The Magazine

Reader of the Free World

A literary luncheon with the president.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Anyone who thinks President George W. Bush is spending sleepless nights worrying about the machinations of the Democratic Congress, or figuring out how a lame duck president can limp from the political battlefield with honor intact, had better think again. And anyone who likes to regale his friends with references to that illiterate cowboy in the White House is due for some considerable embarrassment when the nonpartisan studies of the Bush years begin to hit the bookshops.

Those are two of the conclusions I reached watching the president in action at a luncheon--more accurately, a seminar--he convened last week to discuss the most recent of the many histories he has read, Andrew Roberts's splendid History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, a tome that picks up where Winston Churchill's four volumes on the subject left off. Among those joining the president and Roberts at last week's White House lunch were the distinguished Victorian historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, neocon intellectual Norman Podhoretz, Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's influential editorial page, theologian Michael Novak, and a smattering of journalists.

"History informs the present," the president had said at another of these meetings to which he invites small groups of writers, historians, and pundits to discuss some work that has caught his eye. On this occasion the president said he had three goals--to get more people to read Roberts's book, to see what the history of the English-speaking peoples has to teach us today, and to "pander to you powerful opinion makers." That last combination of candor and flattery was disarming in the extreme.

On one subject the president needed no lessons from Roberts or anyone else in the room: how to handle pressure. "I just don't feel any," he says with the calm conviction of a man who believes the constituency to which he must ultimately answer is the Divine Presence. Don't misunderstand: God didn't tell him to put troops in harm's way in Iraq; belief in Him only goes so far as to inform the president that there is good and evil. It is then his job to figure out how to promote the former and destroy the latter. And he is confident that his policies are doing just that.

His dealings with Tony Blair and the Blair team have made him well aware that this view contributes to European nervousness about his political decisions. Bush, who must have more things on his mind than the names of minor U.K. political figures, did remember that it was Blair's media guru, one Alastair Campbell--hardly a household name in Washington--who interrupted a Tony Blair press conference to say, "We don't do God." And he frowned as he recalled that Blair's poll-driven advisers had dissuaded the prime minister from saying "God bless you" to the British troops he was sending off to Iraq.

All of this led the president to turn the conversation to the old question of what exactly is "evil" and what constitutes "good." The discussion centered on Novak's contention that although there is indeed "evil," there is no such thing as absolute "good." Bush didn't buy that line, preferring to agree with Podhoretz's rejection of Arthur Koestler's conclusion that man is in a battle between black and "various shades of gray." Bush's formulation is that we are engaged in a war between absolute evil and good principles, which principles are, the president readily admitted, practiced by imperfect men.

Discussion then turned to the special relationship of America with Great Britain, and how it will be affected by Blair's retirement in a few months' time. Roberts told the president that Washington would have no problem with Gordon Brown, who will almost certainly succeed Blair as leader of the Labour party and prime minister. Brown admires America, is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to support Britain's nuclear submarine program. Tory Leader David Cameron, said this self-styled "Thatcherite Tory" historian, is another matter. In a reprise of several talks delivered in Washington last week, Roberts spoke with a mixture of sadness and annoyance of Cameron's appalling speech on the fifth anniversary of September 11, which called on America to be "patient" and on Britain to end its "slavish" deference to the United States. That, along with Tory foreign-policy spokesman William Hague's attack on Israel for its "disproportionate" response to Hezbollah's kidnapping of one of its soldiers and cross-border rocket attacks, means a Tory victory would bode ill for the special relationship.

Bush was unperturbed. The special relationship is "unbelievably powerful," he said, and transcends such differences as exist between any given president and prime minister. "Who would have thought that a left-of- center prime minister and a conservative president could combine as we have done to try to bring democracy to Iraq?"