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.

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

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