A few quick thoughts about the president. I saw him this week at a White House event. I’d been looking forward to it. A lot had happened since I’d last spent time with him, in July, for an interview for Ladies Home Journal, and I was eager to get a sense of how he’s feeling, thinking and looking as the election gears up. Also I’ve been tough on him lately and wondered how he treats people under such circumstances.
The president bounded into the Roosevelt Room at 10:30 on a weekday morning with a flurry of aides behind him. He looked tanned, rested and perhaps preoccupied. He walked around the table and shook hands with everyone. Then he did something surprising. He sat down at the big brown meeting table and instead of offering an opening comment and then taking questions, as I’d expected, he simply talked to us about how he sees the world. He did this for 45 minutes. He was funny and frank. He made a point to make and maintain eye contact with each of us, now this one and now that, as he talked. He shared thoughts, observations and stories in a way that seemed both free-associative and thematically linked. The theme was freedom, or rather liberation—liberation in political terms, in personal terms, in the world and at home. I cannot quote him, but since the dozen who were there will soon be sharing their impressions with friends, and since you are my friends . . .
What the president’s associates and allies had been telling me seemed completely true. His spirits were high, and at points he seemed loaded for bear. He has rock confidence that his actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have been right and have helped the world. He suggested that you’ve got to stand your ground when it’s the high ground. He made it clear he intends to.
He wound it all up, took no questions, and left with the flurry.
We left inspirited. Most everyone there if not everyone was a supporter of the president, but I think each came out more so.
How did he treat me? I’d like to say he was cool because that would suggest he’s been reading my columns and they’ve had a huge impact. In fact he was friendly as ever. There are several ways to interpret this. I choose to believe he is hiding his pain.
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It’s left me thinking about the importance of the coming election in terms of choosing a path, or staying on and continuing down a path. If you think of the great questions of this great and dangerous era—cloning, terrorism, how to achieve peace, the ability of Americans to build not just stable lives but fruitful lives economically and what might be called culturally—you realize they will all be dealt with in this election. Or rather the outcome will affect these issues and more, and so effect the future in the deepest possible way.
It is fascinating to me that after two months of the Democratic Party demonstrating what appears to be dynamism, and the Republicans struggling with such questions as the weapons of mass destruction, and the president fighting back charges regarding his military service, the smartest read on where we are came this week from a a Zogby poll that said the Democrats are leading in the Democratic areas and the Republicans are leading in the Republican areas. Mr. Bush’s poll numbers are down, but the blue states are blue and the red states are red. And no one knows what will change that.
Here are two dynamics that are emerging, and will have impact. First, we all know the party that has not been in the White House is always hungry, highly energized, and has a lot of arguments on its side. They’ve had a lot of time to refine those arguments while they’ve been out in the cold. But this year the Democrats do seem hungrier than usual, in part because of the continuing wound of the 2000 election, in which their candidate had a plurality of the popular vote despite losing in the electoral college. They think they won, and lost. They feel a heightened passion.
Have you seen them out there? Teddy Kennedy revitalized and refocused, as if this is his last great campaign; the entertainment-industrial complex in full battle cry; television producers energized by the battle, political wives making passionate speeches, young voters entering the process, whether for Howard Dean or someone else. This is rise of the Broken Glass Democrats. Remember Broken Glass Republicans in 2000? They’d crawl over broken glass to help their guy and get the change they wanted. I think we are seeing the beginning of that with the Democrats.
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What may turn out to be the Republicans’ secret weapon, or the secret ingredient of their success? I think that, as always, it comes down to issues. People want higher taxes or lower, seek more personal authority over their social security accounts or not, support the effort in Iraq or do not. But there will also be their sense of who the candidates are as men, in terms of character, personality, gifts and predilections. And that will factor in too. I was asked this week why the president seems so attractive to the heartland, to what used to be called Middle America. A big question. I found my mind going to this word: normal.
Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He’s normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He’s not exotic. But if there’s a fire on the block, he’ll run out and help. He’ll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, “Where’s Sally?” He’s responsible. He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, “I warned Joe about that furnace.” And, “Does Joe have children?” And “I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it’s formidable and yet fleeting.” When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain’t that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain’t that guy. Americans love the guy who ain’t that guy.
Someone said to me: But how can you call him normal when he came from such privilege? Indeed he did. But there’s nothing lemonade-on-the-porch-overlooking-the-links-at-the-country-club about Mr. Bush. He isn’t smooth. He actually has some of the roughness and the resentments of the self-made man. I think the reason for this is Texas. He grew up in a white T-shirt and jeans playing ball in the street with the other kids in the subdivision. Barbara Bush wasn’t exactly fancy. They lived like everyone else. She spoke to me once with great nostalgia of her early days in Texas, when she and her husband and young George slept in the same bed in an apartment in Midland. A prostitute lived in the complex. Barbara Bush just thought she was popular. Then they lived in a series of suburban houses.
George W. Bush didn’t grow up at Greenwich Country Day with a car and a driver dropping him off, as his father had. Until he went off to boarding school, he thought he was like everyone else. That’s a gift, to think you’re just like everyone else in America. It can be the making of you.