In a reprieve from the horror of the most recent terrorist attack, the nation's attentions turned last week to the man who declared the war on terrorism, George W. Bush. During the April 25 dedication of his library at Southern Methodist University, nary a word was spoken about the most controversial aspect of his tenure, the Iraq invasion. All living presidents were in attendance and made only generic references to mistakes and regrets familiar to all. Of course, Bush famously acknowledges no mistakes or regrets, but rather bequeaths judgment to history.
Nearly everyone who has known Bush up closer than a video clip has a different impression of him than what is more popularly accepted. The arrogant, swaggering caricature of the 43rd president was mostly a shield. Bravado of the "bring 'em on" variety was more personal jab than foreign policy statement, though one suspects Bush enjoyed the sound of tiny feet scurrying to keyboards in search of deeper meaning.
Obviously, what a president says and does is fair game for criticism. The way Bush chose to express himself was the way he would be perceived and judged. But in private, Bush is a very different man. As president, in small groups he was articulate and confident. When the cameras were off, he was relaxed and natural.
When the cameras were off
Everyone is familiar with Bush's history and performance. What I offer is an anecdote that I think reveals what the cameras and critics could not. These recollections are simply recorded for the sake of biography in the interest of rounding out a more complete picture of a two-term, transformational president who changed our world in ways that won't be fully understood or judged in our lifetimes.
July 2007: I had just written a eulogy for a friend who had died in a car crash when I was summoned along with about a dozen other journalists to meet with the president. His director of media affairs, Jeanie Mamo, met me at the security gate, saw my bloodshot eyes and, having read my column, said how sorry she is. I started babbling something about how I wouldn't have come except, and she interrupted: "Except that he's the president of the United States." Yes, that's it.
Once in the Roosevelt Room, Bush circled the room, shaking hands with each person, coming to me last. He gave a hug and said, "You're not alone. I'm right there with you."Somehow I managed not to burst into tears. After the meeting, he returned to give me another hug, whereupon I asked a favor. Would he write a note to my friend's son? Absolutely. In the Oval Office, he asked the boy's name. Jackson. He wrote: "Dear Jackson, I know your heart is broken. I will pray for you. Sincerely, George W. Bush."
More or less. Unfortunately, I failed to copy the letter before delivering it to the son at my friend's funeral.
I tell this story because it should be part of the public record of this president, not least because such gestures were not rare. Bush often met privately and without fanfare with the families of fallen soldiers. He often visited the wounded without anyone's knowing. He really did feel others' pain.
During a one-on-one interview on Air Force One, I asked him about his hardest days as president. He rejected the question as irrelevant. The hardest day of his life was seeing his father lose re-election, not because the Bush family needed more time in the Rose Garden but because seeing his father, "this great man," suffer was so painful for the son.
Every president (thus far) is also just a man, which is to say, human. His frailties and flaws are in plain sight, every gesture a potential weapon of self-destruction. For reasons that are perhaps a characteristic of our untamed nature, we seem intent on elevating presidents only to bring them down.
Thus it was with President Bush, who, our favorite cartoons notwithstanding, as president was more than a composite of swagger and smirk. He is also a kind man with a gentle heart who should be remembered as such.