The Man Who Isn’t There
In 2000 I thought Texas governor George W. Bush was the best person to lead this country. He still would be—except the guy in the White House is a different George W. Bush. And that's why I'm so ambivalent about reelecting him.
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I never expected to know a president of the United States. I had met several presidents-to-be, the first being Richard Nixon during a family vacation in Washington when I was barely a teenager. He was vice president then, and he was eating breakfast in the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying, talking with a senator from California. My mother sent me over to get his autograph. Later, I saw Jimmy Carter campaigning at the Texas Capitol the day before he defeated Lloyd Bentsen in the 1976 Texas primary. Mine was one of many hands he grabbed on his way into the House chamber. In November 1979 I interviewed the elder George Bush as he was gearing up for the 1980 Republican primary race, which he lost to Ronald Reagan. I knew he was doomed when I rode with him to the Houston airport, which now bears his name, and only one person in the terminal recognized him.
Then, for six years, I saw George W. Bush up close. I really didn’t have personal contact with him that often—every few months, I would say—but when I did see him, it was quality time. In 35 years of hanging around the Capitol, as a staffer and as a journalist, I have never seen anyone that good at the game of politics. It was impossible to be around the guy and not like him. He filled a room. He was always himself. He said what he thought. He had the ability to let down his guard without losing the dignity of “I am your governor.” Not the governor—your governor. I never had a bad interview with him. Once he told me that he was going to beat Al Gore because “I know who I am and he doesn’t know who he is.” On his last night as governor, he hosted the annual reception for the Capitol press corps. National reporters who were on the Bush beat were still in town because of the long agony over the Florida vote, and let me tell you, nobody missed that party. Even the cameramen showed up. When I went up to him in the reception line, I handed him a note in which I thanked him for being incredibly generous with his time, access, and candor, and I told him that covering him had been the best experience of my professional life.
A lot of people will wince at that anecdote—including my editor, not to mention certain readers and colleagues who thought I was, to put it bluntly, in the tank for Bush. Methinks I protest too much, but I ask you, does this sound in the tank? “The governor sided with insurance companies over doctors, employers over employees, and concerns about the cost of care over concerns about the quality of care.” That was my reaction to his misguided veto in 1995 of the Patient Protection Act, which was designed to curb the abuses of managed care. In 1999 I wrote that Bush’s proposal for an across-the-board property tax cut was “in deep trouble” because his attention had been diverted by the presidential race. I even quoted a Republican legislator as saying, “You can get in to see him, if you’re from Iowa.” I encountered the governor at the Capitol on the day the story appeared, and when I tried to shake his hand, he pulled it back.
But did Bush generally come across well in my stories? Sure. When there was something negative to write, I wrote it, but aside from occasional disagreements over issues, there wasn’t a lot to be negative about. He had all the qualities of a great governor. He was a strong and popular leader. He had a mesmerizing personality. He was a uniter, not a divider—a centrist who fought the extremists in his own party. He had the courage to tackle the most important issues: public education and the tax structure. He had a great staff. He made appointments based on ability, not litmus tests. He had the decency to stay above petty politics. He was motivated by the public interest, not ideology. It’s not “in the tank” if it’s the truth. The defensiveness rests.
But I’m speaking of Governor George W. Bush, the man I voted for in 1998 and 2000, not President George W. Bush. They seem to me to be two different people—not entirely so, but enough that there is cause for worry. I don’t regret my vote in 2000; if 9/11 had to happen, I’m glad that it happened on his watch. He has captured Saddam Hussein and will never rest until the same fate is ensured for Osama bin Laden. But the sundering of the country along geographical and ideological lines into the political map of Red America and Blue America accelerated on his watch, and it started well before 9/11. I would never have imagined that the person I knew would have been characterized in a Time cover story as the “Great Polarizer.” Or that he would kowtow to the extremists in his party. Or that he would allow his vice president to cast a shadow on his administration’s integrity by maintaining secrecy on energy planning. Or that his advisers would be at war not just with terrorists but with each other. What happened to Governor George W. Bush? Where is the guy we sent to Washington?
