The Magazine

They Still Haven't Figured Him Out

From the December 13, 2004 issue: Bush's unexpected qualities.

Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
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A DEMOCRATIC SENATOR who attended a special screening of the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 was asked what he thought was the most revealing part about President Bush. The senator pondered a moment, then said it was the episode where Bush, in close-up, continues to talk to a grade-school class in Sarasota, Florida, for six or seven minutes after he's learned that planes had flown into the World Trade Center. What did it reveal? The senator couldn't say.

My impression, as Bush begins his second term in the White House, is that many in the political community, including the press, still haven't figured him out. One reason is the Bush presidency has emerged quite differently from what was expected. So here are five things about the president that help explain why he does what he does. They aren't the only five aspects of his presidency, but they're five important ones.

* ACTIVIST. The label is usually applied to liberal politicians, rarely conservatives. In Bush's case, it means he has a lengthy agenda and is impatient about enacting it. And it's an agenda--Social Security reform, altering the balance on the Supreme Court, tax reform, reversing cultural trends, a crusade for democracy around the globe--for change. Bush didn't get his activist streak from his father. George H.W. Bush was a caretaker president, dealing with items as they arrived in his in-basket. He lost his bid for reelection in 1992 partly because he didn't have much on his mind for a second term. Bush has a lot, and it's not trivial. One of his most stinging criticisms is to label a proposal "smallball"--in other words, not big or bold enough for serious presidential attention.

* OUTSIDER. Bush is an alien inside the Beltway. His election was the equivalent of getting a green card to work in Washington. He's not part of the social whirl. Nor has he made many close friends on Capitol Hill or around town. What separates him from the Washington crowd? More than anything else, it's religion. Bush is the first president who's a product of the modern evangelical movement, which means his Christian faith is personal, intense, and all-encompassing. It's not a part-time, Sunday-only thing. Leave Washington and you frequently encounter people who say of the president, "He's one of us." You don't hear that in Washington. A Texas friend recently sent the president a copy of Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy. Bush read most of it and asked Sharansky to meet with him at the White House. Bush praised Sharansky for his years as a dissident in the Soviet Union. To which Sharansky replied, "Now you are the chief dissident of the world."

* PRESS-BASHER. Bush has not made peace with the press, far from it. He views most reporters as political opponents eager to pepper him with gotcha questions. In Colombia last month, he appeared before reporters with President Alvaro Uribe. Bush didn't like the first question about a scuffle two days earlier involving the Secret Service. "This is a question?" he said, and gave a curt answer. Uribe said, "Do you want to get in one more [question]?" Bush said, "That's plenty. No. Thank you," ending the press conference prematurely.

Bush believes, correctly, that the Washington press corps favored John Kerry in the election. "Ninety percent for Kerry" is what White House aides say. Coverage of Bush reflected this. The Center for Media and Public Affairs found that coverage of Kerry was the most favorable for any presidential candidate since it began examining campaigns in 1988, while Bush's was mostly negative. Reporters complain they get little information from the White House. Chances are they'll get even less in the second term. Bush's calculation is that spending more time with the press would be time poorly spent.

* SURPRISER. Bush likes to defy the conventional wisdom. He often does it without even trying. I recently asked a leading supporter of Israel if he had known Bush would become the most pro-Israel president ever. He hadn't. Bush was expected to govern as a moderate conservative, but on most issues he's become hard core. He was expected to relax after November 2. Instead, he's plotting for next year. Presidents, indeed most politicians, are disinclined to give aides credit for their success. But Bush surprised Washington on the day after his reelection by calling Karl Rove "the architect" of his victory. The conventional wisdom is that Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage to help win reelection but won't actually push it. The surprise of his second term may be that he pushes it aggressively.

* VISIONARY. Really. True, the word just doesn't seem to go with the Bush persona, or at least with the popular notion of Bush, the swaggering Texan. But in speech after speech, Bush has laid out a vision of democratizing the Middle East, then the world. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, last week, he pretended Canada shares his "great commitment . . . to enhance our own security by promoting freedom and hope and democracy in the broader Middle East." Most of Europe and Bush's own State Department disagree with this effort. But Bush is adamant. "It is cultural condescension to claim that some peoples or some cultures or some religions are destined to despotism and unsuited for self-government," he said in Halifax. With little fanfare, Bush also changed America's national security strategy from containment to preemption.

So where does all this leave us in understanding Bush? The first step is to abandon the original preconception of President Bush. He's different. The second step is to accept that he's attempting big things. And the third, as a result, is to get ready for a second presidential term like few we've seen.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.