When The Spotlight Fades

A year ago, when President George W. Bush was in New York to give his annual address to the United Nations, he ran into former president Bill Clinton in a corridor. Clinton seemed to be hanging about, waiting for Bush to show up with his usual press entourage. As Robert Draper tells the story in his new Bush biography, "Dead Certain," Bush's aides speculated "uncharitably" that "this was another case of Clinton craving one more tanning session in the executive limelight." Bush himself was gracious with Clinton as they chatted for the cameras. But afterward, he told an aide, "Six years from now, you're not going to see me hanging around the lobby of the U.N."

Bush wants you to know he is not Bill Clinton. Bush doesn't dither like his predecessor, or start meetings late and preen for photos. Most important, he doesn't whine. "Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency," Bush told Draper. Clinton, for his part, wants you to know he is not George Bush. While Bush is sinking the country into the morass of Iraq, the ex-president is jetting around the world fighting poverty and disease. In his new book, "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World," Clinton describes how he and others have contributed to the greater good. But judging from his use of the first-person pronoun four times in the first sentence, his agenda is not entirely selfless. ("When I left the White House, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life giving my time, money, and skills to worthwhile endeavors where I could make a difference.")

Bush and Clinton have this in common: they spend time worrying about their place in history. As president, Clinton spent hours fretting he could never be in the "top tier" because he'd never been a "war president." Bush initially suggested to Draper he'd be long dead before anyone knew his place in history. But he was thinking about it. Competing with political adviser Karl Rove to read the most books, Bush compared himself to Lincoln, winning the confidence of his generals with a show of unshakable resolve. Draper writes, "His presidency now all but consigned to history, Bush was immersed in the past, gleaning from its portents what the future would say about America's 43rd president."

All presidents worry about their place in history. How could they not? Every one since Herbert Hoover has built his own library, a living monument where scholars may ponder the leader's stewardship of the country. An ex-president's standing can go up and down as new evidence and new historical vogues emerge. And all presidents suffer the pain of withdrawal that goes with the high office. The great cold-war Secretary of State Dean Acheson once compared leaving office to the end of a love affair. Bush told Draper he plans to "build a fantastic Freedom Institute" to promote the spread of global freedom. He also told Draper he could make "ridiculous" money on the lecture circuit.

Bush clearly feels the weight of his duties in office. "The presidency is—you get tired," he confessed to Draper. He told the author he assures his parents and siblings he is doing "just great." Still, the burden is there. "I think he carries it around, for sure," Laura Bush told Draper. When Laura reminds Bush he chose to run for president, Bush says, "Nobody decided it but me … I've got God's shoulder to cry on. And I cry a lot." Perhaps hearing that dreaded self-pity creeping in as he spoke, Bush "let his boots fall from the desktop, leaned forward and said, 'But I don't view this as a burden, being the president'," Draper writes.

In Draper's evenhanded account, Bush is justified in calling himself the "Decider." The president has discipline and determination. But his government is nearly dysfunctional, in part because Bush's aides don't dare undermine the president's optimism. In one telling scene, Bush claims that he did not know about one of the most fateful decisions of the Iraq War—the order by Ambassador Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Baghdad, disbanding the Iraq military in May 2003. "Well," Bush told Draper, "the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn't happen." Last week Bremer showed The New York Times a letter informing the president of his intention to disband the Iraqi military, and a letter back from Bush praising Bremer's "positive and significant" work. It may never be known how that decision got made; clearly, the then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice failed in her job of making sure the president understood the hard choices.

As secretary of State, Rice still has a long-shot chance at redemption by pulling off a peace deal in the Middle East. Bill Clinton cannot redo his presidency—or can he? One of Clinton's agendas in his book is to promote Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. "My wife was my first role model for what it means to be a public servant without public office," he writes, praising her work for nongovernmental causes. Bill and Hillary have "switched places," writes Clinton. But maybe not entirely or forever. If Hillary is elected president, it is going to take all of Clinton's willpower (not his strongest suit) to avoid pushing aside his wife and reaching once more for that executive limelight.