They still called him Junior when we first met, in forlorn Midland, Texas, back in July 1986. He was known then for being the son of the vice president of the United States, the agonizingly named George Herbert Walker Bush. As a young staff writer at The Washington Post Magazine, I was trying to persuade Vice President Bush to let me spend several months with him for an in-depth profile I intended to write. But the veep was skeptical, and he left it up to Junior to pass judgment on me and my request.
“Come on down and visit,” the man who would eventually be known to the world as President George W. Bush drawled cheerfully to me over the phone. “But I won’t tell you any good stuff until I’m sure you’re not going to do an ax job.”
So began a long and fascinating acquaintanceship with the man who would become one of the most admired and, later, reviled presidents in U. S. history. Over the next 25 years, our paths crossed again and again, most recently in his Dallas office last April. I had just read Bush’s 2010 memoir Decision Points, and I was struck by his many references to history. In the back of my mind was an article that Karl Rove had written for The Wall Street Journal in 2008, which revealed (much to the consternation of the president’s derisive critics) that Bush had read 186 books for pleasure in the preceding three years, consisting mostly of serious historical nonfiction. Intrigued, I asked Bush whether he would talk to me about how his passion for reading history had shaped his presidency and perspective, and he agreed.
When I sat down to write about that meeting, however, a different story emerged. History is composed of significant and less significant moments, the trouble being that we often don’t know at the time which is text and which is footnote. Yet when it comes to presidents, even footnotes are worth recording. I realized that what I had before me was a story that went beyond politics or policies or the reading habits of a president, an idiosyncratically personal story, a footnote-to-history story spanning a quarter-century.
Midland, 1986: George W. and I met in the 13th-floor office of his oil exploration business. He looked fit, had run 10 miles the day before—his 40th birthday. An open-collared light-blue shirt, sweat rings, shadow of a beard, nice tan, handsome, macho. He tenaciously lipped an unlit cigarette, and I could feel his incendiary impatience. Even then, he broke his sentences, got them jumbled, his thoughts careening. He was blunt and indiscreet, and he made intensely disparaging off-the-record remarks about some of his father’s political rivals.
George W. talked mostly about his dad, admiringly, of course. About how GHWB had been a World War II fighter pilot who, upon graduating from Yale, left the safety and comfort of the eastern establishment for Midland and the oil works. As an aside, we also talked about W., how he, too, had gone to Yale, learned to fly fighter jets, and moved to West Texas to make it in the oil biz. He wasn’t exactly bragging, but he was letting me know that he, too, was accomplished, although he seemed well aware that his life so far was one writ small compared with his dad.
“I’m putting myself in his shoes, I guess,” he said, adding that he couldn’t remember when he stopped competing with his dad, but he had. With what I took as pride that his father had asked him to vet me, he said, “He trusts my judgment now.”
Perhaps the operative word was “now”—finally, at age 40.
What I couldn’t have known, of course, was that July 1986 would be a watershed moment in the life of George W. Bush, who was then having a running contest with too much drink. He had embarrassed his parents by asking a female dinner guest what sex was like after 50. He had cursed out a reporter in a restaurant in front of the reporter’s child. Three weeks after my visit, while on a morning jog and suffering from still another hangover, W. decided to stop drinking, which he did, cold turkey.
In Midland all those years ago, the normal distance between prominent source and reporter didn’t apply, and W. invited me out to a Mexican restaurant with Laura and their four-year-old twin daughters, who got in trouble for throwing chips, were threatened with a spanking, and went home without dessert. He also invited me to his house, where I found books by John Fowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gore Vidal lying about, as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Queen Victoria. A few years later, I might even have thought they had been purposely left there for the eyes of a reporter, but not on that unstaged evening. Laura would eventually write that even then, George read every night in bed.
I also found an open Bible in the house. “I’ve read it cover to cover, and it wouldn’t hurt you, Walt, to do the same,” Bush said, laughing. Within the last year, W. had begun a new lifetime regimen of daily Bible readings, as I and all of America would later learn.
What I remember most about my visit was Bush’s personality. He was a friendly, funny, bantering, confident man, a regular guy. He was easy to like, and I liked him. More important, he also liked me and recommended that his father cooperate on my story. He even arranged for me to visit his parents at the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the vice president, W., and I went fishing on his dad’s famous Cigarette boat. At one point, the subject of inequality in America came up, and the vice president asked for my opinion. I said that some people were born with the leg up of money, education, and connections, and that those born well-to-do often ended up doing better in life. The veep listened respectfully, but an angry W. raged on about how my view was “crap” from the ’60s.
