We make presidents crazy. They receive endless encomiums from friends and staff telling them of their brilliance, their courage, their foresight. “God sent you to lead us.” And the authors of such statements aren’t always or even usually sucking up. They mean it. They’re excited, fervent, full of belief.
All a president has to do to get a standing ovation is walk into a room. He signs his name to a placard at a rally and it’s treated as a historic relic—“He touched it!”
At the same time a president can routinely pick up the newspaper or log onto the Internet and find himself referred to as Hitler, Stalin or, on a good day, Satan. We call presidents fool, coward, crook; we call them reckless and feckless.
It is all so extreme. And it is, even for the hardiest personality, disorienting.
The White House itself can be a disorienting place to work. You feel at once in charge of and at the mercy of, both powerful and besieged. You can flip a switch and get every anchorman on the line, every prime minister. You have private nicknames for famous people whom you privately spoof. But a hurricane comes and you’re over; a mistake is made and you’re yesterday. Some midtier aide in an unimportant agency messes up, and by the time it’s over a misjudgment became a scandal, a scandal became indictments, and indictments spur talk of impeachment, resignation, lame duckhood, crackup.
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Faced with the you’re-an-angel/you’re-a-devil dichotomy, presidents tend to lean toward angel interpretations. They have to. When criticism is over the top, you take refuge in over-the-top approbation. Hubert Humphrey, veteran of presidential campaigns, liked to relax by looking at old scrapbooks containing complimentary magazine and newspaper profiles. Abe Lincoln died with a positive newspaper clipping in his wallet. They were human, intensely human beings involved in the passionate art of politics.
Which gets us to George W. Bush.
Once someone normally allied with the White House said some things that were highly critical of Mr. Bush, and the president quickly and publicly learned of them. Around this time an old friend of the president came to visit, and the president, still simmering, asked the friend what he thought of the criticism. The friend told Mr. Bush he thought the critic made some legitimate points.
Silence descended and Mr. Bush’s face turned stony.
“Six months on the sh— list?” said the friend.
“Three,” said the president.
When I heard this story I laughed with delight because it had the authentic sound of Bush. If he’s mad, you know. He doesn’t pretend and he doesn’t cover, and if anger is a flaw, well, we’re all human.
George W. Bush has guts. It’s the big thing his friends and supporters cherish in him. He will withstand the disapproval of the world to do what he thinks is right. He’ll do it when he’s wrong, too. He often has too many pots on the stove, but he can stand the heat and he will stay in the kitchen. He is an emotional man, and his emotions are readily accessible. When he becomes moved talking to soldiers and their families, he means it. He knows what men who put themselves in harm’s way are, and he knows what they’re owed. Other leaders know they can trust his word.
He’s stubborn. The smirk is sometimes real; he can be full of himself. He’s impatient and peremptory. He believes his read of a person is the read. He’s funny, and occasionally merry. My favorite example is what he said to Ozzy Osbourne at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2003. Mr. Osbourne had his new hit show and was hot as a pistol. He entered the dinner as the evening’s hottest guest. Cameras followed him. He stood at one point, gestured toward the dais and yelled to the president that he should grow his hair like him. “Second term, Ozzy!” Mr. Bush shot back.
Now Mr. Bush is in the first political crisis of his presidency, a crisis unusual, even perhaps unprecedented, in modern American politics, in that his own side has risen up and declared it no longer sees him as one of them. (It is comparable to what happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when Conservative Party members turned on her. That rebellion was more personal than policy-based, but an old rule of politics pertains in both cases: Friends come and go but enemies accumulate.)
What should Mr. Bush do? He can follow what may be his first instinct, and his second one too, and make an even longer and more comprehensive “sh— list.” Or he can do something different, and yet in character.
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It was 1986, and George W. Bush had just turned 40. An unhappy man he was. His life was going nowhere; he had been drinking too much and it was damaging all spheres of his life, including his family. This is where he showed his best stuff. He dug deep and got serious. As his father said years later, he “stood up, took responsibility, changed his life.” As W. later said, the evangelist Billy Graham had planted “a seed in my heart,” and the seed took hold. Mr. Bush stopped drinking and began to practice his faith. He became intensely regular in his life, more present for his family, more constructive in his habits. He subtended his anger. He seems to have decided it wasn’t helping him to wage a daily frontal attack on the world as it was. He focused his energies. He made himself a success in business with a baseball team, and then he entered politics and won the governorship, and later the presidency. Whatever family he came from, whatever advantages he had, it’s still kind of an amazing story.
And it couldn’t have been easy. When you change yourself, you have to be humble. You have to admit that change is necessary and previous paths have been dead ends. He had to take an unsparing look at himself, see what he didn’t like, what wasn’t admirable, and vow to change it. Then he had to do it every day. He had to judge what was ego sickness that needed ejecting and what was ego strength that needed enhancing. He did it. It was the making of him.
You see where I’m going. All presidents have personalities and all presidential personalities become at least somewhat disoriented by the very nature of the modern presidency. However. George W. Bush showed real humility when he made his big change 19 years ago, and one suspects it is whatever bedrock humility that remains behind the smirk that can help him turn his fortunes around now.
Once again there’s a family in crisis, and it’s conservatism. He can let it break up, or let it wither under his watch. Or he can change. Just as he learned at 40 that to keep his family he had to become part of something larger than himself, he should realize as he approaches 60 that he has to become part of something larger if he is to save his administration. And that “something larger” is a movement that has been building for half a century, since before Barry Goldwater. The president would be well advised to look at the stakes, see what’s in the balance, judge the strengths and weaknesses of his own leadership, and get back to the basics of conservatism. Which again would take humility.
The president is like anyone else: He can look back at the last few years and see that he’s made mistakes. Who hasn’t? Mistakes of judgment, mistakes of approach. Some of the mistakes in the president’s case would have grown out of human miscalculation. Others perhaps grew out of vanity, of a largeness of ego. It’s not hard to make a list. There were mistakes of judgment, such as Social Security. Mr. Bush decided to reform the bedrock entitlement of modern America in even though, while most thought reform important, few thought it urgent. Why would he do this? And in the middle of a war and an uncertain economic climate? I’m George Bush and I only do big things!
There were mistakes of . . . perhaps philosophy is the word. He will declare democracy now, for all the world, the end of history and the beginning of an era of endless bliss. Why? George Bush is a Texan, and Texans dream big.
He will make a series of decisions disappointing the very people who’ve stayed up all night working for him and literally praying for him, and do it at a time when a strong base is the only thing that scares off jackals of all kinds. Why? George Bush gambles big.
This is all human. But all these decisions can be questioned. In 1986, George W. Bush reached a crisis point in his life and changed what wasn’t working. He dug deep and got serious. He got humble. He questioned himself. He can do it again, and should.
It would be more constructive than a “list.” And considering all the names he’d have to compile, it would take less time.