A rare peek at Bush's heart
In an interview with a book author in the Oval Office one day last December, Bush daydreamed about the next phase of his life, when his time will be his own.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — When President Bush is asked what he plans to do when he leaves office, he often replies curtly: "I don't have that much time to think beyond my presidency" or "I'm going to sprint to the finish."
But in an interview with a book author in the Oval Office one day last December, he daydreamed about the next phase of his life, when his time will be his own.
First, Bush said, "I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers."
With joint assets that have been estimated at as high as nearly $21 million, Bush added, "I don't know what my dad gets — it's more than 50-75" thousand dollars a speech, and "Clinton's making a lot of money."
Then he said, "We'll have a nice place in Dallas," where he will be running what he called "a fantastic Freedom Institute" promoting democracy around the world. But he added, "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch."
For now, though, Bush told the author, Robert Draper, in a later session, "I'm playing for October-November." That is when he hopes the Iraq troop increase will show enough results to help him achieve the central goal of his remaining time in office: "To get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence," and, he said later, "stay longer."
But aware of his standing in opinion polls, Bush said his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, perhaps would do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could.
Rare personal candor
In his nearly seven years as president, Bush rarely has let his guard down with journalists to reveal much of his personal side. But during six roughly hourlong interviews with Draper, Bush shared his inner life at the White House.
Draper agreed to share portions of his transcripts from those interviews and the book, under the agreement that they would not be published until shortly before the book, "Dead Certain," is officially released Tuesday.
The transcripts and the book show Bush as being keenly interested in what history will say about his term despite his frequent comments to the contrary; as being in a reflective mode as his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. dwindles; and as being at once sorrowful and optimistic — but virtually alone as commander in chief, and aware of it.
Draper, a Texan like Bush and a former writer for Texas Monthly, spent hours interviewing Bush and his close circle of aides in 1998, when he wrote an early, defining article on Bush's budding presidential candidacy for GQ magazine.
Draper's family also has a history with Bush's. Bush's father in 1982 was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of Draper's grandfather, Leon Jaworski, a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.
As Draper described it, Bush began the interview process over lunch Dec. 12, in a week when he suddenly had free time because his highly anticipated announcement of a new Iraq strategy had been postponed.
Stiff upper lip
Sitting in an anteroom of the Oval Office, he eschewed the more formal White House menu for comfort food — a low-fat hot dog and ice cream — and bitingly told an aide who peeked in on the session that his time with Draper was "worthless anyway."
But as Draper described it, and as the transcripts show, Bush warmed up considerably over the intervening interviews, chewing on an unlit cigar, jubilantly swatting at flies between making solemn points, propping his feet up on a table or stopping him at points to say emphatically, "I want you to get this" or "I want this damn book to be right."
Bush went on to share private thoughts that appeared to reflect a level of sorrow and presidential isolation that he strongly implied he took pains to hide, a state of being he seemed to view as coming with the presidency and with which he professed to be at peace.
Telling Draper he likes to keep things "relatively light-hearted" in the White House, he added in May, "I can't let my own worries — I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve; I don't want to burden them with that."
"Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency," Bush told Draper. "This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity."
First lady's reality check
In the same interview, Bush seemed to indicate he has his down moments at home, saying of his wife, Laura, "Back to the self-pity point; she reminds me that I decided to do this."
In apparent reference to the invasion of Iraq, he continued, "This group-think of 'we all sat around and decided' — there's only one person that can decide, and that's the president."
Draper said Bush took issue with him for unearthing details of a meeting in April 2006 at which he took a show-of-hands vote on the future of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was among his closest advisers. Bush told Draper he had no recollection of it, but he said he disagreed with the implication that he regularly governed by staff vote. (According to Draper's book, the vote was 7-4 for Rumsfeld's ouster, with Bush being one of the no votes. Rumsfeld stayed months longer.)
In response to Draper's observation that Bush had nobody's "shoulder to cry on," the president said: "Of course I do — I've got God's shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job."
In what Draper interpreted as a reference to war casualties, Bush added, "I'll bet I've shed more tears than you can count as president."
Bush said his certainty that Iraq would turn around for the better was not for show. "You can't fake it," he told Draper in December.
Bush conveyed a level of cheerfulness about his unpopularity. Draper recalled that in their last meeting, in May, Bush pointed outside to his dog Barney and said, "That guy who said if you want a friend in Washington get a dog, knew what he was talking about."
He otherwise addressed his unpopularity as a tactical issue. For instance, in May he said this fall it would be up to Petraeus to convince the public the Iraq strategy is working.
"I've been here too long," Bush said, according to Draper. "Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn't make it on the news."
But he said he saw his unpopularity as a natural result of his decision to pursue a strategy in which he believed. "I made a decision to lead," he said. "One, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance, and that may be true. But the fundamental question is, is the world better off as a result of your leadership?"
Bush often has said that will be for historians decide, but he said during his sessions with Draper that they would have to consult administration documents to get to the bottom of some important questions.
Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, "The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen."
Bush also said he believed Saddam did not take his threats of war seriously, suggesting that the United Nations emboldened Saddam by failing to follow up on an initial resolution demanding that Iraq disarm. He had sought a second measure containing an ultimatum that failure to comply would result in war.
"One interesting question historians are going to have to answer is: Would Saddam have behaved differently if he hadn't gotten mixed signals between the first resolution and the failure of the second resolution?" Bush said.
"I can't answer that question. I was hopeful that diplomacy would work."
A lot of time left
It did not, but soon enough, somebody else will make the decisions on Iraq. And then, Bush said, he would be pursuing his "freedom agenda" at his institute, modeled on Stanford's Hoover Institution, where young democratic leaders from around the world would study.
"Sixty-two is really young, and yet I'll be through with my presidency," Bush said.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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