I figured that was the last I’d see of Junior.
Twenty-five years later, George W. Bush looks great. Two years as a civilian have been good to him. His feet clad in golf shoes and up on his desk, he leans back in his chair, a well-mouthed, unlit cigar as a prop. At 7:45 A.M., he’s talking golf.
“I didn’t play golf during my presidency except the first two years. So I came back out here, and then I decided I was going to get better at golf, not just play golf.”
“And have you?” I ask.
“I have gotten better. The problem is I’m never good enough. That’s the problem with the game. It requires discipline, patience, and focus. As you know, I’m long on”—and he hesitates, smiling, losing the sentence—“well, a couple areas where I could use some improvement.”
Same W.: sentences broken and jumbled, thoughts careening.
He certainly enjoys reading and talking about books. And his friends know it. On his desk is a stack of books that have come as gifts: All Things Are Possible Through Prayer; Basho: The Complete Haiku; Children of Jihad; and Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. To the pile, I add my own gift, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stacy Schiff. Right now, Bush is reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, a biography of the first president. “Chernow’s a great historian,” Bush says excitedly. “I think one of the great history books I read was on Alexander Hamilton by Chernow. But I also read House of Morgan, Titan, and now I’m reading Washington.”
He mentions David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, a book about the Korean War that he read before a visit last year to Korea, to give a speech to evangelicals. “I stand up in front of 65,000 Christians to give a speech in South Korea … ,” he says, “and I’m thinking about the bloody [battles] fought in the Korean War.” Halberstam’s book—coupled with earlier readings of David McCullough’s Truman and Robert Beisner’s Dean Acheson, a biography of Truman’s secretary of state presented to him by Bush’s own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice—gave the event deeper resonance. The decisions of the unpopular President Harry S Truman, he realized, made it possible for a former U. S. president to speak before freely worshipping Koreans 60 years later. “So history, in this case, gave me a better understanding of the moment, and … put it all into context—the wonder of the moment.”
I tick off a partial list of people Bush has read books about in recent years in addition to Washington, Truman, and Acheson: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Mellon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, Genghis Khan.
“Genghis Khan?” I ask incredulously.
“I didn’t know much about him. I was fascinated by him. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by larger-than-life figures. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading Cleopatra. I know nothing about her. … But you can sit there and be absorbed by TV, let the news of the moment consume you. You can just do nothing. I choose to read as a form of relaxation. … Laura used to say, ‘Reading is taking a journey,’ and she’s right.”
I must remind myself: This is the same man I met in Midland, Texas.
As it turned out, I did see George W. soon again after the encounter on his father’s Cigarette boat. After my story ran in The Washington Post Magazine, the vice president invited my family over to lunch and horseshoes at his official residence, on the grounds of the U. S. Naval Observatory. The vice president had actually called twice to invite us over, but on both occasions, our schedules hadn’t meshed. After the second invite, George W. called my house.
“Walt, my dad is vice president of the United States,” I remember him saying with a touch of irritation. “When he calls and invites you to lunch, you come to lunch.”
I apologized and explained the conflicts.
“So if he invites you again, you’ll come?”
If I had been covering politics, I wouldn’t have accepted such an invitation, but since I wasn’t, my editor and I saw no conflict of interest. When my wife, son, daughter, and I arrived on the appointed day, George W. was also there with Laura and their daughters. At one point, while the rest of us chatted, the vice president and my toddler daughter played under the table with Millie the dog. In those days, I was far less interested in the younger Bush than in the elder, about whom I was then thinking of writing a book.
During his father’s presidential campaign, W. moved to Washington, and we occasionally met for lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House. Probably because I wasn’t a political reporter, Bush was comfortable spouting off about what he considered the bad press his father was getting, about how reporters were unfairly crucifying “a good man,” as W. often described his dad. He also gently boasted of his role as his dad’s watchdog on his national campaign staff. W. was certainly as smart as the next guy in Washington, but president? I never imagined it.
After GHWB was elected in 1988, I proposed my book idea to him: I would leave the Post, shadow him through his presidency, and tell the deeply personal story of what it was like to be president of the United States. Bush was intrigued enough to call his son for advice again. At a breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel, across Lafayette Square from the White House, with W., National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray in attendance, I made my pitch. Afterward, W. slapped me on the back and said, “I give you a B+, Walt.”