There’s a reason this story is written in the first person: My purpose here is not to persuade you about how to judge the Bush presidency but to persuade myself. I have no party loyalty or ideological anchor to rely on as a guide; I tend to vote according to which candidate seems to me to be the best match for the spirit of the times. I voted for Ronald Reagan and for Bill Clinton. Even if I hadn’t known George W. Bush, I probably would have voted for him, because the times in 2000 demanded an end to the divisiveness of the Clinton years, and Bush had a far better chance to achieve it (or so I thought) than Al Gore did. It even crossed my mind to go to Washington and observe at close range his efforts to change the tone of the city, as he promised. (There was a bad career choice.) Instead, I stayed in Texas and spent the next three years discussing with my colleagues at Texas Monthly how to cover a Texas president from afar, relying for most of our information on the national media, which I don’t particularly like or trust. Eventually we decided that the main thing we can contribute to the national debate is to compare Governor Bush with President Bush: How is he the same, how is he different, and why is it significant?
The two characters began to diverge in the summer of 1998, with the appearance of the polls showing him as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2000, an election that was then more than two years distant. In the beginning, he was a reluctant candidate, so much so that I had doubts about whether he would be an effective president. He had no hunger for the job, no clue about what he wanted to do with it. There was so much about it he didn’t like: the culture of Washington, the national media, the isolation, the feeling of being a specimen under a microscope. That reluctance exposed itself during the early part of his presidential campaign. I saw him speak at the Iowa straw poll in the summer of 1999, and he seemed uncomfortable and unsure of himself. As good as he was in an intimate setting, he wasn’t the same person in a big space. A few months later I saw him in New Hampshire, visiting a company that made outdoor clothing, and he was awful. The audience filed into a small auditorium to the sound of country music. I didn’t think it was smart to be too Texan in New England. Hell, they didn’t even want us to join the Union. He spoke on a low stage with a stand-up microphone, and he had to bend forward to get down to it, making himself look all arms and knees, awkward and unpolished. His speech was so generic it could have been given in Amarillo. An ad-lib about his Texas Rangers’ getting beat by the Red Sox drew the only round of applause. His issues were esoteric—missile defense, social security privatization, military reorganization, and tax cuts that the employees who made up most of the audience knew wouldn’t help them. Only after John McCain whipped him in the primary did he finally act like he cared. He had gone from wanting not to lose to wanting to win.
I wasn’t the only one wondering what had happened to the George W. Bush I thought I knew; Republicans around the Texas Capitol were asking the same thing. His advisers’ penchant for keeping him on message and avoiding any mistakes submerged his personality. But I had other concerns. How could the guy who the right wing in Texas had blocked from being the leader of the state’s delegation to the 1996 Republican National Convention have gone to Bob Jones University and embraced the very worst elements of the right wing, people who had openly loathed his father? Karen Hughes, his communications director, told me at the time that after their decisive defeat in New Hampshire, they needed an enthusiastic crowd in South Carolina, and where else could they be sure of finding one? I wonder if Bush understood the negative symbolic importance of that appearance to his core constituency in the political center. In retrospect, this was a pivotal moment for him in two ways: It proved that winning mattered to him after all, and it threw him into the clutches of the right. And, given the militancy of that wing of the Republican party and Bush’s own belief that he must avoid his father’s mistake of alienating them, it meant that he would be locked permanently into reciprocating the embrace for the rest of his candidacy and at least the first term of his presidency.
Governor Bush had all but disappeared, to be replaced by a stiff and scripted fellow called Nominee Bush. I remember having lunch with Hughes in May, after the nomination was wrapped up, and she said, How do we get the country to see what he’s really like? I suggested taking up Al Gore’s challenge to debate every week; put him next to Gore and the country will like him better. But it wasn’t in the script. In the fall, when Bush fell behind Gore, the campaign was still trying to avoid debates. I had more confidence in him than they did; I knew he was going to beat Gore head to head. He is the most competitive person you ever saw; every encounter is a joust. His zest for banter is well known by now, but the first time I experienced it was at a Texas A&M football game. It rained and rained and then it rained harder, and I had to give my raincoat to my two boys, so by halftime I was drenched. My hair was dripping water, my clothes were soaked through, and water squished out of my shoes as I traipsed up the stairs to the concession stands, a route that took me right by the VIP seats. A shout rang out: “Burka!” It was Bush, taking utter delight in my misery. “You’re wet! Don’t you know it’s raining?”
I was quite surprised at the way Bush came to be viewed in the campaign. The Saturday Night Live caricature sums it up: a not-too-bright playboy. It would never have occurred to me (or anyone else who dealt with him at the Capitol) to think of Bush as dumb or lacking gravitas. He was both fluent and knowledgeable about the things a governor needed to know—his issues and Texas politics generally. His real forte was people and the political process. He had an unerring instinct for knowing how others really felt about him and how to win them over.
