It is an article of faith with the president and his advisers, repeated like a mantra, that George W. Bush is "comfortable in his own skin." President Bush himself thinks so: "I know who I am," he told a pair of NEWSWEEK reporters recently. "If you're the president, you don't have time to figure out who you are. I think it's unfair to the American people to sit in that Oval Office and try to find your inner soul." As he sat in a captain's chair in his office on Air Force One, ruminating about leadership and cracking the occasional joke, he betrayed no inner doubts. Stumping through the small towns of northern Wisconsin later that day, he appeared confident, winning and charming crowds with a self-effacing, plain-spoken but resolute manner.
And yet, at other times, he can seem not so self-assured. There is the deer-in-the-headlights look that still pops up at press conferences, and that annoying smirk, possibly meant to convey an air of disdain or superiority, but showing the defensiveness of a teenager.
The country is evenly--and hotly--divided over the real George Bush. Some, predominantly those who live in the conservative Red States, proudly see a confident, self-knowing Bush, the steady commander in chief. Others, mostly liberal Blue Staters, cringe at a cocksure (but insecure) bully boy who seems to strut about the world. How to reconcile the two? One way is to examine how George Bush has dealt with an old curse.
A week after his father, George H.W., was elected president in 1988, George W. turned to a friend and adviser, Doug Wead, and said with a sigh, "What's going to happen to me?" Wead took it to mean that Bush wanted to know how his father's election might change his life. He asked Bush if he wanted some research on the lives of the progeny of earlier presidents, and, as Wead recalled the story to NEWSWEEK, Bush answered yes. The result was a 44-page memo, titled "All the President's Children." It's a discouraging read.
Burdened with high expectations, presidential children seem to sense that people are just waiting (and sometimes hoping) for them to fail. And by and large, their lives have been messy. The fate of many presidential sons, Wead found, was alcoholism, divorce and premature death. A few did have some political success, Wead reported. Franklin Roosevelt's son, FDR Jr., became a congressman and ran for governor of New York. Did he win? asked Bush. No, replied Wead. Bush just "groaned."
But running for governor in Texas, Bush did win--twice, in 1994 and 1998. If he triumphs again this November, he will become the only presidential son ever to be re-elected president. (John Quincy Adams, like his father, John Adams, was defeated after one term.) Just as important on a personal level, perhaps, he will surpass his father, another one-termer. President Bush has shown great sureness of purpose, even courage, rallying his country from its worst day ever. He has faced down fear, disciplined what he once jokingly described to his sister Doro as his "inner fat boy," and emerged resolute in his life and manner.
But not without struggle and, almost surely, at a cost. Behind his calm and outward patience there is an edginess that can seem prickly, resentful. At times, he appears so determined to stay the course and stick to his convictions that he seems too rigid, fixed in his ways, unable to adjust. One cannot help but wonder: At some level, is he afraid that the slightest wavering might fatally crack his whole hard-earned, painfully constructed persona? Is admitting a mistake for Bush like an ex-drunk's taking just one drink? Bush can be empathetic, emotional and even (dread word) sensitive. But he can also be surly and impatient with weakness. At these moments, he seems more dogged than enlightened, his life more a triumph of will than of understanding.
It is easy to mark the turning point in George Bush's life. It was the morning of July 28, 1986, when he woke up, wretchedly hung over after a night of celebrating his 40th birthday at the Broadmoor, a resort in Colorado, and decided to quit drinking. He did not seek therapy or join Alcoholics Anonymous. He just quit, and joined a regular Bible group. Before Bush gave up the bottle, his life was more feckless than accomplished. After that day, he moved from success to success. Bush has been sober for 18 years (less time than John Kerry has spent in the U.S. Senate); for 12 of those years, he has been running for office or governing. His mature life, then, has been a public one, mastering, despite his occasional inarticulateness, the art of politics. And his relatively brief adulthood may also help explain the roots of the self-confident side of his nature. If a man starts focusing only when he's 40 and finds himself president of the United States at 54, what can't he do if he sticks to the script that got him from the Broadmoor to the White House?