Tough grader, I thought.
President Bush and I went back and forth on the book idea for the first months of his presidency before he finally decided he would not undertake the project: an embedded independent reporter would inevitably learn too many national security secrets, and perhaps a few other secrets, too. Anyway, W. and I didn’t talk again during his dad’s presidency. But after GHWB lost his reelection bid in 1992, my wife and I got an unexpected invitation to a White House Christmas party. That evening, the president laughed and told me that now that he was on his way out, he didn’t have a long list of people he had to invite to the White House; he could invite just the people he liked. W., who had moved back to his home state and become president of the Texas Rangers baseball team, was there, and we made our quick hellos before he went off to mingle. As the evening was ending, W. pulled my wife and me aside. “Dad would like you to come up to the residence after the party,” he said.
So up we went in the elevator with a Secret Service man. When we got off, the president and I fell a safe distance behind my wife, W., and First Lady Barbara Bush, allowing me to privately tell President Bush I was sorry about his defeat. A few steps into the central hall outside the Lincoln Bedroom, President Bush stopped and looked me in the eye.
“You know the worst thing about it, Walt? The embarrassment. It’s just so embarrassing.”
As was his way, W. was mostly angry that night, believing again that the press coverage of his father was unfair and biased. “I was a reactionary for George Bush … , ” he would later tell me. “And so the criticism of my dad was unbelievably painful.”
Not until 2003, with the Iraq war begun, did our paths cross again.
“So what is it about history that grabs you?” I ask.
“I’m fascinated by people,” Bush says, “and a lot of history is the study of individuals making a difference. … I haven’t really sat and tried to figure out why I was interested. All I can tell you is I have been for a long period of time.”
In high school, at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Bush had an American history teacher, Tom Lyons, who brought the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression to life. “He made history so interesting and exciting,” recalls Bush, who was no star pupil, either at Andover or at Yale, where he majored in history. One of his favorite professors at Yale, Wolfgang Leonhard, had fled Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, only to see his mother arrested under Stalin. Leonhard defected and ended up teaching the young Bush about the horrors of Soviet-era oppression. Professors such as Leonhard created in Bush, even if he was a C+ student, a lasting impression: “what it was like to live under a society in which a few made the decisions for everybody.”
“When I became more sober about life”—and Bush chuckles here—“a philosophy, a kind of clarity began to take hold. … I think, as I matured, the seeds that had been planted during college began to take hold. In other words, the lessons I’d learned, which fascinated me at the time, actually became part of a philosophical foundation.” Bush would eventually come to describe this foundation, starkly and simply, as “the struggle between tyranny and freedom.”
“When I got elected governor and president, history gave me a chance to study the decisions of my predecessors,” Bush says. As governor, he read The Raven, by Marquis James, a biography of Sam Houston, the father of Texas statehood. “I was fascinated by the story of Houston voting against secession, and reading a description of him basically being driven out of town by angry citizens. … My only point is that one lesson I learned, if they’re throwing garbage on Houston, arguably Texas’s most famous politician—Sam Houston Elementary School, where I went to school in Midland, was named for him!—if they’re throwing garbage on him, they can throw garbage on me.”
Bush remained calm and confident during his tumultuous presidency. Critics saw him as delusional; defenders saw him as self-assured. Bush believes that one of the most important stage requirements of the presidency is indeed never to signal weakness or self-doubt or confusion: “One of the things you learn about great leaders is that they never project the burdens of responsibility on others.” He remembers Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (one of 14 Lincoln biographies Bush read while he was president), which recounts the 16th president’s perseverance through not only military defeat after defeat, stupefying troop casualties, and public ridicule, but also the death of his son Willie and the debilitating emotional turmoil of his wife.
“You’re not the only person that’s ever gone through hard things,” Bush says of the lessons he has learned from history. “In other words, can you imagine the signal I would have sent had I said, ‘Ah, why me? Why am I thrust in the middle of all this stuff?’ And they had kids on the front line of combat who were actually having to do all the work.”
“You faced some vicious personal attacks,” I say.
“I did. But so did Abraham Lincoln.” He recalls opening the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. “There’s an exhibit, and the voices of opposition to Lincoln were being played. I said, ‘Wow!’ This guy, America’s—remember now, I got Lincoln’s portrait on the wall at the White House and I got a bust of Lincoln—and I hear the people calling him a baboon, just vicious.”
