The Crying Room

How is George W. Bush doing? In Washington the past weekend everyone I spoke to answered that question by referring to the recent USA Today poll that said the president’s popularity continues undiminished and, amazingly enough, for reasons apart from the war. People like him. They respect him. Almost eight in 10 said they thought he was doing a good job as president.

Nor is the press fully immune, or so it seemed to me. After Mr. Bush gave his humorous speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, I mentioned to an acquaintance, a veteran journalist at a national newspaper and presumably not a reflexive Bush supporter, that I thought the president’s speech all right but undistinguished. “Wasn’t as good as Clinton,” I said. Bill Clinton’s material at dinners like this was top-notch.

“But Clinton was vulgar!” the journalist said. Mr. Clinton’s very smoothness, the fact that he was at his best doing shtick for the media, was vulgar. Mr. Bush is more like a president: boring.

Presidents should be boring. We don’t hire them to entertain us, we hire them to be stable, sane and sure-handed.

*   *   *

What is the key to Mr. Bush’s popularity? I think the source of it is something that isn’t new. He walked into the White House with it. But it has become more apparent with time and is, I think, more appreciated.

It is that he does not need the job. He did not lust for it and does not hunger for it. He does not need the presidency to fulfill a romantic sense of personal destiny. He does not have a neurotic fixation on the office. He does not love having or wielding its power. He views the presidency as a responsibility, and sometimes a burden. But he tries each day to meet it. Sometimes it is pleasurable for him, sometimes not.

There is with Mr. Bush an almost palpable sense that he would rather be at the ranch. He would rather be enjoying life and having fun with baseball teams, he would rather have privacy, he would rather go for a drive. He radiates a sense that he has given up a lot to be president. He radiates a sense that he will enjoy it when he gets back what he gave up. But right now he has work to do.

I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Bush is or seems ambivalent about the presidency. I don’t think he is or does. He means to be a good president, that is obvious. He works hard, is committed, ambitious and serious. He means to win the war. He is capable of wielding the power he has to wield, and one senses he has enough vanity to believe he is as good a wielder of it as any, and maybe better than most.

But . . . he doesn’t need it.

He doesn’t love celebrity, doesn’t gravitate to the glamorous, doesn’t seem to think fame can bestow magic, gladness, personal contentment. I watched him sitting on the dais Saturday night; he looked like he was thinking about whether the jeep needs tires. He was not excited to be surrounded by the glittering prizewinners of Washington, who were arrayed in tuxedoes and gowns before him. His wife, also on the dais, smiled pleasingly at everyone, but her smile is unvarying, almost inexpressive, and still seems to hide more than it reveals. She too radiates a sense that she’d be happy back home, kicking her shoes off with the girls and then falling asleep with a book.

When the Mideast was blowing up a few weekends ago, the president was at the ranch. When asked why he wasn’t more involved in what was happening, he groused that he was; he’d spent half of Saturday morning on the phone. If he had been LBJ or Nixon or Bill Clinton he would have been a Toscanini of the telephone, talking to world leaders and attempting to bring some personal magic to the drama. Mr. Bush doesn’t seem to believe in magic. Yesterday afternoon, talking in the White House to reporters about the struggle he has had getting his judicial nominees through Congress, he looked like someone who was indignant and frustrated but not loaded for bear. He looked like it was work.

*   *   *

Why does Mr. Bush’s seeming not to need the presidency contribute to his popularity? Why would it be, in fact, a central reason for his high poll numbers?

Because when you know they don’t need it, you know they won’t do anything to keep it. And you can start to trust them.

When you know a man experiences an office not as a prize to which he is entitled but as a burden by which he is bound, you feel you can comfortably appreciate him and his efforts.

When a leader doesn’t need the office he holds, the electorate feels free to have faith in him. They infer from his lack of need a simple thing: He will be less likely to sacrifice the country’s interests to his own. He will not tend to put his own passing political interests over the needs of the nation in order to win. Because he doesn’t have to win.

When you know a man doesn’t have to win, you know he probably won’t do anything to win. And when you know he won’t do anything to win, you feel more secure in letting him win.

In the Vatican after they have chosen a new pope, they lead him to a room off the Sistine Chapel where he is given the clothing of a pope. It is called the Crying Room. It is called that because it is there that the burdens and responsibilities of the papacy tend to come crashing down on the new pontiff. Many of them have wept. The best have wept.

That in a way is why people like Mr. Bush. They can tell he has been to the crying room. They respect him for it.