He had his shortcomings. Who doesn’t? Chief among them was his narrow focus; if something wasn’t on his radar screen, like higher education or the environment, forget about it. This quality is more of a problem for a president, who is expected to have a position on everything, than a governor. Bush picked out a few things he was interested in, pressed for his agenda, and seldom interfered with the rest. The attacks on Bush’s record by the Democrats and the national media were true but not accurate. Yes, Texas leads the nation in air pollution, executions, and children without health insurance, but we were that way before Bush was governor, and we didn’t change under all those Democratic governors, including Ann Richards.
Bush was extremely lucky. Richards faced budget and school-finance crises before him and Rick Perry faces budget and school-finance crises after him, but he faced neither. However, he has not been a lucky president; indeed, history dealt him the worst hand of any incoming president since Lincoln. He took office after an acrimonious election in which he lost the popular vote and was declared president rather than elected. The economy was sinking toward recession. Then, not quite eight months into his presidency, two jets brought down the World Trade Center, killed more than two thousand Americans, and sent the country into shock—at war with one enemy most people didn’t know existed and, eventually, with another many didn’t think it was necessary to fight.
Even before 9/11, I thought Bush was headed in the wrong direction. I worried that his $1.6 trillion tax cut was excessive, and in one aspect—the repeal of the inheritance tax—a huge mistake. Maybe the amount could be justified. The combination of tax cuts, deficits, and low interest rates is a textbook policy for stimulating the economy. Clinton chose to raise taxes on the wealthy to reduce the deficit, which is a different kind of textbook response: It frees up credit by taking the government out of the borrowing business. I don’t know which textbook to believe, and I suspect that it is a matter of faith rather than science. At any rate, no one should be shocked that a Democrat would raise taxes on the wealthy or that a Republican would reduce them. But the repeal of inheritance taxes will do real harm to the country, which is why several Rockefellers and other zillionaires signed an ad in the New York Times opposing it. It would have made so much more sense to raise the ceiling enough to protect family businesses and parents who want to leave money for their grandkids to go to college. Not only will the repeal harm philanthropy by removing the tax-avoidance incentive for people to create foundations, but it will also remove the barrier to the creation of a permanent aristocracy in this country.
But the Bush policy that baffled me the most was, and is, his administration’s unrelenting attack on the environment. I understand why he wanted to go easy on dirty refineries and power plants: In a recession, he wasn’t going to eliminate a single job. But why did he want to spend his political capital on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Why identify himself as the oil president, an image that has undercut his Iraq policy—especially since the ANWR reserves are barely a drop in the bucket of our energy needs? Why did the administration suspend the last-minute Clinton rule reducing arsenic in drinking water? Who thought that was a good idea? In the end, the administration restored the Clinton reductions, but the PR damage was done.
Then there was his claim to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Right out of the box, the White House got crosswise with Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, over policy and, some say, personal differences; he became an independent and the GOP lost its majority in the Senate. Bush’s relationship with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was frigid, in contrast to the one he had enjoyed with Democratic leaders Bob Bullock and Pete Laney back in Texas. (The administration’s version is that Daschle said one thing in their private meetings and something totally different to the media; to Bush, that’s tantamount to lying.) I don’t want to be naive here: A new sheriff can’t expect to ride into town and clean things up overnight. Partisanship is built into the structure of Congress. Still, Bush had talked, both in the campaign and in interviews with me, about wanting to change the political climate of Washington. It seems to me that he didn’t try very hard. The House Republicans and their divider-not-a-uniter majority leader, Tom DeLay, were as much opposed to bipartisanship as the Senate Democrats. Unless DeLay could be detoxified, the political climate of Washington would remain the same. But Bush didn’t have to take on DeLay to claim the political center. The Democrats let him have it by default by moving to the left, both inside the Beltway, where their House caucus chose Nancy Pelosi, of California, as their minority leader, and outside, where Howard Dean emerged as the front-runner for the party’s 2004 presidential nomination.