When Bush read, in Presidential Courage, by Michael Beschloss, that historians were still debating whether George Washington had been a good president, he told Laura that if they were still debating Washington’s presidency more than 200 years later, he would not worry what public opinion was saying about him now. “And the other thing for me was that I saw a great man be criticized, as you might recall,” he says, referring again to the vitriol aimed at GHWB during the losing reelection campaign of 1992. “On the harshness meter, it seemed unusually harsh to me, as the son. So, therefore, when I became president, the criticism to me was nothing compared to the criticism to him. And so I was able to keep life in perspective two ways: one, through reading of history and how other leaders were treated, but also having witnessed history with my dad.”
A book got me back together with President W. after a decade, my own book The Everlasting Stream, a memoir of my many years of rabbit hunting with my Kentucky father-in-law and his good-old-boy buddies. In it, I also mentioned my back-and-forth negotiations with GHWB, and my publisher thought it would be great to have a book cover blurb from the former president, who graciously agreed. When the book appeared in the fall of 2002, I sent GHWB a signed copy, along with a signed copy for W. Soon, I got a handwritten note from President W.
“Old #41 gave me your book (which I will soon read),” the president wrote. He gave his best to my family and ended with, “Come by sometime.” Then, I got another handwritten letter from the president dated four days later: “I just finished The Everlasting Stream and liked it a lot. I told Laura, ‘The boy can still write.’ … Should you ever come back to see what you are missing, check in at the Post or rub elbows with the powerful, please call Ashley”—and he gave me his White House secretary’s direct dial. “I really enjoy my job, … ” he also wrote. “The only problem with this place is there aren’t enough rabbit hunters up here.”
I know that two invitations from the president should have spurred me to action, but I wasn’t planning to be in Washington until the following August. In the meantime, at the University of Illinois, where I had become a journalism professor after leaving The Washington Post in 1996, I was surrounded by students and faculty angry about Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. In my academic cocoon, Bush was called a stupid warmonger trying to avenge his father’s failure to oust Saddam Hussein, a stupid warmonger trying to make the world safe for Big Oil, a stupid warmonger trying to prop up his sagging popularity. I told colleagues that I believed Bush—right or wrong—sincerely considered Iraq a deadly threat to the United States, period. My view got me labeled a Bush conservative. Then one morning I got into my academic office building’s elevator and saw this scratched into the paint: “Kill Bush.”
I had to catch my breath: Was this America?
When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd invoked my by-then ancient Washington Post Magazine article about GHWB in arguing that W. was little more than “a wealthy white man with the right ancestors,” I wrote a column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch responding both to Dowd and to all the vitriol directed toward the president.
“I have told various George W. haters that they had best not underestimate the man,” I wrote, “that he’s smart, thoughtful in a brawny kind of way and, most of all, a good and decent man. … What I’ve never mentioned is that I didn’t vote for George W. I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action. So I voted against this good and decent man. It pained me to do it. … It baffles me that grown people must convince themselves that those with whom they disagree are stupid or malevolent.”
I didn’t hear from the president, but a few days later, I got a poignant letter from his father. “Tell those kids in your class not to give up on POTUS,” he wrote, using the popular acronym for president of the United States. “Tell them life for a president is not easy, yet I have never heard #43 whine about the loneliest job on earth, never seen him pose gazing out into the future to depict how tough his job is. Walt, he does not want war. He does want Iraq to do what it has pledged to do. Have you ever seen a president face so many tough problems all at once? I haven’t.” The elder Bush was clearly feeling as much pain over the criticism of his son as W. had felt over the criticism of his father.
I figured that after publicly declaring that I had not voted for W., the invitations to the White House would cease. Yet when I was in Washington the following August, in 2003—three months after the “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—I called Ashley, as directed. To my astonishment, Ashley called back and said the president would love to see me. In the early evening a couple days later, I pulled into the southeast gate to the White House.
“Where should I park?” I asked the officer.
“Anywhere in the lot,” he said. “Who are you here to see?”
“Oh,” he sputtered, “then pull up along the circle and park at the White House.”
I rolled my little ’95 Toyota Camry up to the back door, where mine was the only car. A polite Secret Service agent met me, and up I went again in the White House elevator. When the doors opened, there was President W., wearing, as I recall, a rather garish flower-print shirt and casual cream-colored slacks.
