Answer by Peter Marquez, Former White House Director for Space Policy.
- I don’t want to give details of conversations—it’s not appropriate to do so (there is one exception below—but you’ll understand why).
- My sample size of conversations with President Bush is small so don’t take my comments as all encompassing. But all my former colleagues shared the same views and interactions.
First, he is extraordinarily intelligent. Forget what you’ve read in the press. The man is smart and has an incredible memory. He’ll remember things that you said months ago or he’d remember some minute detail of some obscure policy issue. He studied the issues and took it as a challenge to know as much about a topic as his experts knew.
For example, President Bush asked all of the directors in the NSC to put together a transition book for the incoming Obama team. Each director was responsible for creating a book that covered all the details of their specific responsibility. I was responsible for space. I put together a 3-inch binder of all the things that we had done and encountered during President Bush’s administration. I gave the book to the president and two days later the book shows back up on my desk. In the margins the president had hand-written comments and questions and even remembered a few details on things that I, the “expert”, had failed to include. Anybody who says the man is dumb has never met him.
Second, he’s extremely personable—not in a fake D.C. kind of folksy way—he comes across as actually caring. He asks about your family, ask how you’re doing and he remembers details about all that and later asks you how certain members of your family are doing.
Another example, I was at the White House Christmas Party with my wife. (My wife is a hard-core liberal Democrat—we’re considered a mixed marriage in DC.) We go over to the president and the first lady, and the president gives my wife a big hug, looks her straight in the eye and says, “Melissa, I’m so glad you’re here. It’s great to meet you …” and then he mentioned how he appreciated my work there, etc. But my wife, who was told by her friends to hate George Bush, was floored by how warm and kind he was. After that encounter she had to tell her liberal friends that the guy actually wasn’t the devil—the president actually gave her a hug.
Third, he has an incredible sense of humor and great comedic timing. Seriously. You don’t get this from his televised speeches, but behind closed doors the man was seriously funny and had really quick wit. I wish I could reveal some specifics here but just trust me—the guy is really funny. His responses were sharp and quick—it was something the writers of the West Wing would have appreciated.
Finally, the man is serious. I know I just got done commenting on his warmth and humor, but make no mistake the man took the job seriously and knew exactly how to find the key issues in any discussion. On matters of policy the president could quickly home in on the critical points and he would politely hammer away at the issues until he felt he had the right answers or that he knew what the right questions were that needed to be answered. You always made sure you brought your “A” game when talking to the president because he would ask questions about your research or recommendations and you’d better have the answers (or know how to get the answers).
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