Another issue I found troubling was the nexus between religion and politics. I’m a big believer in the First Amendment. I think the Bill of Rights—and the First Amendment in particular—represents the United States’ greatest contribution to civilization: free speech, a free press, and separation of church and state. I’m not nutty about this. I don’t see anything wrong with the display of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds, but if the courts ultimately order it removed, I don’t want some headline-grabbing judge to defy the law he has sworn to uphold. I was even willing to accept Bush’s plan for faith-based social services; churches have a much better chance of success in dealing with drug and alcohol rehabilitation than government agencies do. If it works, I’m not going to throw away people’s lives just because someone might have to listen to a denominational prayer. On the other hand, I was appalled by Bush’s decision to limit federal support for stem cell research. The conflict between religion and science is an old one, going back at least to Galileo, and the church has almost always been on the wrong side. I understand why the issue mattered to Bush. He had made a campaign promise to the religious right not to allow federal funding for the research, and as I said, he had learned from his father the cost of alienating his political base. But a lot of Republicans favored federal funding because of its potential for human progress. I fail to understand how anyone who knows a lot about the issue could be against giving science a chance to cure terrible diseases. When the issue got hot, Bush had to back off and find a compromise. Still, in the light of history, he made the wrong choice.
All of these concerns loomed large at the time, but they faded into the background on the morning of September 11, 2001. In a democracy, even decisions of war and peace must be made within a political framework. The framework for Bush was that his presidency was adrift before the calamity of 9/11; after the early successes of the education bill and the tax cuts, the rest of his legislative program had stalled. His job- approval rating was a lukewarm 50 percent. The political importance of 9/11 for George W. Bush cannot be overstated. It united the nation in tragedy. It provided him with an opportunity for leadership and created the one thing a leader needs most: followers. And it defined his presidency, giving him the sense of purpose that he had previously lacked.
In a way, Bush was repeating as president the evolution he had gone through in his personal life, when he stopped drinking and became a grown-up at age forty. As governor, he was supremely self-confident, a trait that his critics on the national stage would later see as cockiness or arrogance but which to me seemed to be something more profound: the result of having lived most of his life being less than pleased with himself and then turning his life around through faith and force of will. Now he had to prove himself again, this time to the world. Here’s what he had to say about the way other world leaders viewed him, in an interview for Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War: “I’m the toxic Texan, right? In these people’s minds, I’m the new guy. They don’t know who I am.” They should have seen the letter he wrote in longhand to his father on the night of October 7, 2001, to thank him for all he had done and to tell him that he had ordered the bombing of Afghanistan to begin. I saw it in 2002 at the George Bush presidential library at Texas A&M, as part of an exhibit about the two father-and-son presidents, John and John Quincy Adams and George and George W. Bush. The bullhorn Bush had used when he spoke at the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center was there and so was the New York City firefighter’s pullover he had worn when he threw a strike before the first game of the World Series, at Yankee Stadium, but I found the letter to be the most compelling item, especially its conclusion: “I feel no sense of the so-called heavy burden of the office.”
There it is: a one-sentence character sketch. Other presidents have agonized over hard choices—think of Lyndon Johnson in the early days of Vietnam, wanting to get out yet knowing that he couldn’t—but not Bush. “The best thing he does is make decisions,” his longtime political guru, Karl Rove, told me during the gubernatorial years. Rove went on to say that it was more important for a leader to make a decision and stick by it than that the decision be absolutely right. Bush is comfortable with the burdens of the office because he doesn’t feel them the way others do: He never looks back, never second-guesses himself, never shows weakness, never admits a mistake, never reverses course. And it drives his critics crazy.
If you’re going to stay the course, come what may, you had better be right, especially if the stakes are high and the odds are long. Even as governor, Bush was prone to roll the dice; he liked the big play. Following the old political rule that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, he announced before his second legislative session in 1997, without consulting Bullock or Laney, that he wanted $1 billion of a $3 billion surplus (those were the days!) to be used for property tax relief. Bullock and Laney didn’t like his unilateralism, but they went along. Even bolder, he led a drive that session to reform the state’s tax structure by shifting property taxes to business taxes. “Now we’ll find out: Can government act prior to a crisis?” he told me. Well, I knew the answer to that one: No. After the plan failed in the last days of the session, Bush told me, “One of these days the Legislature will wish they had passed it.” (That day is now.) But Bush wasn’t going to wait for the crisis to arrive. His reasoning for taking on tax reform was the same as his reasoning for invading Iraq: the preemptive strike. But tax reform is one thing, and regime change in Iraq is quite another.