Bush's presidency has followed the same pattern of moving from chaos to resolution. In his first eight months in office, he had to struggle against the perception that he was an accidental president, elected on a fluke, not quite sure whether he really belonged in the Oval Office. Then came 9/11. After hearing the news of the attacks, he may have looked addled, even frightened, while he was reading "My Pet Goat" to Florida fourth graders in that endless seven minutes captured by Michael Moore in his biting film "Fahrenheit 9/11." But three days later he was standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center, waving his bullhorn and speaking with a conviction that gave heart to his countrymen.
George and Laura Bush do not hide or make light of Bush's transformation. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, the First Lady acknowledged, with her usual smile but also a tone of seriousness, that "it's taken a long time" for her husband to find himself. "I wasn't always disciplined," agreed President Bush. He dated his own turnaround to 1972, when he began jogging regularly. Charlie Younger, a Houston friend, recalls his running flat-out to win in 117-degree heat, whether he had been drinking the night before or not. Terry Johnson, an old Texas and Yale friend, recalls a memorable golf game with Bush shortly before the '88 election. Before they teed up, Bush told Johnson, "Guess what? I decided to quit smoking. Chewing tobacco, too." Johnson asked, "When did you decide this?" Bush answered, "This morning."
"About halfway through," Johnson remembered, "he just starts shaking. It was pretty clear he was going through some bad withdrawal symptoms. He was spraying the balls all over the place. I told him, 'Maybe we should stop.' He wouldn't hear it. 'No, we're gonna keep moving, we're going to finish'." Johnson said: "I've never seen anything like that, ever."
Bush "did not announce his decision to quit drinking," recalls Roland Betts, who befriended Bush at Yale and remains very close to the president. "It even took me a few months to figure out he quit." Bush did tell stories about his days as the family black sheep--funny stories, but also tinged with regret, and sometimes disgust. "He'd say things like, 'I was at some dinner, and I was a little potted, and I was spitting chewing tobacco on the floor, and at the end of dinner, I realized I'd been spitting chewing tobacco on a woman's purse'," recalls Jim Pinkerton, who worked closely with Bush on his father's '88 campaign.
Bush told another friend that his marriage was in trouble, and he blamed himself for risking the loss of Laura and his twin girls. Laura had been after him to quit drinking and go to church more. A lapsed Episcopalian, Bush had been attending a Methodist church with Laura, but he was deeply affected when evangelist Billy Graham asked him in 1985 if he was "right with God." After he quit drinking, Bush began attending a men's Bible-study group with Don Evans and some other Texas businessmen. Bush's religious turn--his decision to "serve the Lord"--was in a sense liberating. As Evans, a fellow born-again Christian, puts it, faith "provides comfort to make decisions because decisions are not about me."
Faith, his wife and shame helped Bush quit alcohol. But it is iron discipline and a fierce competitive edge that keep Bush going. When Bush jogs, he wears a heart monitor, not for his health, but as a way of keeping score. Discipline has always been a hallmark of Bush political campaigns, ever since he upset the colorful but somewhat loose-around-the-edges Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas governor's race. She made fun of him as "Shrub," but he beat her by giving the same short speech, over and over again.
Today, Bush's discipline permeates the White House decision-making process. Unlike the free-floating college-bull-session atmosphere of the Clinton administration, the Bush White House is on time, if not five minutes early. Bush's occasional nickname for his chief of staff, Andy Card, is "Tangent Man"--Bush's way of putting Card on notice that he doesn't appreciate digressions. "He pays very close attention to his schedule," says Card, "and if I'm not doing my job of monitoring his schedule, he disciplines me."
"I believe people need to be on time and punctual," says Bush. "It puts a discipline in the system." Bush finds bureaucratic foot-dragging and hand-wringing to be "unbelievably frustrating," he says. He told NEWSWEEK: "I'm the kind of person who says, 'You told me this was going to happen. How come it hasn't happened?' "
Bush is not shy about making his feelings known. At an early meeting with congressional leaders, Bush stood impatiently waiting as the lawmakers arrived, as is often the case, a little late. Three or four minutes after the meeting's scheduled hour, as the congressmen were still straggling in, Bush turned to congressional liaison Nick Calio and said, "Let's go. We're going now. You let everyone know that from now on meetings start on time with or without them."
