In upcoming book, President Bush peeks ahead to his legacy
By JIM RUTENBERG The New York Times | September 02,2007
WASHINGTON When President Bush is asked what he plans to do when he leaves office, he often replies curtly: "I don't have that much time to think beyond my presidency" or "I'm going to sprint to the finish."
But in an interview with a book author in the Oval Office one day last December, he daydreamed about the next phase of his life, when his time will be his own.
First, Bush said, "I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers." With joint assets that have been estimated at as high as nearly $21 million, Bush added, "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."
Then he said, "We'll have a nice place in Dallas," where he will be running what he called "a fantastic Freedom Institute" promoting democracy around the world. But he added, "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch."
For now, though, Bush told the author, Robert Draper, in a later session, "I'm playing for October-November." That is when he hopes the Iraq troop increase will finally show enough results to help him achieve the central goal of his remaining time in office: "To get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence," and, he said later, "stay longer."
But fully aware of his standing in opinion polls, Bush said his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would perhaps do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could.
In his nearly seven years as president, Bush has rarely let his guard down with journalists to reveal much of his personal side. But over the course of six roughly hourlong interviews with Draper, Bush shared his inner life at the White House. He at times mused philosophically and introspectively, and at others spoke forcefully about his confidence in his own decisions.
Draper agreed to share portions of his transcripts from those interviews, and the book itself, with The New York Times under the agreement that they would not be published until shortly before the book, "Dead Certain," is officially released Tuesday.
The transcripts and the book show Bush as being keenly interested in what history will say about his term despite his frequent comments to the contrary; as being in a reflective mode as his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. dwindles; and, ultimately, as being at once sorrowful and optimistic but virtually alone as commander in chief, and aware of it.
Aides said Bush agreed to speak so freely with Draper only after years of lobbying, in which Draper said he finally convinced Bush and his aides that he was writing about him as "a consequential president" for history, not for the latest news cycle. And aides said they saw the book as the first attempt to write about Bush in the context of nearly his entire presidency.
The lobbying culminated at a meeting at the White House last August in which Bush grilled Draper on why he should cooperate with him of all the authors likely to come knocking. Draper replied that his book could provide "the raw material" for others after him, a point Bush apparently came to embrace.
Draper, a Texan like Bush and a former writer for Texas Monthly, spent hours interviewing Bush and his close circle of aides in 1998, when he wrote an early, defining article on Bush's budding presidential candidacy for GQ magazine.
Draper's family also has a history with Bush's. Bush's father in 1982 was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of Draper's grandfather, Leon Jaworski, a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.
As Draper described it, Bush began the interview process over lunch last Dec. 12, in a week when he suddenly had free time because his highly anticipated announcement of a new Iraq strategy had been postponed.
Sitting in an anteroom of the Oval Office, he eschewed the more formal White House menu for comfort food a low-fat hotdog and ice cream and bitingly told an aide who peeked in on the session that his time with Draper was "worthless anyway."
But as Draper described it, and as the transcripts show, Bush warmed up considerably over the intervening interviews, chewing on an unlit cigar, jubilantly swatting at flies between making solemn points, propping his feet up on a table or stopping him at points to say emphatically, "I want you to get this" or "I want this damn book to be right."
Bush went on to share private thoughts that appeared to reflect a level of sorrow and presidential isolation that he strongly implied he took pains to hide, a state of being that he seemed to view as coming with the presidency and with which he professed to be at peace.
Telling Draper he likes to keep things "relatively light-hearted" around the White House, he added in May, "I can't let my own worries I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve; I don't want to burden them with that."
"Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency," Bush told Draper. "This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity."
In the same interview, Bush seemed to indicate that he has his down moments at home, saying of his wife, Laura, "Back to the self-pity point she reminds me that I decided to do this."
And in apparent reference to the invasion of Iraq, he continued, "This group-think of 'we all sat around and decided' there's only one person that can decide, and that's the president."
Draper said Bush took issue with him for unearthing details of a meeting in April 2006 at which he took a show-of-hands vote on the future of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was among his closest advisers. Bush told Draper he had no recollection of it, but he said he disagreed with the implication that he regularly governed by staff vote. (According to Draper's book, the vote was 7-4 for Rumsfeld's ouster, with Bush being one of the no votes. Rumsfeld stayed on months longer.)
In response to Draper's observance that Bush had nobody's "shoulder to cry on," the president said: "Of course I do, I've got God's shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job." In what Draper interpreted as a reference to war casualties, Bush added, "I'll bet I've shed more tears than you can count as president."
Yet Bush said his certainty that Iraq would turn around for the better was not for show. "You can't fake it," he told Draper in December.
Bush conveyed a level of sanguinity with his unpopularity. Draper recalled that in their last meeting, in May, Bush pointed outside to his dog, Barney, and said, "That guy who said if you want a friend in Washington get a dog, knew what he was talking about."
He otherwise addressed his unpopularity as a tactical issue. For instance, in May he said that this fall it would be up to Petraeus to convince the public that the Iraq strategy is working.
"I've been here too long," Bush said, according to Draper. "Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn't make it on the news."
But he said he saw his unpopularity as a natural result of his decision to pursue a strategy in which he believed. "I made a decision to lead," he said, "One, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance, and that may be true. But the fundamental question is, is the world better off as a result of your leadership?"
Bush has often said that will be for historians decide, but he said during his sessions with Draper that they would have to consult administration documents to get to the bottom of some important questions.
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Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, "The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen."
But when Draper pointed out that Bush's former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army's dissolution and then asked Bush how he reacted to that, Bush said, "Yeah, I can't remember, I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?"' But, he added, "Again, Hadley's got notes on all of this stuff," referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.
Bush said he believed that Saddam did not take his threats of war seriously, suggesting that the United Nations emboldened him by failing to follow up on an initial resolution demanding that Iraq disarm. He had sought a second measure containing an ultimatum that failure to comply would result in war.
"One interesting question historians are going to have to answer is: Would Saddam have behaved differently if he hadn't gotten mixed signals between the first resolution and the failure of the second resolution?" Bush said. "I can't answer that question. I was hopeful that diplomacy would work."
It did not, but soon enough, somebody else will make the decisions on Iraq. And then, Bush said, he would still be pursuing his "freedom agenda" at his institute, modeled on Stanford's Hoover Institution, where young democratic leaders from around the world would study.
"Sixty-two is really young," Bush said, "and yet I'll be through with my presidency."