far into the future. I’m sure there were detractors in 1863 also. Lincoln was thought to be disinterested, inept, stupid and leading us down the wrong paths. But history has vindicated his decisions and his administration. You don’t know all the facts. Oh wait, something else you said:

    For four years…In that time Bin Laden and his cohorts have being re-grouping in the mountains of Pakistan, re-invigorated by the incredibly stupid tactics employed by this administration.

    You really should share your intelligence gathering with the US military. Maybe you even know which mountain. You make all these blanket statements with little or no facts. You just don’t have all the facts. If our enemies are “re-invigorated” it is by the stupid arrogance of those too blinded by their prejudices against Bush and what he stands for to see the larger and far reaching picture. It’s interesting we haven’t had another attack on US soil since 9/11. Maybe it’s because President Bush has made the tough but right choices.

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  14. Bandit says:

    I always wonder how the left is so up on all the AQ ongoings. Is there a newsletter or something?

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