Since You Asked . . .

What did you think of President Bush’s Columbia speech?

It hit the spot, did what needed to be done. The bible references were pure Bush. Only question was why it wasn’t given in the Oval Office. I think I am correct in observing that modern presidents shy away from the Oval for addresses. But why? The big desk with the pictures behind is what people expect. That’s where presidents talk.

Back to the State of the Union. Wasn’t it surprising that at a time like this Mr. Bush didn’t limit his State of the Union address to the two great issues, Iraq and the economy?

It surprised me when I learned of it, which was the morning of the speech. I was one of the columnists invited to meet with a high government official with intimate knowledge of the president’s thinking, as they say, on background. We met in his office, which has no corners. He told us he would be presenting his domestic agenda, a blueprint for the coming year, in his speech.

This struck me as counterintuitive, and odd. I asked how this decision had come about. He said he had made it early on in the preparation of the speech. He said he thinks a great nation can do many things at once, and that his domestic agenda is important. Afterwards, on the shuttle home, I thought: Hmmm, this may be wise. Speaking of important things other than Iraq resurrects and projects a sense of political normalcy. It implicitly cools things down while widening context. We are in a crisis, but then we often have crises; we are America. Iraq is grave but not dire; life continues, and work must be done. Then I thought, if the domestic program he unveils tonight seems connected to Iraq, and can be understood as an expression of the thinking that guides his decisions on Iraq—well, that would be big, and helpful.

Was it?

Yes. I said earlier that what seemed to me to tie his domestic agenda to his international agenda was protectiveness. A desire to protect the innocent, from children orphaned by AIDS to kids with a parent in prison to world citizens vulnerable to massive terrorist attack. His Iraq remarks seemed to me to circle back on and bolster, or more fully express, his domestic assertions. I thought: This is smart, and subtle.

There’s something I don’t get though. President Bush the elder backed a lot of big government spending; he didn’t make the government smaller; the deficit grew; he was open to adding on new spending. And by 1992 his Republican base turned on him, and he was finished. Now Bush the younger comes along and promises more government spending, a government getting bigger, the return of deficits. And yet after the speech Tuesday his base is more rock solid than ever. How come?

Several reasons. One, the president’s base shares with him the conviction that nothing—nothing—is more important than the war on terrorism. Conservatives always think the first job of government is to look to our national security, keep defenses strong, ensure public safety. So Mr. Bush’s base is willing to give him a lot of room to maneuver to get what he needs on security and safety.

Second, conservatives know something about President Bush that they didn’t know about his father: He’s a conservative who means it. So they trust him.

Third, and crucially, Mr. Bush didn’t promise new spending in the liberal mode; he didn’t ask for spending on liberal targets and programs guided by liberal assumptions. He didn’t and doesn’t bow to those assumptions. He is skeptical of them—that’s why he’s a conservative. The domestic agenda he unveiled the other night was about directing federal energy and expenditures toward programs that reflect a conservative view of what is helpful, and that tug at the national—the liberal and conservative—conscience. AIDS in Africa, for instance. You didn’t know this is a matter of concern to conservatives? Then you don’t talk to enough conservatives. AIDS is killing Africa, it is creating a continent of orphans, and this doesn’t have to be. So much can be done. So give them help. Christian groups are deeply involved in the African effort. Bill Frist too.

The sole liberal program Mr. Bush advanced was increased Medicare spending—and again, many Republicans think that’s necessary, others respect what the polls say, many will sacrifice the fiscal impact if it removes a sapping and divisive issue from the table, and the rest will let it go as not too unreasonable or expensive. And Mr. Bush said he supported prescription-drug benefits in the 2000 campaign, so it’s not a vow broken but a vow reasserted.

There were other domestic elements in the speech that reflected modern conservative, as opposed to older and more liberal, thinking. Hydrogen cars? Fine. Fifty years of resisting the monolith of the giant state has left conservatives thinking, reflexively, outside the box. From supply side to welfare reform to Chuck Colson’s ministry to convicts and their children to George Gilder and the new technology, a spirit of innovation has swept and guided modern conservative thought. Old Robert Taft would spin in his grave if he knew what modern conservatives will consider. They’re like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney—”I know, let’s put on a show in the barn with the hydrogen fueled car!”

Back to Iraq. The Democrats seem to be flailing around in their search for attack points on Mr. Bush’s policies, don’t they?

