'You've gotta think, think BIG'
Who is George Bush? A gaffe-ridden buffoon? The man who confronts the evildoers? Or is he Bush as Bush sees himself, the decider, a leader who makes the hard choices and sticks to them?
In just 16 months’ time, the job of working out who Bush really is will move out of the world’s newsrooms and into the book-lined studies of historians. It will be their task to strive for a more rounded picture of one of the most divisive politicians of the postwar era. But in that challenge they will have as helpful source material a new book that provides a mass of detail about the man.
Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush has been the talk of US political circles for the past week. What has got everybody going is the unparalleled face time Bush granted the book’s author. Robert Draper, a writer for GQ, had six encounters with the president, each about an hour long, from last December to this May.
Two things appear to have drawn the president towards a relatively little-known US journalist. First, Bush liked the idea put forward by Draper that this would be the first draft of history on his administration. Second, they were both Texans—and in Bush-world that counts. Draper, a former editor at Texas Monthly, comes from Houston, and his grandfather was a special prosecutor in Watergate and close to George Bush the elder—the latter acted as a pallbearer at Draper’s grandfather’s funeral.
Draper’s path has regularly crossed that of the younger Bush since the latter’s days as governor of Texas. When they first sat down to discuss a possible interview, Draper explains to me, “We did the Texan-to-Texan thing. The president said that he was only interested in talking to me because he trusted me to get it right.”
They met for the first formal interview in a little room next to the Oval Office where Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and for the following five engagements in the Oval Office itself. Bush would sit for an hour at a time—feet planted on the desk, sucking on an unlit cigar, munching low-fat burgers, occasionally bellowing at an aide for ice cream—and pour his heart out.
On other occasions he would fling himself on to the Oval Office couch “like a dirty sweatshirt”, as Draper puts it, and challenge his interlocutor to make sense of his life: “You’re the observer. I’m not. I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analysing myself.”
Out of these hours of transcripts come tiny clues to what drives him on even when the rest of the world seems pitted against him, and that illuminate some of the central paradoxes of the man. How is it that a character who prides himself on his cowboy roots, who at the age of 40 had accomplished little and had even less ambition, has risen to become the most powerful person on earth?
It would be invidious to suggest that the key to that mystery lies in Bush’s early problems with alcohol. But the obsessive tendencies that drove the young Bush to drink are certainly a running theme through the book. “George likes to do things to excess,” Laura Bush told Draper, and when you read about the president’s day at the White House, you can see what she means.
In Europe, Bush is caricatured as someone who is rather slovenly and laid-back, someone who treats life and the presidency lightly. That may have been true of his attitude as a youth, but from the moment he stepped into the White House he was meticulous to a degree. Jackets and tie were de rigueur—a sharp stylistic change from the informality of Bill Clinton. Meetings started on time, woe-betide latecomers. In one early Cabinet meeting, the president noticed that Colin Powell’s chair was empty. “Lock the door,” he told his aides.
As the Powell story shows, Bush is capable of cruelty even to those closest to him. Draper recounts an episode from 1999 when Bush was governor of Texas and Karl Rove, his political magician, was waxing lyrical in front of a group of economic advisers. Bush butted in, mid-flow. “Karl. Hang up my jacket.” The meeting fell silent as Rove duly did as he was told.
The European image of Bush likes to dwell on his insistence on bed by 9pm. What is less well known is that he is at his desk at 7am for a relentless succession of meetings. The one exception to a schedule that is precision-built to every 15 minutes is his insistence on daily exercise.
When you read Draper’s account of Bush’s exercise routine you start to see what an extraordinary, not to say abnormal, individual Bush is. No matter what crisis is flying around his head, the president will have his one to two hours of exercise, six days a week, with no interruptions. One of the most chilling anecdotes in the book is how he partly failed to grasp the magnitude of the Katrina disaster because on the day the hurricane struck he was too zonked from a cycle session to ask the necessary questions. On September 10 2001, the one target Bush had on his agenda was to achieve a running time of less than seven minutes per mile.
Pity his poor bodyguards—they have to stick with him, pounding up slopes on mountain bikes, Bush setting a merciless pace. Not only that; the agents have to go ahead of him to any new town he might be visiting and seek out possible bike trails. They then have to clear the suitable route with rakes and weed-killer, duties that were perhaps not foremost in their minds when they applied to join the Secret Service.
Draper suggests that this furious physical activity fits into other patterns of behaviour that Bush has displayed since occupying the White House. “The president has for years been looking for relevance,” says Draper. “There’s a need to do bigness, to convince people of his consequentiality. There was no evidence of that in his earlier life—nobody took him seriously.”
His relationship with his father also comes into it. “He is a classic elder son of a famous man—alternately trying to measure up to this impossible standard and trying to define himself as a discrete individual.” He has at times been openly admiring of George Bush Sr. At others he is almost scathing in his criticism, referring frequently to his father’s lack of vision and defining his own political position as closer to Ronald Reagan’s.
It is in Iraq that all the various aspects of Bush’s character have perilously combined: his tendency to excess, his need to prove himself, his search for the Big Idea, his need to drive himself to the limits of endurance. “The job of the president,” Bush tells Draper as he munches on a sausage in the Oval Office, “is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives. As opposed to playing mini-ball. You’ve gotta think, think BIG.”
In all this, he shows not a smidgeon of self-doubt—a conscious ploy as it now turns out. “I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve,” he tells Draper, adding later, “Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency. This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity.”
There are a lot of tears in the world of Bush. He cries at Ground Zero after the attacks on New York, he cries when he meets soldiers wounded in Iraq, he cries when delivering emotional lines in speeches. “I’ve got God’s shoulder to cry on,” he tells Draper. “And I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job.”
But what is strange about this man who cries so liberally is that he is also rigid and unbending. Once his mind is made up, there is no room for manoeuvre. And once Bush has made his big decisions, he shows a peculiar lack of interest in following them through. That’s the small stuff that can be left to officials. The Draper anecdote that has caused most astonishment among the political commentariat was Bush’s reply when asked how he reacted when he learned that the first post-invasion presidential envoy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, had unilaterally reversed policy and dissolved the Iraqi army—with disastrous consequences. “Yeah, I can’t remember,” was Bush’s reply. After that Draper stopped asking him about specific events or meetings: “I learned early on there that was little point; he has a very poor memory.”
Bush’s attitude to history is also illuminating. Draper recalls that when he interviewed Governor Bush in 1998, he asked him who his favourite historical figure was. “Reagan,” said Bush. “It was as though history for him then began with Ronald Reagan,” says Draper. These days, though, Bush devours history books—on Lincoln and the rise of Churchill, on the Khmer Rouge and the Algerian revolution. And always for a purpose. “He was frank to me about why he was reading about Algeria,” Draper says. “The lesson is what happens when you desert a country—the slaughter of the Algerians when the French left. It falls under the rubric of the consequences of failure.”
Failure does not exist for Bush. His advisers know that well. One tells Draper that bearing bad news to the president is like walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And so they don’t. They don’t bring him bad news. And he is left in a parallel universe in which his leadership will prevail. It will all come right in the end.
Sharing his thoughts for life after the presidency, Bush is remarkably low-key. He is going to build himself a “fantastic” Freedom Institute for young leaders, “you know, the former prime minister of Mongolia—it’d be cool to pay him a stipend, have him come live in Dallas and write and lecture”.
What else? He plans to make some money—“replenish the ol’coffers”—and hang out with Laura in Dallas. “I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down the ranch,” he says. That does not sound much. But then there is always the cycle trial to pound, the calories to burn, the seven-minute mile to break. - Guardian Unlimited Â