Political Lives: Behind-The-Scenes On Air Force One

I peeked at my wristwatch, and, of course, the president noticed. "Don't worry, Fine, you've got time." It's impossible to sneak a look at a watch without getting caught, I said. "I know somebody who tried!" he shot back with a laugh. It was a rueful joke about his own father: that famous glance at his watch in the midst of a losing debate with Bill Clinton.

Aboard Air Force One the other day, George W. Bush was in a mood to crack jokes. That, ten weeks after 9/11 and a month into the Afghan War, was news in itself. I've covered Bush for eight years (long enough to have acquired my nickname), and I've never seen him more focused and confident--even feisty--than he was during what turned out to be an hour-long interview.

But while he laughed about history--family history--it is a serious topic. He wants to avoid the more profound mistakes his dad made. One: his failure to convince voters he cared enough about the recession they faced in 1992. Two: his failure, at the end of the Gulf War, to stop-once and for all--Saddam Hussein in Iraq from threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction.

I didn't get into political reporting with the intention of covering the Bush family. In fact, I'm eager to chronicle the next wave of rising national leadership.

But as I sat next to Bush aboard the plane, I couldn't help but think about the vast role this family has played--and will play--in public life. The chattering classes, for the most part, are appalled. Many voters still refuse to take the president seriously, even if they concede he's performed well as commander-in-chief. And yet without fanfare--often in the face of withering derision--the Bushes now have joined the Adamses, Roosevelts and Kennedys as an American First Family. We're just too close to Ground Zero to see it.

So who are the Bushes, really? Well, they're the people who produced the fellow who sat with me and my NEWSWEEK colleague, Martha Brant, for his first interview since 9/11. We saw, among other things, a leader who is utterly comfortable in the role. Bush envelopes himself in the trappings of office. Maybe that's because he's seen it literally from the inside since his dad served as Reagan's vice president in the '80s. The presidency is a family business.

Dubyah loves to wear the uniform--whatever the precisely correct one happens to be for a particular moment. I counted no fewer than four changes of attire during the day trip we took to Ft. Campbell in Kentucky and back. He arrived for our interview in a dark blue Air Force One flight jacket. When he greeted the members of Congress on board, he wore an open-necked shirt. When he had lunch with the troops he wore a blue blazer. And when he addressed the troops, it was in the flight jacket of the 101st Airborne. He's a Boomer product of the '60s--but doesn't mind ermine robes.

The Bushes operate on a highly-evolved theory of family loyalty in staffing. For the most part, they pick their liegemen (and liegewomen) carefully, and then stick with them for something close to forever. Like the bouncer at the door of the Chicago speakeasy, they "don't want no guy that no guy sent."

The aura of rah-rah team spirit was almost palpable aboard Air Force One. To be sure, things at that moment were going well-one reason, of course, why the White House accepted my request for an interview. But I've been around other presidential inner circles in which everyone was too cool to be cheerleading. Not this crowd. They clearly love the boss, and dote on him-and tease him (and each other--with a familiarity that borders on, well, familial).

The Bush family is full of strong women, starting, in modern times, with "41's" late mother, Dorothy Walker Bush. Then came Barbara Bush. The current president ("43"), boyish behind the scenes at age 55, feels comfortable conducting business in the presence of women, including his wife, Laura, his counselor, Karen Hughes, and his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice. All three were aboard Air Force One, adding to the informal, family air around him.

The Bushes, as a family, have definite likes and dislikes among the various strains of the human species. Among those for whom they have a visceral distrust: lawyers, shrinks, journalists, consultants, historians, PR-hungry politicians (unless they're in the Bush family): In other words, almost every professional in Washington. By contrast, Bushes tend to trust--even revere--Texans in general and folks from Midland in particular, military types, sports figures (especially from baseball) and, of course, family.

Bush relishes being around men and women in uniform. It was like a homecoming at Ft. Campbell. At lunch in the mess hall, as he walked along the rows of soldiers, he stopped at the place of one fellow with a bald-eagle haircut--and reached out and rubbed his head. The soldier loved it--and it was the picture of the day.

As Brant and I were interviewing Bush, the name of Army Gen. Tommy Franks came up. He's the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has been the subject of anonymously-sourced stories asserting that his job was in jeopardy. It turns out that Franks went to the same high school in Midland from which Laura Bush had graduated. Bush proudly--solemnly--noted that fact in our interview. The message: Tommy Franks is fine.

The Bushes also love secrecy. The major test of loyalty in their world is the ability to keep your mouth shut. Bushes were and are control freaks when it comes to information. The loyalty and hand-written notes flow in the inner circle; the rest of the world is the outside world.

Cabinet members have held numerous, almost daily, briefings with the press since 9/11. People such as Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson have been fixtures on TV and behind the pressroom podium. But this administration also controls the flow of information more systematically than any in modern history--and that was true even before the new, secretive law-enforcement measures imposed in the effort to combat terrorism. No cabinet officer goes before the cameras without prior clearance from the White House.

As long as things are going well, that approach may work. It won't work when the inevitable controversy develops. The Bush White House will cause a firestorm if it looks like it is using family loyalty and centralized command--made all the more powerful by wartime secrecy--to cover up the truth. The president already has made it harder for historians to do their jobs by restricting access to his papers, and those of former presidents. It's ironic, because the history those papers tell will be of the central role of the Bush family.

George W.'s tolerance for scrutiny, and reporters, is limited. With Bill Clinton, among others, you could usually get away with asking "one more question." Not Bush. When he got up to leave the conference room, I tried to get in one more. "Would you care to comment...."

"Not now I wouldn't," he said abruptly. "That's it, Fine." In an instant he was gone.