Bush will jump into a debate. "I'm a questioner; I know how to cut to the chase pretty quickly," he says. But he rarely explains his decisions to his own aides, much less the American people. Bush can become exasperated when his aides engage in circular wrangling. Calio recalls a tendentious debate in the Roosevelt Room over steel tariffs. Bush interrupted. "He just basically said, 'Enough. I can make this decision. Here's my decision'." (Bush raised tariffs, just in time to boost the steel industry in swing states like Pennsylvania before the 2002 election; the tariffs were later rolled back when they hurt the economies of other swing states, like Ohio. Aides say that Bush disdains polls and decides by instinct, but his instincts can be pretty political.)
Bush is not insensitive to the criticism that he shoots from the hip. "I've learned to be more patient," he says. "It's really important to let the process work," he adds, as if repeating a lesson to himself. But Bush cannot abide second-guessing. He is more intuitive than cerebral; he is the opposite of John Kerry, who likes to rethink and reconsider and analyze from all angles, and who sometimes reverses himself. Bush is following his own "inner moral code," says Betts. "He has no patience at all with people who want to rehash the past," says Betts. "None."
Bush's convictions can make him dogmatic and too unyielding. In Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack," the best inside account so far of the Bush administration's lead-up to the Iraq war, it is striking how little Bush talks to his top advisers about whether to go to war. He meets constantly with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, to go over war plans. But there is almost no debate over whether invading and occupying Iraq is a good idea to begin with.
On another important issue--stem-cell research--Bush's advisers can go into great detail describing all the steps Bush took to make his compromise decision, the hefty briefing books, the long consultations with religious and scientific leaders. But when it comes to describing the process Bush took on Iraq, they are suspiciously vague. The clear impression is that Bush made a quick gut decision. The debate, says one knowledgeable former administration official, was "pro forma."
Bush likes other leaders who "mean what they say and say what they mean," as national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice puts it. But if he deems them untrustworthy--like PLO leader Yasir Arafat or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder--then Bush has little use for them. He had long described Saddam Hussein as "evil" (and noted that the Iraqi despot tried to kill his father in an assassination plot in 1993). Bush does not dispute that he is a visceral judge of people, though in his NEWSWEEK interview, the president insisted, "I don't necessarily send troops into combat because I don't like a person."
Judging from "Plan of Attack" and the accounts of some former administration officials, particularly from the State Department, Bush paid little attention to shaping a plan for reconstructing Iraq. When Bush is faced with a high-stakes complex problem, he believes in delegating, says a senior adviser, and in the case of post-war Iraq, Bush trusted the Pentagon, the government agency that can actually put troops on the ground and build things. (The State Department, with diplomatic expertise but low budgets, was largely cut out.) Don Rumsfeld, dubbed "Matinee Idol" by Bush, was riding high at the time, but the Defense secretary had little interest in nation-building, and his subordinates made a hash of the job. Bush rarely, if ever, admits a mistake. But last fall he quietly allowed the national-security staff to push Defense aside and draw in other agencies, like State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to work on Iraqi reconstruction. Critics say that the damage was already done, but this was one case in which Bush was able to change course.
Many of Bush's friends, as well as his critics, wonder why Bush failed to consult one particularly experienced and able expert in the field of foreign affairs: his father. "41" often calls "43," but usually to say, "I love you, son," President Bush told NEWSWEEK. "My dad understands that I am so better informed on many issues than he could possibly be that his advice is minimal." That is a pity, say some old advisers to 41, because 43 badly needed to be rescued from the clutches of the neocons, the Defense Department ideologues who, in the view of the moderate internationalists who served in 41's administration, have hijacked American foreign policy.
But the fact is that President Bush did not want to be rescued. To say he has a complicated relationship with his father is an understatement. Bush clearly admires, even worships, his father, says a friend who notes that Bush wept when his father lost political races. But he doesn't want his father's help. To some degree, he is following a Bush family code. According to family lore, Bush's grandfather Prescott refused an inheritance from his father, while W's dad refused Prescott's plea to put off joining the Navy in World War II before going to college. "No, sir, I'm going in," said the 19-year-old George H.W. Bush. In the Bushes' world, real men are supposed to make it on their own, without Dad's looking over their shoulders. After the 1988 presidential campaign, W was eager to shed the nickname "Junior."
