On a flight during the campaign, George W. Bush went back to the press area, and impishly and proudly said to the assembled press corps, “I don’t read half of what you write.” A wire service reporter shot back, thinking he had found a fitting last word, “We don’t listen to half of what you say.”
But, according to Frank Bruni of the New York Times, “Bush stole it from him, saying that this habit of reporters was abundantly apparent in the half of his coverage that he indeed read.” This is one of many examples of Bush’s wit Bruni notes in his new book Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. Although I am not in the habit of recommending readings by reporters from the New York Times, I do recommend this book. It is the beginning of a better and deeper understanding of Bush’s character and capacities, as revealed in the establishment media.
Bruni now knows that Bush was a reader of books. He cites innumerable examples to prove this. Bush not only reads serious books like One Nation, Two Cultures and April 1865 but also many novels, detective yarns and mysteries. They have not only exchanged books of favored authors, but have had good and lengthy conversations about them. Bruni says: “Bush was, in fact, a pretty steady consumer of books.” And Bruni admits that he had been wrong in discounting that possibility in articles he had written before he knew the truth.
A month after the New York Times published an article claiming that Bush was not a great reader of books Bush spotted Bruni in a parking lot early one morning and asked him how he was. Bruni, not used to getting up so early, admitted he was tired. Bush said, “I got up early because I was in the middle of a really good book.” Bruni writes: “He punched these last words, just to make certain I got the point, and then, reflecting on his own remark, added, ’Touche!’”
Bruni makes very clear that Bush is amusing and quick and witty. He tells the story of the new president walking in on an early-morning meeting of twenty or so of his most influential senior staff. They were sitting and talking about the day’s business “when the door abruptly opened and Bush stuck his head through it. They immediately stood in deference to the presence of the president.”
Bush told them to sit down and said in a kidding manner he just wanted to make sure they were all working. He then left. But a few minutes later the door opened and he came back. Everyone stood up again. Bush laughed and told them that he just wanted to see them to do that again—that it gave him a charge.
That “laughter is Bush’s favorite sound,” as Bruni says, is revealing about the man and his character, especially when you consider that much of his wit is at his own expense. So is the fact that he got so homesick during the campaign that the press got tired of hearing him talk about his three cats and his dog Spot. So is the fact that Bush didn’t like Gore and, although he never said so publicly, he saw Gore as “equal parts pompous blowhard and preening chameleon, a spineless panderer ready to be anything for anyone.” For Bush, this opinion was distilled in a single detail: “The man dyes his hair.”
Bush would ask, “What does that tell you about him?” and then answer his own question: “He doesn’t know who he is.” No adornments here, just simplicity and clarity, which is Bush’s inclination (remember “wanted dead or alive”?). This—despite degrees from Yale and Harvard—is good old Western simplicity, which is not the same as simple mindedness.
Bruni makes clear that Bush knows who he is. He is comfortable with himself, is thoughtful, less needy than his predecessor. And he is serene and patient in a crisis, as we have discovered. Bush is “tweaking the office of the presidency so that it conformed to his own sensibilities,” according to Bruni. He mentions a few interesting pre-world trade center attack examples of his mode and how it differed from his predecessor. For several weeks into his presidency he did not have the band play “Hail to the Chief”, an homage, according to Bruni, “that was like oxygen to President Clinton.” Also, Bush held his first press conferences in the pressroom, a plain and shabby setting, rather than the august East room where they were traditionally held. He prefers plain and simple.
But perhaps the clearest example of Bush’s disposition and his desire to give the presidency a less stilted aura has to do with events in March of 2001. There were two shootings in two schools in California. Bush said only a few sentences in response to a reporter’s question about the first incident and said nothing about the second. “Clinton would have had an empathetic exegesis at the ready.” Bush doesn’t think the president should pontificate about everything; not every event is an opportunity to get on the nightly news.
Bruni makes clear that Bush’s reputation as thoughtless and shallow is largely a creation of the press, who Bruni calls “willfully selective.” Although the press pointed out that Bush had mediocre grades at Yale, they never mentioned that they were better than the ones McCain got at the U.S. Naval Academy, and better than the ones Gore got at Harvard for a long stretch of time. They also didn’t point out that Bush’s SAT scores were quite high (about 1,200; note that this is before inflation had set in) and his verbal portion was almost 100 points higher than Bill Bradley’s (the so called sophisticated intellectual darling of the press). I’m guessing that he may have made a good Ashbrook Scholar.
It turns out that President Bush’s turn of mind and heart are more interesting and deeper than we have been led to believe and, as Bruni says, we are witnessing the work of “one of the most interesting president in decades.” John Steinbeck once wrote that in America we think that the “president must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else.”
I am reminded of why Adlai Stevenson never became president. In the 1956 campaign when someone said to him that all thinking people supported him, he replied, “Yes, but I need to win a majority.” This is both amusing and revealing. The contempt for the common man, the citizen, was obvious. The Democrats haven’t gotten over this yet and, except for the Clinton anomaly, they don’t know how. But Bush is a Texan. He wears boots and clears brush and talks straight and misses his home and loves his wife and is a better conversationalist in private than in public. He is both one of us, and yet he may be great. Bruni leans toward that possibility. Good for him, great for us.