“The Love Him, Hate Him President” was the headline of Time‘s December 1 cover story about Bush. “He is the man about whom Americans feel little ambivalence,” the story said. “People tend to love him or hate him without any complicating shades of gray.” Hmmm. Am I all alone out here in a gray area? I certainly don’t hate him. I found him to be a good man with decent instincts. Those who follow the national media don’t hear this from journalists, but if you read books journalists have written about him—Woodward’s Bush at War, Frank Bruni’s Ambling Into History—his character and personality break through. I realize that there are millions of people in America, to say nothing of worldwide, who think that he deliberately lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, but I can’t imagine that the person I knew, who campaigned on restoring honor and dignity to the White House, would deliberately lie to the American people. (I can believe it of Dick Cheney, whom I know only through the media, just as others can believe it of Bush, whom they know only in the same way.)
But I don’t love him either. For one thing, I gave up loving politicians long ago. Politics is noble in conception but too often ignoble in practice; it puts expedience on public display. For another, I disagree with him about too many things, including the big one of war and peace. You might reasonably ask: Who am I to disagree with the president of the United States? Well, it’s a free country. But more than that, I majored in history, and my favorite professor drummed into us the obligation to be judgmental, about the present as well as the past. “Every man his own historian,” he would say.
So here’s what this individual historian believes. First, when dealing with the rest of the world, America must abide by its basic principles, which, as Lincoln said just before the outbreak of civil war, in 1861, offer “hope to the world for all future time.” He added, “If [the country] can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful.” Second, the most effective foreign policy for a great power is the one laid down almost one hundred years ago by Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
On my personal scorecard, Bush is zero for two. What is especially sad about this is that he had the country overwhelmingly behind him after 9/11. The moment that everything changed came in the 2002 State of the Union address, when Bush identified an “axis of evil”: Iraq, Iran, North Korea. So much for speaking softly. He could have said the same thing in many different ways; the way that he chose—boldness, always boldness—committed us to act, for a president does not employ words like “evil” casually. To use that label is to raise the stakes, because how can good (that’s us) tolerate evil?
Let me be very clear about this: It’s not the label itself I object to; these were all bad regimes. It’s the use of it. It raises the basic question of whether America should be the world’s moral policeman, ridding the globe of bad guys who pose no imminent threat to us except in what they might do at some future time. In other words, preemptive war; as Shakespeare’s Brutus said, in determining to join the assassination plot against a too-ambitious Julius Caesar, “Then, lest he may, prevent.” But does brandishing your intentions in public create a safer world—or a more dangerous one? In the case of North Korea, it is likely that the “axis of evil” speech created exactly what we feared, spurring that country to resume its nuclear weapons program. The speech and the policy it produced reopened the political divisions of the 2000 election by forcing each of us to decide what kind of values we expect our country to uphold. I am 100 percent in favor of hunting down terrorists to the ends of the earth and bringing them to justice. But it’s not justice if the government can hold suspects indefinitely without charging them. I know the counterargument, that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. But requiring the government to have some evidence against suspects to produce in court is not tantamount to suicide. And it doesn’t necessarily advance the war on terrorism to wage war on spec against states; indeed, it may cause us to shift our focus from the greater danger to a lesser one.
These are truly momentous issues. The president did not seek them out; they were forced upon him by 9/11. It’s hard to blame him for going to the utmost lengths to protect the nation; that’s his sworn duty. What concerns me is whether we can trust the decision-making apparatus around him. In the governor’s office, Bush had advisers and top aides who were totally loyal to him. In the White House, he has advisers and top aides who have a long history of intellectual and ideological loyalty to specific policy positions. This is not to say that they are disloyal, just that they think the way ideologues always think—that their interests and the nation’s interests (and the president’s) are one and the same. One day after 9/11, the National Security Council met to plan the response. According to Bush at War (which is based on interviews with the principles), one of the first comments was by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asking why we shouldn’t go after Iraq, as his chief deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, famously supported. Colin Powell warned that neither the coalition America was seeking nor the American people wanted a war against Iraq. At first, Woodward writes, Bush worried about diluting the mission against Al Qaeda, but the proponents were relentless—in particular, Cheney, who repeatedly said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, two assertions that remain unproved—and they must have known that the boss’s proclivity for boldness would work in their favor. Once Bush decides to take a bite of the apple, it’s going to be the biggest chunk he can sink his teeth into. The argument that the status quo in the Islamic world would not change unless America did something to change it would have appealed to him. Of all the reasons to oust Saddam, the boldest was to change the paradigm. I admire the play, and I hope it works, even as I doubt its likelihood of success and fear that it targeted a less dangerous enemy than Al Qaeda. Few things in international affairs are more risky than to view the world as you wish it to be, rather than as it is.