But George W. hasn't just been independent, he's been defiant. The degree to which Bush defines himself in opposition to his father is striking. While 41 raised taxes, 43 cut them, twice. Forty-one is a multilateralist; 43 is a unilateralist. Forty-one "didn't finish the job" in Iraq, so 43 finished it for him. Much was made of 43's religiosity when he told Bob Woodward that "when it comes to strength," he turns not to 41, but rather to "a higher father." But what was the president saying about his own father?
According to some of the president's advisers, 43's role model as president is not his father, but rather Ronald Reagan. When Bush's former spokesman Ari Fleischer told the president that he was uncomfortable with Bush's "Bring it on" rhetoric against Al Qaeda, Bush replied, "When Ronald Reagan went to Berlin, Ronald Reagan didn't say, 'Mr. Gorbachev, put a gate in this wall; Mr. Gorbachev, remove some bricks," Fleischer recalled. But Reagan, it should be noted, was not afraid to compromise, and, unlike 43, he seemed almost eerily serene.
Several of Bush's friends and advisers commented that Bush is really more like his mother than his father. Barbara Bush, they say, can be more judgmental, more black and white, and more caustic than her husband. Andy Card, who has spent considerable time around the Bushes, observed that he has never seen President Bush argue with his father. The father won't engage or argue back, says Card. Not because Bush Sr. agrees with his son's policies, says an old friend of 41's. "It's an agony for him" to watch 43 make policy on Iraq. "It's doubly frustrating to him because that's not the way he'd run it if he was still in charge."
Bush is comfortable arguing with his mother, who does not hesitate to make her own views known. In her memoir, Barbara Bush writes frankly of the resentment she felt when she was stuck carpooling kids in the dusty town of Midland, Texas, while her husband gallivanted about the country and the world making oil deals and laying the groundwork for his political career. Young George no doubt picked up on his mother's distress.
The death of Bush's 3-year-old sister Robin when he was 7 tightened the bond between mother and son. WASPs are not supposed to show too much emotion, and young Bush was not even told his sister was sick with leukemia until after she died. Robin's death "crushed" young George, says his cousin Elsie Walker, "but he dealt with it. His mom really leaned on him after Robin died. That's when he got to be so outrageous, in terms of his sense of humor, I think," says Walker, who is close to her cousin. "He was always trying to make her laugh."
You don't have to be Freud or Sophocles to conjure up some rivalrous or rebellious feelings of the son toward the father. George W. spend much of his early years, and a good deal of his adulthood, trying and failing to catch up to his father as a student, athlete, aviator, businessman and politician. When Bush, in a drunken rage at the age of 26, challenged his father to go "mano a mano" with him, all his father could say was how "disappointed" he was. What could be more wounding?
But that was many years ago. Bush without question bears scars, possibly serious ones, that affect his behavior today. But unlike so many other sons of the powerful, he pulled his life together and made some kind of peace, or at least truce, with his demons. He was not desperate to become president. "He would have been happy to stay governor of Texas, maybe even happier," says his cousin Elsie. And while it may well be true, as one old family friend put it, that Bush sees "his presidency as a chance to best his dad," it is an interesting question whether he would really be crushed if the voters send him back to his ranch in November. He would surely think that he had been unhorsed while riding on a great and sacred mission. But he might also be relieved to have the burden of expectation finally lifted from his shoulders.
Whatever anger Bush felt toward his father has long been softened (or suppressed) by affection, success and self-discipline. Asked by NEWSWEEK, "Who's the better adviser, your mother or your father?" Bush started to answer, then stopped. "Let me start over," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I advise them not to pay attention to editorial policy." Bush has said that he does not read the papers, but his parents do, and fret when Bush comes under fire from the mainstream press. "I'm advising them a lot, about don't worry about me," says Bush. The president says he calls his mother or father about once a week. "I'll call them in the mornings when I get to the Oval early and say, 'How are you doing? Turn off this show'." (He does not refer to a specific show, but he could mean almost any morning news program.) "I want them to stop watching it." Bush was chuckling to himself. He seemed, as he sat back in his president's chair on Air Force One, comfortable enough.