An Oval Office Conversation

This week, Slate is publishing three exclusive excerpts from Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Draper. In preparing this chronological narrative of the Bush presidency, Draper has had unprecedented journalistic access to the Bush White House, including six interviews with the president in late 2006 and 2007. Today’s selection is drawn from the first of those interviews.

“You can’t possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency—until I’m dead.”

George W. Bush slipped a piece of cheese into his mouth. “Let’s order first.” He took a quick glance at the day’s menu prepared for him and his guest, saw nothing on it he cared for, and announced to the steward, “I’ll have a hot dog. Low fat hot dog.”

Then he slapped down the menu and asked, “What is the purpose of this book?”

He was edgy that day. Earlier that morning, Bush had decided that a major address slotted for next week was going to have to wait another month. The subject was Iraq, and he was, frankly, unsure of what to say on the subject. A bipartisan commission called the Iraq Study Group—cochaired by longtime Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III—had recently returned its report, which had labeled that country’s condition “grave and deteriorating.” Progress in that ongoing conflict had been inchwise even before sectarian violence began to develop its awful momentum in the spring of 2006 and threaten to tear the country apart. Bush had repeatedly said that the war was winnable. He had said that the American-led Coalition was, in fact, winning. No one, including Bush, was claiming imminent victory anymore.

So, what to say? Bush was a quarterback now playing defense. Five weeks before, the Democrats had seized back the House and the Senate in an election that even Bush had to concede was to some degree a referendum on the tragic misadventures in Iraq. The Democrats, with public backing, were clamoring for a change in course. So was the Iraq Study Group. And so—with their tongues freshly loosened by the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—were the generals in whose trust Bush had placed the mission. Stung by this reality, Bush nonetheless was digging in his heels. The day after the midterms, he had announced his intention to replace Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. Beyond that, Bush would not veer in haste. He would take the holidays to think about it.

“If you’re weak internally? This job will run you all over town,” the president observed. He was sitting in the small conference room beside the Oval Office where his predecessor, Bill Clinton, infamously found leisure time with Monica Lewinsky. His back was to the White House lawn. He had flung himself into his chair like a dirty sweatshirt and continued to pop pieces of cheese into his mouth. Stress was hammered into his face. The subject was himself—how his leadership skills had evolved over time, and how he had dealt with disappointment and defeat, going back to his loss to Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary of 2000 and now, once again, in 2006.

Bush, as always, bridled at the request to navel-gaze. “You’re the observer,” he said as he worked the cheese in his mouth. “I’m not. I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself. I’ll try. But I don’t spend a lot of time. I will tell you, the primaries strip you down to your bare essence, and you get to determine whether or not you’re willing to fight through—to prevail. It’s a real test of will, I agree to that. I think the whole process was responsible for testing my will. No question getting defeated was a powerful moment.”

He added, “I’ve never run a race where I thought I wouldn’t win. I thought we were gonna hold the House and the Senate in ‘06. I thought we’d lose nine or ten seats, and I thought we’d be one or two up in the Senate.”

Bush had held that view, almost manic in its optimism, all the way up to election day, in defiance of all available polling data. At the very mention of such data, his face began to curdle. “I understand you can’t let polls tell you what to think,” he declared—one of his most frequently expressed sentiments, but now he went further: “And part of being a leader is: people watch you. I walk in that hall, I say to those commanders—well, guess what would happen if I walk in and say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not worth it.’ When I’m out in the public”—and now he was fully animated, yanked out of his slouch and his eyes clenched like little blue fists—”I fully understand that the enemy watches me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people watch me.

“The other thing is that you can’t fake it. You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we’ll succeed.”

His hot dog arrived. Bush ate rapidly, with a sort of voracious disinterest. He was a man who required comfort and routine. Food, for him, was fuel and familiarity. It was not a thing to reflect on.

“The job of the president,” he continued, through an ample wad of bread and sausage, “is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives. As opposed to playing mini-ball. You can’t play mini-ball with the influence we have and expect there to be peace. You’ve gotta think, think BIG. The Iranian issue,” he said as bread crumbs tumbled out of his mouth and onto his chin, “is the strategic threat right now facing a generation of Americans, because Iran is promoting an extreme form of religion that is competing with another extreme form of religion. Iran’s a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West. And to couple all of that with a nuclear weapon, then you’ve got a dangerous situation. … That’s what I mean by strategic thought. I don’t know how you learn that. I don’t think there’s a moment where that happened to me. I really don’t. I know you’re searching for it. I know it’s difficult. I do know—y’know, how do you decide, how do you learn to decide things? When you make up your mind, and you stick by it—I don’t know that there’s a moment, Robert. I really—You either know how to do it or you don’t. I think part of this is it: I ran for reasons. Principled reasons. There were principles by which I will stand on. And when I leave this office I’ll stand on them. And therefore you can’t get driven by polls. Polls aren’t driven by principles. They’re driven by the moment. By the nanosecond.”

A moment later, press secretary Tony Snow stepped into the doorway to ask about the daily press briefing he was about to conduct. Bush offered some suggestions for how to defer questions about his Iraq strategy.

“Good. Perfect. Sorry to interrupt,” Snow said as he vacated the room.

“It’s okay,” remarked Bush. “This is worthless, anyway.” Then, in a sudden bellow: “I’d like an ice cream! Please! You want some ice cream, Robert?”

