2001: A Bush Odyssey

One year ago he stood before us, right hand raised, a new president chosen by a shade less than half the American adults who are responsible enough to bother to vote. He had been certain of victory and shocked by the closeness and the Florida aftermath. The weekend before the polls opened, Al Gore strained for every vote; George Bush went home early, making the almost fatal decision of responding with what seemed wan disinterest to a well-wired last minute revelation of a drunk driving incident in his past.

And it all seems so long ago.

He is not the minority president anymore, he is the president. His approval ratings are in the 90s. He saw that happen to his father, whose popularity was at 90% a year before he was voted out. Because George W. Bush remembers this well he does not operate under the illusion that 90% of the people think he’s just great, and mean to rehire him in 2004. He thinks of polls as thermometers: Today he is at 98.6, hale and healthy. Tomorrow he may run a fever. Things change.

He knows his father’s popularity slid in part because his father saw his numbers as a jewel you could wear. He didn’t have to do anything with his popularity, he just had to wear it. This works if your luck holds and doesn’t if it doesn’t. The economy began to falter. People looked at him and thought: “I’m getting laid off and he’s walking around with a jewel called ‘The American People Love Me.’ I think I’ll take it away from him.” They did.

George W. Bush watched and learned.

A year ago he stood before us and spoke of “the angel in the whirlwind.” In the last year he found whirlwind and angel, and the finding changed everything.

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Sept. 11 did many important things. Somewhere on the list is this: It gave shape, purpose and meaning to the new president’s presidency. On Sept. 10 the Bush administration was about faith-based social assistance, tax cuts, an improved military—the modern conservative agenda. And like all agendas it had many parts, and the parts became a blur. That happens in politics. Sept. 11 blew the blur away. The presidency is now about two things: ridding the world of madmen who seek to terrorize, and making America safer from weapons of mass destruction. Everything else comes after that.

He has become, as everyone has pointed out, a leader. Our leader, the American president. There are some who knew he always had this potential, had the gift of figuring things out quickly, deciding, delegating, saying what he was doing and why, getting folks to see things his way. A year or so before he announced he would run for president I read a quote about him from the Texas Democrat Bob Bullock. He and George W. had become friends as they worked together during Mr. Bush’s first year as governor. Bullock was smart and tough. And when he was asked about Mr. Bush, shortly before he died, he said, “Let me tell you about that fellow. He’s going to be a president, and he’s going to be a great one.” I watched him closely after that and read everything about him. In time, I came to think: Bullock is going to be proved right.

One of the things I realized about Mr. Bush in the late 1990s was that his politics were different from his father’s in an interesting and subtle way. His father was a low-budget liberal who accepted liberalism’s assumptions but thought Democrats spent and taxed too much. George W. is a high-budget conservative, who believes in conservatism but doesn’t worry too much about spending money to, say, reform the military. And, it seems, a high-budget conservative is what he will continue to be as president.

Mr. Bush continues to prove that he is not eloquent, and that he does not have to be. People need a plain speaker who’ll tell them what he thinks and why. Mr. Bush does this. He does it with the words of the average American, simple flat words. I like the way he talks because I understand it. Bill Clinton was always issuing great smoggy clouds whose meaning I could not fully decipher. Mr. Bush gives you arrows of speech that have a target and land. It’s good.

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Mr. Bush is not obsessed with his legacy. This is good because it suggests he is emotionally and intellectually mature, which is how we want our presidents to be. When you walk into the presidency as a fully formed adult your first thought is “What should I do first and how and when?” When you walk into it with more vanity than sense, more hunger than purpose, your first thought is of what history will say of you. This is like moving into a new neighborhood and deciding the first thing you’ll do is find out if the neighbors like you, as opposed to the more constructive, “I think I’ll cut the grass, paint the house and join the civic organization.” Mr. Clinton spent all his time thinking about his legacy, and by the end he had one: He was the president who spent his time thinking about his legacy while Osama made his plans. He wasted history’s time. Mr. Bush isn’t like this. Be grateful.

Mr. Bush works well with the competing personalities around him. He keeps Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and Condi Rice and Paul Wolfowitz close, listens, seems to have an acute sense of what each can give him. He appreciates Mr. Powell’s power as a leader and man of respect, and means to keep him close. He will have to, in 2002, which he has called “a war year.” That war has many fronts and there are many ways to move forward on each; the war can become bigger or smaller, hotter or cooler, wider or narrower. When he makes his decisions he will announce them, explain them and argue for them with a striking plainness. The quality will be needed, and it is good that the president has it.