Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP file
Bush has become "grayer for sure," says his wife.
updated 8/28/2004 5:35:00 PM ET 2004-08-28T21:35:00

George W. Bush loves to tell people about the time Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compared him to Gary Cooper, hero of the Western movie “High Noon.”

America’s 43rd president cultivates the tough-guy image, offering himself as a blunt-spoken man of action. “I’m a gut player,” he says.

Americans do want their presidents to be strong and decisive. But with President Bush, the qualities his supporters find appealing can also be kindling for the bonfires of his critics.

Steadfast becomes stubborn. Confident becomes cocky.

Bush is the resolute president who gripped a bullhorn at Ground Zero and called out to rescue workers straining to hear him: “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!”

Less attractive to some is the swaggering commander in chief who dared militants attacking U.S. forces in Iraq by taunting, “Bring ’em on.”

“Those who love him say ‘leader, decisive, passionate.’ His detractors say ‘angry, petulant,”’ says Doug Wead, a family friend who worked with Bush on his father’s 1988 presidential campaign. “But everybody agrees that there’s something in his gut, something that’s really driving him.”

Whatever the motivation, that drive is now propelling Bush through what his wife sentimentally calls their last campaign. Bush himself, never one for reflection, shows no sense of nostalgia — rather a gritty determination to, as he puts it, bring everything to the field, leaving nothing in the locker room.

'I'm going to win'
In public, Bush brooks no doubt, saying simply: “I’m going to win.”

But after the extraordinarily tight 2000 election, and with polls suggesting another close race, Bush knows he can’t coast to victory.

“You got to know I want to win,” he told religion editors and writers he met with privately this spring. “It’s not a given.”

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Four years after the Supreme Court sealed Bush’s victory by delivering him Florida’s electoral votes, friends and critics alike say he has been remarkably unchanged by his first term in office.

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t change,” he says flatly.

But Laura Bush says in an interview that the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation’s response to them have “added a solemnness and a seriousness” to her husband’s personality. She hastens to add, though, that he still likes to laugh.

One lesson Bush has learned is that his hope to replicate the chummy bipartisanship he had with Texas Democrats when he was governor was but a dream.

“We were used to getting stuff done,” laments Joe Allbaugh, a lobbyist who worked as Bush’s chief of staff in Texas and headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency after following Bush to Washington.

D.C.'s partisan tone
The partisan tone of Washington, where comity in private can quickly sour in public, is one of Bush’s biggest disappointments, although Democrats point the finger of blame back at what they see as the president’s uncompromising ways.

“To say one thing in the Oval Office and then go out in front of the microphones and say another astonishes him,” says Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove.

In Texas, says longtime friend and former aide Clay Johnson, Bush could tell Democratic lawmakers, “I betcha if you were governor you’d be inclined to feel like I do, and if I were a state representative I’d be inclined to think like you do.”

That line just doesn’t play in Washington.

Physical changes in Bush over the past four years are easier to pinpoint.

“He’s grayer for sure,” says wife Laura.

“The man has a whole lot more wrinkles,” says Johnson, now deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Adviser Karen Hughes says that in the lines on Bush’s face are etched “some of the weight of the world.”

Bush himself joked before throwing out the opening pitch at a baseball game this spring that “my wing isn’t what it used to be.”

But at age 58, he is in superb physical condition. When his knees gave out this winter after years of running, Bush switched to riding a mountain bike.

“He attacks that thing,” says Charlie Younger, a longtime friend from Texas. “His pop-off valve is exercise. He’s serious about it.”

The statistics from his latest physical: 6 feet tall, 194 pounds. Resting blood pressure: 110/62 (below 120/80 is healthy). Resting pulse: 45 beats per minute (60-100 is normal for adults, 40-60 for a well-trained athlete).

Ask the first lady for three words to describe her husband and “disciplined” is the first one out of her mouth. (“Funny” and “compassionate” come next.)

A regimented lifestyle
So regimented is Bush’s lifestyle that one can almost predict his conduct months in advance.

