For 75 minutes, George W. Bush sat in a creme-and-blue high-backed chair in the Oval Office, answering questions that my Dallas Morning News colleagues, Todd Gillman and Lori Stahl, and I put to him about everything from 9/11 to bipartisanship to Texas politics to his new presidential library and institute.
He gestured with his hands, cast asides with his eyes, relaxed in his chair and explained his views with the same manner he did while a popular governor of Texas. Even down to the same kind of black loafers, he was the guy many Texans saw in Austin. Our give-and-take went far past the scheduled 45 minutes, as he twice waved off aides to keep it going. As he had years before, he usually responded with answers that would shock those who long ago swallowed the caricature of him as a lightweight. He gave reasons for his actions, understood why some took offense and showed none of the stiff-necked ideologue side that had become his image.
So, this: Can modern presidents, with all their handlers, scheduling and scripting, really reveal themselves to the larger public? Franklin Roosevelt did through fireside chats, but can we ever know the real guy anymore?
FDR’s day was light-years different. Even Ronald Reagan’s time, when he communicated well, differs vastly from today. News moves much faster. Media outlets have multiplied. And we journalists continue to play the role of filter between an administration and the public — sometimes well, sometimes not.
What Barack Obama has going for him is the Internet. I hope he succeeds in using it to reveal himself.
Like all of his predecessors, Bush didn’t get to choose the times in which he governed. This came through clearly in his remarks. “The great challenge for any president,” he concluded, “is to deal with that which is unseen, that which is unexpected.”
His times of governing were as consequential as any period since World War II, and he made critical mistakes in handling them.
He never recovered from his poor planning about Iraq, slow reaction to Katrina or inability to get Congress to reform immigration and Social Security laws. He allowed Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Don Rumsfeld to shift his administration’s tone from his collegial Austin approach, where Bush indeed was a unifier. He particularly erred by shamelessly letting his party use terrorism as an issue in 2002 to defeat such Democrats as Sen. Max Cleland, who lost his legs in service to our country.
He was forthcoming in our interview about not changing Washington’s tone and why his efforts to reform immigration and Social Security didn’t work. His answers were clear, well considered and frank.
He liked working with Ted Kennedy, but he couldn’t keep a populist prairie fire — that started with the Dubai ports controversy — from consuming any chance of passing immigration reform. And there was no crisis to get legislators to take the political risk of modernizing Social Security.
What will be interesting is how historians deal with his successes. Today, people brush past them, but they were considerable and consequential:
Keeping America safe from a post-9/11 terrorist attack. Measuring school results through No Child Left Behind. Giving seniors access to prescription drugs through Medicare. Creating a record number of community health centers. Presiding over 52 consecutive months of job growth. Pressuring Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction. Tackling AIDS in Africa. Responding to China and India’s engineering prowess through expanding math and science research. Responding with the surge in Iraq.
What I’ve liked about Bush since his early days as governor is how he swings at big issues. Hate him or love him, he doesn’t back down. He missed mightily with some swings but had courage of his convictions. And he usually approached his job with civility. Last week, he was genuinely excited about watching Obama sworn in as our first black president.
For whatever reason, these attributes — the ones I saw again last week — didn’t come through often in his presidency, and his administration suffered because of it. That may be the lesson Obama most takes away from his predecessor. Fight as hard as you can to reveal yourself.