“Walt, how are you?” I remember him asking as he hugged me with one arm.
“I’m well, Mr. President. And you?”
The president had two cigars in the other hand, and he offered me one. “You still smoke cigars?” he asked.
“I thought you had gotten rid of all your bad habits,” I said, as we walked through the long, elegant center hall in the second-floor residence.
“I still curse a little bit, too,” he said, laughing. “Let’s go out on the balcony,” meaning the Truman Balcony, which overlooks the South Lawn and the Washington Monument.
The president gestured for me to sit facing the beautiful, sunny vista, and he sat facing me, his back to the yard. We lit up, puffed on our cigars, caught up on family news, talked briefly about my memoir and my column in the Post-Dispatch, which he had read. I could think of only one question to ask him: “What is it like to be president of the United States?”
President Bush leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees, and stared at me intently. “Are we off the record?”
And he began to talk—and talk and talk for what must have been nearly three hours. I’ve never told anyone the specifics of what he said that night, not even my wife or closest friends. I did not make notes later and have only my memory. In the journalism world, off the record is off the record. But I have repeatedly described the hours as “amazing,” “remarkable,” “stunning.”
President Bush—and he was, no doubt, by then a real president—talked expansively about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Korea, Russia. He talked about his reelection strategies, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, WMD and how he still believed they would be found, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Vladimir Putin. He talked about his aides and how tough their lives were, the long hours and stress and time away from their families, about how difficult it was for his daughters. He said that compared with everyone around a president, the president had the easiest job. He was the same confident, brash man I had met years ago, but I no longer sensed any hint of the old anger or the need for self-aggrandizement.
As he talked, I even thought about an old Saturday Night Live skit in which an amiable, bumbling President Ronald Reagan, played by Phil Hartman, goes behind closed doors to suddenly become a masterful operator in total charge at the White House. The transformation in Bush was that stunning to me. Perhaps a half hour into the conversation, we were joined by Bush’s campaign media adviser, Mark McKinnon, whom Bush had nicknamed “M-Kat.”
“M-Kat used to be a Democrat, too,” Bush quipped, referring to me. “I converted him.”
After about an hour, Bush said that Laura was out of town and asked if McKinnon and I would like to join him for dinner. We did, of course, and we moved into the residence dining room, where Bush sat at the head of the table, McKinnon and I on either side, while the president’s black cat, Willie, lounged on the far end. Really, he just kept talking. I thought perhaps it was my naiveté that was making the evening seem so remarkable. But when the president was called away from the table for a few minutes, I asked McKinnon if working in the White House was as demanding as Bush had said. He said it was, and then he got a sort of faraway look in his eyes. “But then you have an evening like tonight,” I remember him saying. I left the White House in a daze. I even got lost in the pitch-black darkness and had to drive around the small parking lot for a few minutes to find my way to the gate. I called my wife, and she asked how the evening had gone. I couldn’t answer.
“I’ve never known you to be speechless,” she said, genuinely surprised.
I finally said, “It was like sitting and listening to Michael Jordan talk basketball or Pavarotti talk opera, listening to someone at the top of his game share his secrets.”
My takeaway: what a difference a decade had made.
In the remaining years of his presidency, I visited Bush several more times, always in the Oval Office. He was candid, but nothing like that first night. His only remark about Barack Obama was, as I recall it, “No matter who wins, when he hears what I hear every morning, it will change him.” When I met with Bush in the summer of 2008, after eating hot dogs alone together in the little dining room off the Oval Office, he put his hand on my shoulder and said he wanted me to help him with his memoir. In my spit-and-vinegar youth, I would never have considered using my journalism skills in service to a politician. But the idea of eavesdropping on the private stories of one of only 43 men who had ever held the presidency was too compelling. I told him I would help. A couple months later, I got a handwritten note from the president thanking me for my willingness but saying he had decided “to go a different route.”
I was not surprised. The president is a tough grader. I must have scored only a B+.
President Bush has just about lipped his cigar to death, but still he keeps working it. “The job of the president is to be strategic in thought and to look over the horizon,” he says, waving the soggy cigar. “And history helps a president look over the horizon.” In the White House, Bush sometimes read for pleasure in the Treaty Room, the president’s private office, lounging back in its comfortable chair with his feet up on the desk, or while exercising on the elliptical machine. But mostly, he read, as he had in Midland, at night in bed. “Reading books,” Bush says, “means you’re not lonely.”
