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The End of the Line

Lunch with President George W. Bush.

11:00 PM, Jan 4, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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NOW WE KNOW how President Bush reads so many books. It's a "discipline deal," the president says. "I don't watch TV," he says. And he reads every morning while doing an hour of exercise and on the many long flights aboard Air Force One.

For someone with a full-time job as the nation's chief executive and commander-in-chief, the number of books he's read is quite amazing: 95 in 2006, 51 in 2007, 40 by Christmas last year. Yet he lost each year in competition with his friend and political adviser Karl Rove, who revealed their book reading rivalry in the Wall Street Journal. Recently Bush has begun using a Kindle wireless reading device.

Among his favorite books in 2008 was Tried by War, the chronicle of President Lincoln's hands-on relationship with Union generals during the Civil War. Bush knows (and admires) the author, Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, who joined other historians at several White House sessions with the president.

Bush has a personal interest in Lincoln as a fellow wartime president, though he never puts himself in Lincoln's class as a leader. When Union forces faltered during the Civil War and Lincoln's popularity sagged, two groups stuck by him firmly: evangelical Christians and the military. Those were the same groups that supported him unfailingly when the war in Iraq was going badly, Bush says.

The president was in a relaxed mood last Friday when he talked about books, Lincoln, and a host of other subjects with me and my WEEKLY STANDARD and Fox News colleague William Kristol. The occasion was a lunch in the president's private dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. Bush, by the way, ate a grilled cheese sandwich.

Bush's critics -- and especially the left-wing haters -- are going to be disappointed when they see his demeanor as he leaves his eight-year presidency. In our conversation, he wasn't bitter or downcast or pessimistic, nor was he boastful or disdainful. He appears comfortable with what he expects his legacy will be, including a battle against Islamist terrorists that endure under President Obama.

In recent weeks, Bush has been interviewed more than a dozen times about his years in the White House, though not by either the New York Times or the Washington Post. And there are more interviews to come, including several with Texas reporters and one this week with Brit Hume of Fox News Channel.

During our conversation, Bush occasionally spoke off the record and several times "really" off the record. He talked lightheartedly about being surprised when lectured on global warming at his first meeting with European Union leaders. He wasn't persuaded to change his view. Now the new EU president, Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, is a global warming skeptic.

On the Middle East, Bush said the key moment in his becoming strongly pro-Israel -- unlike his father, President George H.W. Bush -- was a visit in 1998 just after he'd been re-elected governor of Texas. Ariel Sharon, then Israeli settlements minister, flew him by helicopter over Israel and the West Bank. He saw firsthand, Bush says, how vulnerable Israel, a democratic ally, is to attack.

On domestic policy, Bush was asked if he made progress in some areas for which he hasn't and probably won't get credit. Topping his list was his unsuccessful drive in 2005 to reform Social Security. Bush said his effort showed it's politically safe to campaign on changing Social Security and then actually seek to change it.

He also said it was important to have raised private investment accounts as an attractive option in reforming Social Security. Bush believes the cost of living increases should be means tested so well-to-do recipients would get smaller hikes than those with less wealth and income.

Bush also cited the faith-based initiative as a step forward. When Congress balked, he issued an executive order that implemented part of the initiative. The program has a $5 billion budget today, the president noted.

After two terms, the president has developed strong views on how administrations ought to work. One thing that matters enormously, he says, is for the president and the secretary of state to keep in close touch, as President Truman did with Secretary of State Dean Acheson and as he has with Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state in his second term.

But Bush believes disagreement among top advisers can be helpful to a president. In his first term, Bush says, he benefited from differences between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They disagreed on Iraq, among other issues.

A final impression: Bush is mentally ready to leave Washington, a town he never really liked. He says he has a lot of packing to do. But my guess is he won't look back with regret at what he might have done if he had more time in office. He's proud of what he achieved. And proud he should be.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.