A couple of days before Christmas, I went to Washington for an interview at the White House with a senior administration official, who imposed the condition of anonymity. My editor and I had talked by phone earlier in the day, and he had told me to stick to the big stuff. “If you bring up arsenic in drinking water, they’ll laugh you out of the office,” he said. The SAO and I exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned that I had written only a couple of stories about Bush since he became president. “I know,” the SAO said, tapping a red file folder resting on the table. It contained copies of what I had written: one pre-9/11 article expressing puzzlement over Bush’s policies and another, from last fall, about Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and her nomination to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “You got it completely wrong,” the SAO said. “But you didn’t come here to talk about that.” “That’s okay,” I said. “Let’s talk about it.” And the first thing the SAO brought up was . . . arsenic in drinking water: how they had no choice but to reexamine the scientific evidence or else the rule left for them by the Clinton administration would have been subject to a court challenge.
That’s pretty much how the interview went. The SAO had plenty to say, but the old atmosphere, so impressive in my Texas interviews, of open and big-picture discussions was nowhere in evidence. This was all about staying on message—and the message was that the national media have consistently failed to report Bush’s policies accurately. Earlier in the day, I had had lunch with Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. He had told me that the Democrats felt lied to about Bush’s education bill, which Bush did not fully fund, falling $15 billion short. The SAO’s response to my mention of this widely reported issue was that the White House had increased education funding by 60 percent since 2000, the largest increase in history. I turned to Iraq: What about the slow pace of rebuilding? No such thing, was the answer—no food crisis, no breakdown in health care, electricity back to pre-war levels, no refugees.
I confess that this aggressive defense took me by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. This White House is famous for its antipathy to the national media, and the president himself makes no secret that he neither reads nor watches the news. This goes back to the campaign; I remember one Bush aide telling me in 1999, as the media clamored to know Bush’s stance on issues, that “we intend to run this campaign on our timetable, not the media’s.” Still, I was from Texas. They knew me. Didn’t that make a difference? Well, those days are gone. When I got home that night, I told my wife about the interview and said, “I felt just like a member of the national media.” She gave me her best you-idiot look and said, “You are a member of the national media.”
The thing I most wanted to ask about was Bush’s desire to change the culture of Washington and what had become of it. The SAO told me that the president never criticizes Democrats directly; he always says something like “some in Congress.” The Democratic leadership, on the other hand, wants total war. The SAO told a story about a trade bill, giving more authority to the president, that a number of House Democrats had supported during the Clinton years but opposed when Bush wanted it. Bush met with the D’s, but all but a handful rejected his overtures. One of the Democrats, the SAO said, complained that a Republican chairman had been mean to them, shutting them out of conference committees and heaping other indignities on them. The SAO presented this as a silly reason to be against a public policy issue, as if, What is the president supposed to do—call up the chairman and say, “Be nice to the Democrats?” In fact, if Bush is serious about changing the culture of Washington, I think that is exactly what he should do. “Look,” he could say, “I’m trying to get reelected, trying to help us keep our majorities in Congress, trying to pass important legislation, trying to unite the country in the war on terrorism, and I don’t need you guys screwing things up.” But I don’t think he’s serious about it—not serious enough to do the hard stuff, like take on the petty princes in his own party.
I started this article by saying that I never expected to know a president of the United States. The truth is, I don’t know President Bush. The person I knew was Governor Bush. I really liked him. I still do. But I’m ambivalent about his alter ego. On the one hand, the issue that matters most to me is the safety of my family and my country, and I cannot imagine that anyone, Republican or Democrat, would be more resolute and vigilant than Bush; on the other, I disagree with so many things that he has done.
If I end up voting for him—and I probably will—it will really be Governor Bush who gets my vote. Why? Because hope springs eternal: my hope that in a second term, free from worries about reelection and with an undisputed electoral victory, he will reappear after a four-year sabbatical. I’m betting he’s still around; we just haven’t seen him for a while. He’s a uniter, not a divider. He doesn’t kowtow to the extremists in his party. He’s serious about wanting to change the political climate. He’s vigilant about not letting his team mislead him or taint his administration. He makes appointments based on ability, not litmus tests. You see, I knew that guy.