George Bush: Personality is the essence of his campaign

Published October 31, 2004 1:17 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - President Bush, his brother Jeb and a clutch of local Republicans gathered for a late meal in a private dining room of The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, Fla., on the night of Sept. 10, 2001. The mood was light.

''He was in great spirits, and he talked about politics,'' says Jeb Bush, Florida's governor. ''He talked about a book that he had just finished, which was April 1865, just about how tough it was, the decisions that Lincoln had to make and the incredible difficulties and pressures of the job. He seemed to - even on Sept. 10 - appreciate the unique challenges presidents have.''

None so unique as the morning that followed: As the president listened to second-graders in a Sarasota schoolhouse read aloud for him, Bush received a whisper in his ear from his chief of staff advising him that a second airplane had struck the second tower of New York's World Trade Center, his aide surmising: ''America is under attack.''

It would be two days before Jeb and George Bush spoke again, in a telephone call from the White House. ''He sounded resolved,'' Jeb Bush says. ''It was: 'We will respond to this. We will get the job done.' "

How the president chose to respond and ''get the job done'' have become the defining traits of his presidency and are central to his campaign for a second term. He faces an electorate embodying a very different view of the man they chose as president four years ago.

The straight talker who was embraced in 2000 is seen by many as stubborn today. The supporter who saw resolve four years ago sees a near-zeal. The man who seemed to make a virtue of his flaws in speaking and manner cannot concede a mistake today. Bush has traded in compassion for fear as the armor of his campaign.

A polarizing figure: In short, the politician who told countless audiences that he was a ''uniter, not a divider'' in 2000 has, four years later, become one of the nation's more polarizing figures.

Or at least, that is how half of America seems to see him. The other half, however, see steadfastness, strength and clarity of vision. They see a politician who doesn't bend in the wind. They see a president who delivered on the domestic promises of tax cuts and education legislation, and they see a commander in chief who would be the far better protector of the nation than his challenger.

He has achieved a remarkable level of legislative success for an official who came to office without a mandate. A man who many believed would follow the internationalist, coalition-based leanings of his father, instead charted a decidedly different course that in essential ways rewrote the role for America's place in the world.

Like his father, he faces an exceedingly, and unexpectedly, difficult race for a second term. He has staked his presidency on his ability to keep the nation safe from terrorist attack.

Like the book he had read - subtitled The Month That Saved America, a month that ended with Lincoln's assassination - this president suddenly focused on a nation under historic assault on Sept. 11. And in the days and months that followed, Bush obtained a sense of direction and moral certitude like none he had ever required in a seemingly charmed life.

Defining a presidency: The way Bush responded, the war he launched against Saddam Hussein, his insistence that the war connected directly to the war against terrorism and his unflinching defense of its largely discredited rationale have not only defined Bush's presidency, but also recast the man. In the process, his personality has become the essence of the referendum on his bid for re-election.

''You can see the weight on him,'' says Joe O'Neill, a Bush friend since their childhood in Midland, Texas. He calls Bush ''the same fun-loving father'' who is ''happy and loves what he's doing.'' Yet since Sept. 11, his friend has lost some of his ''old wisecracking'' ways and possesses ''a much broader realization of the dangers out there.''

His response to those dangers has been in many ways to pull inward rather than to reach out. This is a wartime president whose critics say has stopped listening to dissenting points of view, particularly when the subject was the war in Iraq, even from members of his own party.

One ally-turned-critic is a Christian evangelist whose counsel Bush once sought, who fears that a born-again Bush has come to confuse biblical precepts of good and evil with the exigencies of world politics.

''I think he found his mission,'' says Jim Wallis, leader of a progressive anti-poverty and anti-war Washington-based ministry called the Sojourners. ''And all of a sudden, the sense of righteous mission [in Bush] became much stronger.''

Yet any suggestion that Bush is walled off from necessary criticism or following a religious calling in his crusade against evil is misguided, according to one aide who works closely with him.

''The president is commander-in-chief. He's not chaplain-in-chief,'' says Jim Towey, a devout Catholic who serves as director of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. ''He makes his decisions based on the counsel of pros and cons. I read these accounts of how the president thinks he's getting his words from God. It's just utter nonsense. . . . When he's in the Oval Office, it's all business.''

Bush, who came to the Oval Office with the ultimate in legacy admission-tickets, was also, as he might say, misunderestimated at every turn. He won the Republican Party's nomination by consensus, with a mission of fulfilling his own father's foreshortened presidency. He came as a conservative with soft edges, the perfect antidote to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's hard-charging revolution.

Arriving without the benefit of a majority of the popular vote, Bush was able to win far more fights than he lost: Sweeping tax and school reforms that fulfilled campaign pledges his first year.

''He's not just this caricature that the left paints of him,'' Jeb Bush says. ''It's completely erroneous. But it has actually helped him during his career, during his elections, because he is underestimated.''

But the talent that served him so well as governor of Texas, the ability to work with Democrats, apparently had peaked in Austin. Washington initially united behind the president. Then came war.

Critics say Bush has squandered good will both at home and abroad with his determination to take the fight against terrorism to his father's old nemesis of Saddam while Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of Sept. 11, remains at large - the nation's voters once again riven in camps as polarized as the disputed 2000 election that seated Bush.

"No mistakes": ''There's a more basic political factor, and that is the president has a commitment to a strategy of no mistakes,'' says U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who voted against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. ''He repeatedly has been unable to identify any areas of his administrative actions that he would consider to be mistaken and that he would take a different course of action on. That's incredible. I imagine that you and I find several things every day that we would like to redo.''

In the swagger that defines Bush's public manner, the president exhorts people on the campaign trail to look ''right quick'' at the details of his programs as he slams ''the fella'' he's running against. The ''dead-or-alive'' determination that he has applied to the war on terrorism - committed to ''striking the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home'' - evokes the Texas range he calls home.

''His success is grounded in the fact that when people meet him and get to know him, they understand he cares about them,'' says U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a longtime Bush friend from Texas, whom Bush appointed to his position. ''They're there because they realize the heart of this guy.''

Bush plays to that frequently, his sleeves rolled up, the G's gone from the end of his words. He trumpets his plain-spoken views but not so much this time around the big heart of compassionate conservatism.

For now, it is a warrior's mantle that Bush counts on for re-election. This is the image close adviser Karen Hughes saw the day Bush stood atop the World Trade Center wreckage with a rescue worker's bullhorn vowing revenge.

''I turned to [FEMA director] Joe Allbaugh, and I said, 'America has just seen the George Bush we know,' " Hughes says. ''He has always been focused. He is just more so. I think it really brought out his strength as a leader.''

Bush retells the tale of the bullhorn at campaign stop after stop, insisting he took the attack on his nation ''personally.'' He maintains that this unforeseen era cries out for a leader, and if his moral certitude for the task at hand strikes critics as obstinacy, Bush presents it as commitment.

''Knowing what I know today,'' Bush has told campaign audience after audience about the war, ''I would have made the same decision.''

In that one sentence is both the challenge and the opportunity this President Bush faces less than a week before the election. Will voters ratify the certitude that Bush says was forged on Sept. 11, or will they reject it?



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