Bush dived into his vanilla ice cream. “The presidency is—you get tired,” he confessed. Then, leaning back from the bowl: “This is a tiring period we’re in now. I’ve got Iraq on my mind. A lot. You know, every day I see the casualties, I get the reports—I am immersed in this war.”

He was taking pains to sound factual instead of anything that could be construed as overwrought. “Look—it’s war,” he went on. “Listening to a lot of people right now. Plus the trips I’ve been on,” referring to the late-November meetings in Eastern Europe and then Asia. “Plus the sixteen holiday events we’re doing. Eight thousand, nine thousand hands I’ll be shaking … I’m actually feeling pretty good,” he insisted. “Exercise helps. And I think prayer helps. I really do.”

Bush added, “I’m also sustained by the discipline of the faithful experience. I don’t think I’d be sitting here if not for the discipline. I was undisciplined at times. Never over the edge, but undisciplined. I wouldn’t be president if I kept drinking. You get sloppy, can’t make decisions, it clouds your reason, absolutely.”

Laughing, he said, “I remember eating chocolate in the evenings after I quit drinking, because my body was saying, ‘Where’s that sugar, man?’ And so—I can still, interestingly enough, I still remember the feeling of a hangover, even though I haven’t had a drink in twenty years.”

Now that the speech had been postponed, the next days would be light for Bush before he spent Christmas at Camp David. One of the few events on his schedule was a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center to visit soldiers wounded in Iraq. Bush had met with more than a thousand such soldiers and grieving family members over the course of his presidency. It was one of those duties that the former Texas governor had not foreseen when he decided to run for office in 1999. The world was relatively peaceful back then. These days, Bush began each morning with a Presidential Daily Briefing. The first item was always Iraq, and the report listed the day’s damage: this many killed and wounded, that many targets bombed. It had become Bush’s habit to take out his pen and circle the number of casualties. Then to close his eyes for a moment. And then to turn the page.

He viewed it as the commander in chief’s obligation to visit with those who had suffered loss as a result of his decisions. “Sometimes it’s not pleasant, and I understand that,” Bush said as he leaned back from his vanquished bowl of ice cream. “And they have every right to be unpleasant. Sometimes there are disagreements. … Yeah, it’s hard. And to see the wounded, the head injuries. But that’s part of the presidency, to immerse yourself in their emotions. Because they look at the president and they—most of them—say, ‘My son or daughter did what they wanted to do.’ The interesting thing is, the healer gets healed. I appreciate it.”

The healer gets healed. Bush seldom if ever implied that he carried the burden of regret or self-doubt—that he required healing of any sort. Did the grieving sense that need in him? For, as he acknowledged, “I’m told by some politicians here that the people they meet with say, ‘Get out now.’ That just doesn’t happen with me. A couple of wives I think in Fort Hood might’ve said, ‘It’s not worth it. Bring ‘em home now.’ Some say, ‘Get ‘em home as soon as you can—but my child volunteered, they’re proud of what they’re doing.’ The interesting thing about this war is that our military understands better than most what’s happening—and that we are making some progress there. No question, it’s tough. But what they see is a different picture from what America sees. And they are in the mission!

“I tell people—I read an interesting book by [Richard] Carwardine—I’m on my eighty-seventh book this year.” With rueful admiration, he added, “Rove’s on, like, a hundred two. Anyway, this book [Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power] talks about the constituency that Lincoln had. And one was religious people who were going through this Second Awakening, that loved Lincoln’s position that all men are created equal: there is a God, and all men are created equal by that God, and so it’s a moral position. And the military loved Lincoln to the point where,” and Bush offered up a sly politician’s grin, “Lincoln made sure that they were able to get to the polls in 1864.

“There’s a parallel here. And that’s that our military understands this. And a key constituency in the global war is for our military to be appreciated and respected, starting with the commander in chief. And they look at me—they want to know whether I’ve got the resolution necessary to see this through. And I do. I believe—I know we’ll succeed. And I know it’s necessary to succeed. And anyway. There wasn’t a moment when I knew you were supposed to do that,” he said, returning of his own volition to that irritating first question about the evolution of his leadership abilities. “I can’t tell you the moment. I can tell you—that, uh … that, uh …”

For the first and only time in that seventy-minute monologue-dominated conversation, Bush fell silent for several seconds. “Yeah, well,” he finally said. “When you’re responsible for putting a kid in harm’s way, you better understand that if that kid thinks you’re making a decision based on polls—or something other than what you think is right, or wrong, based upon principles—then you’re letting that kid down. And you’re creating conditions for doubt. And you can’t give a kid a gun and have him doubt whether or not the president thinks it’s right, and have him doubt whether or not he’s gonna be suppportive in all ways. And you can’t learn that until you’re the guy sitting behind the desk.”

“There’s no preparation for that,” ventured the guest.

“There’s none,” said Bush.

He then pushed away from the table and abruptly strode back to the aforementioned desk in the Oval Office. His next visitor, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, would not be terribly receptive to talk of “some progress” in that country. Hashemi’s brother and sister had been assassinated in Baghdad earlier in 2006. A few weeks ago, another one of his brothers had been gunned down as well.

And Bush could not show doubt to this man, either. I know we’ll succeed—he had to show that confidence, which would not be difficult, because he did know: America would succeed in Iraq because it had to succeed.