In Decision Points, Bush cites book after book that influenced his thinking in the White House. The Bible, for one, and he quotes Lincoln, who called it “the best gift God has given to man.” After 9/11, he thought of Lincoln’s declaration that the battle between freedom and tyranny was “an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory”—words, he says, that framed his policy toward the war on terror. He cites Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen, a strategic studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, who argued that a president must hold his generals accountable for results. And Dereliction of Duty by Colonel H. R. McMaster, who argued that the Vietnam War military leadership had not done enough to correct the flawed strategy adopted by President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In Iraq, the counterinsurgency strategy of “clear, hold, and build” employed by McMaster, who had become commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment, replaced the failed strategy of “train-and-withdraw” used by Bush’s generals at the start of the war.
Just after his 2004 reelection, Bush read The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident who had spent nine years in the gulag and who reported that he and his fellow political prisoners had been inspired by then-President Ronald Reagan’s clarion—some said belligerent—call for freedom in the Soviet empire. Bush decided that he, too, would be clear in that call. In his Second Inaugural, he intoned: “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Bush also emphasizes that he made decisions as president so as not to repeat what history had convinced him were the mistakes of former presidents. He relented on changes in his controversial Terrorist Surveillance Program when his acting attorney general, James Comey, and FBI Director Robert Mueller threatened to resign over aspects of it. He didn’t want a repeat of President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned after refusing to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Bush also was determined not to micromanage the military planning in Afghanistan and Iraq, as he believed Johnson and McNamara had done in Vietnam. Although his critics would disagree, he also believes he took care not to repeat the wartime overreactions that had led to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 under John Adams, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, or Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
I ask what he believes is the most important quality in great leaders.
“Willingness to stand on principle, the notion that public opinion changes back and forth and that you shouldn’t chase public opinion. … Lincoln had a set of principles that were important to him. ‘All men are created equal under God’ is the ultimate. It’s the ultimate principle for America’s freedom. … But Lincoln acted on it in a difficult political environment. People forget that he was in a very tough reelection campaign, and it wasn’t until Sherman makes it to Atlanta that his prospects brightened. Secondly, Lincoln had a strategic vision for the country. One of the great presidential decisions ever was to keep the country intact. … The question oftentimes in history is what would have happened if a different decision were made. We’d have been Europe.”
Of his own presidency, he says, “Obviously, there were some very difficult moments, and there was some doubt as to whether or not decisions I had made were going to become fruitful. But I also realized there’s a whole history of what would have happened, what are the consequences had you not made a decision. So, like on Saddam Hussein, maybe it’s a historian’s perspective … but no doubt in my mind, if he were in power today, all that’s happening in the Middle East now would be much more dangerous.” And what might have happened in Libya during the recent uprising, Bush asks, if he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hadn’t convinced Qaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction? The same logic applied, he says, during the financial meltdown during his last months in office. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman and a preeminent historian on the causes of the Great Depression, told Bush that unless he did something drastic, the nation would descend into depression.
“Well, I had read enough history about the Depression to know the consequences. … I didn’t want history to record that there was a moment when George W. Bush could have done something to prevent the depression and chose not to.” We don’t know if inaction would have resulted in a depression, he says—only that he did act and there was no depression. “It’s just one of those moments where you just had to move one way or the other. And I moved.”
I ask, “What did you see as your principles?”
“One of them was ‘freedom is universal,’ which was unbelievably controversial for a period of time during my presidency, which, frankly, astonished me, given my reading of history.” He paraphrases his Second Inaugural: “We’ll resist tyranny at all times, all places, basically. Well, to me, you could say that was inspired by Lincoln. … Based upon the principle that deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free. And what’s interesting is, it’s playing out right now,” he says, referring to the populist uprisings in the Middle East.
“The interesting thing about Egypt was that of all the countries in the Middle East, Egypt had a great chance to become an example of democracy. And President Mubarak, after ’82, chose not to head that way. Eventually, though, the young, educated, unemployed said, ‘Wait a minute! We’re tired of it!’ I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised when the people of Iraq went to vote. I really wasn’t. And took enormous risks to vote. Or the people in Afghanistan. Unbelievably inspirational moments as far as I was concerned. Others didn’t see it that way, I fully understood. But, to me, it was validation of the concept that all want to be free.”
