'I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve': candid Bush opens up to his biographer
If George Bush is angered about how he is portrayed in a book that covers his tumultuous presidency which comes out today, he will be hiding it from others in the White House.
The more he hates it, in fact, the more likely he is to be skipping and whistling. If he is really, really cross, however, he may seek a few moments of solace with Barney, his dog.
"I can't let my own worries – I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve," he told Robert Draper, whose book Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush has had excerpts published in The New York Times. Instead, he tries to keep things "light-hearted". "Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency. This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity."
Draper, who has family connections to the Bush clan and who wrote a defining portrait of George in Texas Monthly in 1998 when his original quest for the presidency was in its infancy, spent months lobbying the White House for access. He was eventually granted six hour-long interviews with the President that started last December.
As the interviews progressed, Mr Bush began to open up more, perhaps betraying a greater interest in what kind of legacy he will leave behind when he steps down at the end of next year. Draper recalls how occasionally, when most adamant about a point, the President would exclaim, "I want you to get this," or "I want this damn book to be right".
Draper describes the poignant counterpoint between the sense of isolation that almost any president feels, particularly in a time of war, and Mr Bush's willingness to take responsibility for what goes wrong. "Back to the self-pity point," he tells the author, while talking of the First Lady, Laura. "She reminds me I decided to do this."
You would expect that, as Commander-in-Chief, Mr Bush would have a firm handle on everything that has happened on America's watch in Iraq. But in one exchange he almost blithely admits to Draper: "The policy was to keep the [Iraqi] army intact; didn't happen." How was it then, Draper asks, that his then administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was allowed, in May 2003, to disband the Iraqi army without pay?
Mr Bush is stumped, suggesting that maybe the answer lies somewhere in the notes of the National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley. "Yeah, I can't remember; I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'" Mr Bush said, adding: "Again, Hadley's got notes on all this stuff."
It is a revelation that has already got some of Mr Bush's critics almost gasping with indignation. "There are so many things to scream about" in reports of the Draper book, James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly wrote in his blog yesterday, but none more that the exchange about the fate of the Iraqi army.
"Think about this. The dissolution of the Iraq military is one of the six most-criticised and most-often-discussed aspects of the Administration's entire approach to Iraq ... and the President who has staked the fortunes of his Administration, his party, his place in history, and (come to think of it ) his nation on the success of his Iraq policy cannot remember and even now cannot be bothered to find out how the decision was made."
Then there is the discussion about what he plans to do after he has stepped down. He expects to settle in Dallas and make it home-base for a "fantastic Freedom Institute" to spread democracy around the world. Yet it is hardly inspiring when he talks mostly about his desire to earn money on the speaking circuit and the likelihood of his getting bored. "I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers." Mr Bush tells Draper. "I don't know what my dad gets – it's more than 50-75" thousand dollars a speech, and "Clinton's making a lot of money." "We'll have a nice place in Dallas," he went on, but then added, "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch."
Meanwhile Mr Bush must continue to contend with the loneliness and the sadness of serving, all the while not showing the strain. But surely he has a "shoulder to cry on," Draper asks? "Of course I do," the President replies. "I've got God's shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot."
Later, pointing at Barney through a window of the Oval Office, Mr Bush tells Draper, "That guy who said if you want a friend in Washington get a dog, knew what he was talking about."