Yeah, I think he’s tying them in knots. They say he’s a lone cowboy but he goes with Colin Powell and approaches the U.N. and asks for its help. They say he’s a unilateralist so he shocks them the other day with an unexpected statement of support from eight European leaders—including a great man and idealist named Vaclav Havel. They say they need more detail so he announces Mr. Powell will go to the U.N. Security Council with a full brief. They say Mr. Powell is a lone voice of sanity in the administration and Mr. Powell comes out powerfully to back the president. They say they need proof of “imminence” of Iraqi attack, and Mr. Bush counters that, um, terrorists and dictators don’t send notes announcing they’ll be coming to visit.

But really it’s the new eight, the new coalition come together with one voice, that is so impressive. The declaration, coming just after the State of the Union address, looked like a small diplomatic masterpiece, and it may be one. It got a major assist from The Wall Street Journal, which had asked Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar for an opinion piece setting out their reasons for supporting America in Iraq. The two leaders apparently contacted a few more leaders, and the result was the public letter carrying all eight signatures.

And here’s a funny thing. George Bush the elder was masterly in putting together his Gulf War coalition. Everyone knows he was sensitive to the subtleties and requirements of high diplomacy, and he came through. George W. Bush isn’t known for diplomatic expertise. And yet he appears to be achieving what his father achieved, and more. Bush the elder had an Iraqi invasion that had already done in Kuwait as his main arguing point. Bush the younger has mostly the potential, or the likelihood, of grave misdeeds involving weapons of mass destruction, but not the present reality of them, to use in argument. So the bar was higher for this Bush.

Anyway, I think the Democrats have been tied in knots, and they’re showing their desperation with their latest talking point, body bags. American invasions mean dead Americans. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness, of course, and yet it dodges the issue. American invasion means dead Americans, but if Mr. Bush is right then refusing to confront Saddam and his weapons now may well mean a future Iraqi- supported or Iraqi-executed attack on our soil. Which could result in hundreds of thousands of dead American civilians. And body bags.

What will Colin Powell say this week at the U.N.?

He signals what he’s thinking in today’s Wall Street Journal. He repeats the president’s statement that Iraq has “open channels and ties to terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda. He quotes Hans Blix reporting to the U.N. Iraq’s lack of a “genuine acceptance” of the need to disarm. Mr. Powell makes clear that he will have more intelligence to share Wednesday also.

What did you come away from your interview in the office without corners thinking about Mr. Bush, and war?

I came away with a sense that Mr. Bush has grown comfortable and confident in the presidency, in part perhaps due to a silent weighing that was going on inside him. I had the hunch that Mr. Bush, who had succeeded as a Texas governor in part by relying on his gut sense of people, events, meaning, went into the White House wondering if his gut would be up to the job. If it would give him the guidance it had given in Texas, if it was up to the demands of a presidency. Then Sept. 11 came, and he was thrown back onto his inner resources. He had to use his gut to make big quick decisions. The one time he didn’t follow his gut—when he didn’t return immediately to the White House after the attacks—he made a big mistake. So he went with his gut thereafter, and in the next 12 months he concluded his gut was up to the challenge. And so he is now more comfortable and commanding—because he can use as a primary tool something he really has as opposed to something he needs to develop.

As to the war, Mr. Bush is moving forward with what looks like a great sense of moral security. He is certain he is right that Iraq is a real and present danger to the world. So he doesn’t mind taking the hits he takes, accepts the high stakes, feels sure that if we must go to war we will triumph, hearten the world, and win greater safety. He’d love it if Saddam would leave or be removed in a coup, but he doesn’t plan on it, because you can’t plan on good fortune. He’d welcome it though. He doesn’t want war but the fruits of war, the defeat of a dangerous enemy.

You said last week Mr. Bush should provide us with more of what the U.S. government knows or thinks it knows on Iraq. Are you satisfied after the speech?

I think he shared more of what U.S. intelligence knows than he had in the past, and I thought his “There’s never a day when I do not learn of another threat, or receive reports of operations in progress,” was quite suggestive. I know there are those around the president who feel more must be shared, and Mr. Bush seems to agree. The official with intimate knowledge of his thinking said more will be coming in a future Bush speech on Iraq. Which will be, in effect, his final summation to the jury.