Bush Understands the Bush Bashing

If George Bush took the insults personally, he didn't let it show. On Oct. 23, John McCain, who once stood by the president despite a tense personal relationship, let loose with an unsparing rebuke of the Bush administration's failures. He chastised the president for the "conduct of the war in Iraq for years, growth in the size of government" and for ignoring the will of Congress. "We just let things get completely out of hand," McCain told The Washington Times. McCain's attack read like a Barack Obama ad, only angrier.

That same day, Bush invited a group of women from the Middle East for an informal chat at the White House. He posed for photos and answered their questions, part of his effort to show that the war on terror is not a war on Islam or the Arab world. "When it comes to my views on Muslims, I believe that we pray to the same God," he told the women, according to a person at the meeting who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity speaking about private conversations. "I believe we share in the same beliefs. I believe Muslim mothers want their children to grow up in peace." But at one point, Bush's thoughts turned inward. He told the group he understood why so many people had an unfavorable view of him—and his presidency. "I know I have got an image," he said. "I don't live in a cocoon."

As his presidency winds down, Bush has seeded his calendar with more of these informal, non confrontational events in which he can showcase his softer personal side before appreciative audiences who are proud, even thrilled, to be in the presence of the president. Outside the White House, they are not easy to find. Bush, whose poll numbers now hover in the 20s, will leave office in January with perhaps the lowest approval ratings of any modern president. Bush bashing is nearly as popular among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Obama has made Bush's record the central theme of his campaign. One of Obama's aides' principal lines of attack against John McCain has been to lash him to the president's policies, labeling him "McSame."

Yet those who know the president well say he has withstood the attacks with characteristic equanimity. Bush has never been one to torture himself with doubt or punish himself with what-ifs. Even in the darkest moments of his presidency—the bloodiest months of insurgency after the invasion of Iraq; the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina—there were no hushed stories of a distraught president talking to the portraits in the West Wing. The opinion of the American people matters to him, and close friends and aides say he is not deaf to the fact that he has become an object of ridicule. But they say he also remains unshakably convinced history will see his decisions, on Iraq especially, as the right ones. The same air of self-confident resolve—reassuring to some, maddening to others—that allowed Bush to claim, during the 2004 campaign, that he could not name a single mistake he had made as president, now girds him in his final, difficult and somewhat lonely months in the White House.

The president's aides are not always so philosophical, or forgiving. Several of his closest staffers were furious that Bush was not given a prominent speaking role at the Republican convention in September; they privately groused that Bush, who was originally scheduled to speak on the first night, was later disinvited by the McCain camp. In the end, Bush appeared only by video. Some of the president's friends and aides complained directly to him about what they saw as an unforgivable insult. Bush tried to calm them. "I understand," Bush said, according to two people involved in the conversation. "I had to somewhat distance myself from my own father in my own campaign." In 2000, George H.W. Bush had awkwardly tried to reassure voters that W was ready to lead. "This boy, this son of ours, will not let you down," he said. That was the last time Bush 41 spoke on behalf of his namesake during that campaign.

McCain aides deny that they banned Bush from the GOP convention. But the McCain team's palpable resentment toward the president comes through in their version of what happened. The president and Dick Cheney were originally slated to speak on the first night to get "the old guard" out of the way, says a senior McCain adviser, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely about the relationship between his boss and Bush. But when a hurricane threatened the Gulf Coast that day, the party postponed the start of the convention, and with it Bush's speech.

"The last thing this party needed was for people to be reminded of every dumb mistake this administration made with Katrina," the McCain adviser says. "It was a nightmare." The adviser says they didn't try to keep Bush away, but admits that finding the president a new time slot was hardly a top priority. "The guy has the lowest approval ratings of any president in history, and they are complaining?" the adviser says. "Bush understands the political environment we're in. Or, hell, maybe he doesn't."

In place of the convention in St. Paul, that week Bush took a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg with his wife, Laura, and a small retinue of loyalists, including Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Karen Hughes and Harriet Miers. Bush was in an expansive mood, pushing aside the vagaries of election-year politics and taking the long view of history. His tour guides recounted Lincoln's war strategy and the newspaper headlines that screamed INVASION! INVASION! Bush interjected: "Well, did the president say, 'Bring it on'?" says Jake Boritt, one of the guides. Bush made it clear he was being self-deprecating. "He's got that Southern style of being quick-witted with a slow delivery," Boritt recalls.

Bush has made just one public campaign appearance with McCain. On the morning after the Texas primary in March, the two men had lunch in the White House and then went before reporters. At the time, McCain was battling to win over the conservative base of the Republican Party and hoped an event with Bush would help. There is little warmth between the president and the senator. In 2000, Bush allies brought down McCain's presidential bid with a smear campaign in South Carolina claiming McCain had fathered an illegitimate child. McCain subsequently made peace with the president for political purposes, but the damage could not be undone.

The Rose Garden event lasted exactly 10 minutes. Bush slapped McCain on the back and smiled for the cameras. A reporter asked McCain if the two would campaign together. "I hope that he will campaign for me as much as is keeping with his busy schedule," McCain answered awkwardly. As one senior McCain aide puts it now, "We were getting it over with."

Little wonder Bush has been content to keep his distance. (The men have been seen together one other time, getting into a limo after a Phoenix fundraiser.) "He's approached this with a degree of understanding and is not letting it get to him," says a former senior aide who remains close to Bush. Another friend says Bush knew the attacks were coming. "He made up his mind during the '06 midterms that he was going to become the easy, short-term punching bag," the friend says. "Any second-term president gets a longer-term perspective, with politics in the rearview mirror a little bit." Some Bush aides privately express relief that political reporters, preoccupied with the campaign, no longer bother to scrutinize the president's every move and misstep.

Bush has begun to look toward life after the Oval Office. Friends say he will likely move back to Dallas, where he and Laura lived before Bush was governor. Texas remains the last frontier of Bush Country. "There is a great deal of affection for the Bush family, and that includes the entire family," says James Francis Jr., a close friend. Francis says Bush will likely write his memoirs and give speeches. But his main focus will be to build his library and a policy institute to promote democracy in the Middle East. Laura Bush, who is said to dislike Washington even more than her husband, is looking forward to reclaiming a more normal life. "She told me she hadn't cooked in 14 years," says Ruth Altshuler, another close Bush family friend. "I really see her taking a few months, if not a year, to get settled and then start slowly to get in the Dallas life," she says. "Everybody is going to want her to be honorary chairman of everything."

Last month Bush had a taste of the kind of friendly crowds he can expect to greet him back home. At a barbecue fundraiser in Midland, he told the audience a folksy tale about what he said was the most nerve-racking moment of his presidency: throwing out the first pitch of the World Series in 2001, after 9/11. "The enthusiasm of the people of West Texas for this man and this friend of theirs was just over the top," says Don Evans, one of Bush's oldest friends and political supporters. "It was very uplifting for him because there was a lot of cheering and hollering." Just the sort of adoration that can make a man think he might someday like to get into politics.