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.