His decision to launch the military surge in Iraq in 2007, at a time when the military situation was deteriorating and American public opinion had turned overwhelmingly against the war, was rooted in what he saw as the central principle of his presidency and the question historians would ask about what would happen if he did not make the decision. “The surge was, one, a belief that freedom is universal and, therefore, if given a chance, people will seize the moment. And the other calculation was, ‘What does failure mean?’ ”
So how will history judge his presidency?
“Some people walk up and say, ‘Oh, man, history is going to judge you well.’ And my quip is, ‘I’m not going to be around to see it.’ And to me, that’s one of the most important lessons you learn through history—you’re just not gonna be around to see it. … I’m confident of this: that those conclusions will be more objective with time than they could conceivably be now.”
I ask if he thinks President Obama has read his book.
He laughs. “If somebody said he hasn’t had time to read it yet, I’d say, ‘I understand.’ ”
I visited President Bush in the Oval Office one more time. I was thinking about doing a book about how Americans pray, and I had remembered that way back in Midland, he had advised me to read the Bible cover-to-cover, something I had done since then. He agreed to talk with me about his prayer life, and, for a final time, I journeyed to the Oval Office.
“I’ve thought about this conversation a lot since you asked … ,” President Bush said. “I’m learning and have been learning ever since 1986, really.”
That afternoon, only a few months before he would leave office, we sat beneath the famous Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, and President Bush told me that he prayed daily in the White House. He prayed for spiritual insight—to “be more discerning of the Word of God.” He prayed that God keep his wife and daughters protected. He prayed that our soldiers and their families be given comfort and strength. He did not pray for good weather on his daughter’s wedding day, or that his father’s hip surgery go well, or that the stock market rise.
“Do you pray, ‘Dear God, let Congress get it right?’ ” I asked.
“ ‘Dear God, let Pelosi get it right?’ ”
“No, no, no, no, no, God is not the minority leader”—and then he laughed and corrected himself. “Majority leader. … Nor do I pray for a Republican victory. … I really don’t.”
He prayed before his presidential debates, kept a little cross in his pocket that he would squeeze: “ ‘Dear God, I pray that I speak clearly and bring calm.’ ” He prayed before his State of the Union addresses, alone in the little holding room: “ ‘Dear God, I pray that you shine through me today.’ ”
“And the prayers of the people,” he said, referring to those who pray for him, “this is where I get into a little shaky ground because I can’t prove it.” But Bush said he had actually felt the prayers of people asking God to comfort him. “And so the pop psychologists say, ‘Well, he’s grasping for affection.’ … I tell people all the time this—that the prayers of the people matter. And I do have a sense of calm.” Perhaps, he said, his prayers and the prayers of others are the reason. “I’ve been asked this some: ‘Do you think God wanted you to go to war?’ I didn’t ask in prayer. … I don’t think that’s fair to God to do that.”
“Have you prayed, ‘Dear God, if I was wrong about this, forgive me’?”
“No, no, no. First of all, I don’t believe I’m wrong about it. I don’t believe it’s wrong to confront evil. And I don’t believe it’s wrong to give people the opportunity to live in a free society. … I don’t want to bring God down into a presidential debate over ‘yes’ or ‘no’ into Iraq.”
“Do you have compassion for your enemy?”
“I have yet to forgive Osama bin Laden, and, frankly, haven’t prayed [for him] because I think he needs to be brought to justice in order to prevent him from killing other people.”
“Isn’t it possible to pray for Osama bin Laden and also want to bring him to justice?”
“I’m not sophisticated enough in prayer, evidently, to be able to pray for Osama bin Laden and at the same time go hunt him.”
Early the next morning, my hotel phone rang me out of bed.
“The president would like to talk with you,” a pleasant voice said.
In a moment, President Bush was on the line. He said he didn’t want to leave me with a wrong impression: he did pray regularly for forgiveness. He just wanted to be sure I knew that.
I thanked him for the call.
“Well,” he said with a laugh, “now you can tell your friends that the president of the United States gave you a wake-up call.”
“Born to Run” originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine in 1986.
IT’S A 25-MINUTE RIDE AT A GOOD CLIP ON A ROUGH OCEAN TO the Saco River, where George Bush has heard the bluefish are biting. Along the way, he gives the nickel tour — how to read the wind in the whitecaps, the island where he picnicked as a boy, the boulders hidden beneath the rising tide…
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