West Wing Story: Bush's Tears

For all his cowboy swagger, President Bush is a crier. "Nobody grieves harder than I do when we lose a life," he told reporters at his recent press conference. "It breaks my heart when I see a mom sitting on the front row of a speech and she's weeping, openly weeping for the loss of her son. It's, it's just--I'm not very good about concealing my emotions."

Bush's eyes will often well up. Sometimes with tears of pride, like when he talks about the life story of Al Gonzales, his White House counsel and an immigrant's son. The president is tremendously sentimental. Forget about putting his parents anywhere near him. At his inauguration he purposely kept them out of his line of sight so he could stay as dry-eyed as possible. He has learned not to brush the tears away. (Photographers would love to get a shot of the president wiping his eyes, but they can't easily capture invisible teardrops sliding down his face.)

Since September 11, there have been so many reasons to cry. Bush's most famous teary-eyed moment came in the Oval Office soon after the attacks. He had summoned reporters for a photo op of him calling New York Gov. George Pataki and then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Aides told reporters that he would not take questions, though that rarely stops them from asking. To their surprise, this time he started to answer them. It was the last question that got to him. "Mr. President, could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is?" a reporter asked. Sitting behind his desk just two days after the attacks, his eyes began to fill as he replied, "Well, I don't think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children."

It could have gone either way. His tears might have been perceived as weak. But instead the president's tears soothed the nation. His emotionalism has often suited the public's mood. Last week he let his emotions do the talking on the Middle East conflict. At a stop in Greenville, S.C., last Wednesday morning, he had been optimistic about a potential ceasefire. By the time we got to Atlanta that afternoon for a speech at Georgia Tech, he had gotten the news of the "Passover massacre." He made a passionate appeal. "My heart breaks for those innocent lives that are lost on a daily basis ... This callous, this cold-blooded killing--it must stop. I condemn it in the most strongest of terms." No speechwriter would write "most strongest." An emotional Bush was ad-libbing.

By design, Bush is not as publicly involved in the Middle East conflict as his predecessor was. Secretary of State Colin Powell is the "chief diplomat" on the issue. He, not Bush, gets on the phone to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chairman Yasir Arafat. Bush will only get more involved--as many critics are calling for--when there is a concrete reason with a tangible outcome. But his low-profile approach belies his strong emotions on the topic. Lately it seems that he is letting his passion drive his policy in the Middle East.

As a devout Christian, Bush sees Israel as more than just any other country in crisis. "Because of his deep faith, he believes Israel is as much his spiritual homeland as it is mine," says Matt Brooks, who heads up the Republican Jewish Coalition. Brooks organized Bush's trip to Israel in 1998, when he visited the region with a group of other governors. It was there that the president first really came to appreciate the geography of the conflict. (Sharon, then foreign minister, gave him a helicopter tour of the area.) But the trip was also a biblical history tour. "He has friends who care very deeply about Israel. And as he has gotten more religious over the years he has come to care very deeply," says Donald Etra, a friend of Bush's who is an Orthodox Jew.

As usual with Bush, it is personal connections not abstract policies that move him. His views on Israel have been shaped in part by a few close Jewish friends like Etra, whom he met at Yale. These two men couldn't have been more different when they met in college. But they both belonged to the secret society Skull and Bones. Despite what conspiracy theorists and movie producers might like to think, secret societies aren't just about childish pranks and future contacts. They're also supposed to collect as diverse a group as possible and open a dialogue on everything from race to religion. Etra, as a good Bones man, won't say what they used to talk about, but chances are that Bush's education about Judaism started back then.

Etra, now a hotshot lawyer in Los Angeles, does tell one story from the old days. He was invited to a wedding in Washington. It was on the Sabbath, and Etra had to be able to walk to the event. So Bush, whose father was vice president at the time, arranged for Etra to stay with his parents at the Naval Observatory. They have stayed friends; Etra has been to the White House several times since Bush took office. Each time Bush has made sure that there was Kosher food for him. "He's grown up with Jewish people. He himself appreciates Judaism," Etra says.

Bush hasn't always been seen as a friend to Jews. A 1993 Texas newspaper article told of a discussion Bush had with his mother in which he asserted that he believed only those who accepted Jesus Christ as their savior went to heaven. Mother and son had called on the Rev. Billy Graham to referee. His hometown paper ran the headline: BUSH TO JEWS: GO TO HELL. He felt betrayed. Before he made his 1998 trip to Israel--and as he was stepping onto the national political stage--he bent over backward to explain his comments and unruffle feathers. He even spoke at the Anti-Defamation League.

One night last fall, after a two-hour dinner at the White House, Etra and Bush stood on the Truman Balcony and talked mostly about the Middle East for another two hours. Etra, who had recently taken his family to Israel on vacation, regaled Bush with his personal experiences. He explained how frightening it was for Israelis to commute to work. He told him what it was like to celebrate the Sabbath in the West Bank. And how he and his family had eaten in the very pizza parlor that got blown up a few months later. "I told him my view that he was the one person who could ensure the safety and existence of Israel," Etra says. It's the same thing The New York Times editorial told him yesterday, but Bush is much more likely to listen to a friend.

Last December, for Chanukah, Bush invited a small group of Jewish leaders into the Oval Office. For about 45 minutes, they exchanged ideas about the Middle East and global terrorism. He talked about the suffering in Israel, and as he did, one participant remembers that tears welled up in his eyes.