If you want to know what the president will do on Election Day, odds are that he’ll get up about 5:30 a.m., push the button on the coffee maker, scan the day’s headlines (perhaps more carefully than usual), then study the daily devotional for Nov. 2 laid out in Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for his Highest.” The topic will be authority and independence; the scripture will be John 14:15: “If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments.” (Next year, he will switch back to reading the One Year Bible; he reads it every other year.)

On a typical day, Bush heads to the Oval Office by about 7 a.m., toting the 50- to 70-page briefing book on the day’s events that was his bedtime reading the night before. He will start his meetings by 8, and carve out time during the day to exercise — on the elliptical trainer, perhaps, if biking is not an option.

Meetings are short and to the point. They start on time — early if most of the players are there. Cabinet meetings begin with a prayer offered by one of the department heads. Suits and ties are required in the Oval Office.

Johnson, who served as Bush’s first personnel director in Washington and handled appointments for him in Austin, says personnel meetings in the two settings were “freakishly the same — whether it was the Fire Ant Advisory Board in Texas or the undersecretary of state for something gargantuan.”

Says longtime friend Nancy Weiss, who, with her husband, spent part of the Democratic convention with the Bushes at their Texas ranch: “They go to bed at the same time. They get up at the same time. He goes over to the office at the same time. That happens even at the ranch. ... I think that keeps him really centered.”

Psychologist and political scientist Stanley Renshon writes in an upcoming book, “In His Father’s Shadow,” that it’s as if Bush went through a “midlife crisis in reverse.” Rather than rejecting responsibility in middle age and buying the prototypical sports car, Bush gave up drinking at 40 and found religion and discipline.

Nothing has helped feed the caricature of Bush as dimwitted more than his own verbal stumbles — so plentiful that Bush himself joked to Hughes that “maybe that woman was right,” referring to author Gail Sheehy’s theory that he might be dyslexic.

Defiantly inarticulate
Bush can be almost defiantly inarticulate. Nuclear ever will be nuk-u-lar to him.

At a Celebration of Reading ceremony in 2001, the president rattled off a dozen of his own lulus to a delighted audience.

“The way I see it,” Bush joked, “I am a boon to the English language. I’ve coined new words like ‘misunderestimate’ and ‘Hispanically.’ I’ve expanded the definition of words themselves, using 'vulcanize’ when I meant 'polarize,’ 'Grecians’ when I meant ’Greeks,’ 'inebriating’ when I meant 'exhilarating.’ And instead of 'barriers and tariffs,’ I said 'terriers and barrifs.”’

Cousin John Ellis calls the malapropisms “a non-issue. He’s very sharp and very shrewd.”

But even some of Bush’s defenders speak of a lack of intellectual heft.

Former speechwriter David Frum says in his book that while the president’s virtues outweigh his faults, Bush is “often uncurious and as a result ill informed, more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be.”

More biting criticism has come from another former insider. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who was fired by Bush, described the president as like a “blind man in a roomful of deaf people.”

Yet everyone credits Bush with street smarts and an uncanny ability to read people.

“He’s got this little shtick, you know,” former President Clinton says. “Because he’s not a conventional political intellectual, he set it up so he gets consistently underestimated.”

The religious subtext
Bush is one of the nation’s most outwardly religious presidents of modern times — a subtext of his presidency that became more pronounced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, as he framed the fight against terror as a battle of good vs. evil.

“It would be very difficult to be the president without believing,” he says.

Nine days after the attacks, Bush met privately with religious leaders at the White House and drew a parallel between the turnaround in his own life and the country’s sudden search for spirituality.

“I was a sinner in need of redemption and I found it,” he told the group.

Bush said earlier this year he wants to let God’s light shine through him — but as a “secular politician.” He says he draws strength from the Americans who are praying for him.

“When I’m working the rope line, people say things different than they did four years ago,” he said. “Every other person, or maybe every third person says, ’Mr. President, my family prays for you.”’

Steven Waldman, editor in chief of Beliefnet, a multifaith religious Web site, said Bush’s religious convictions feed into his image as a steadfast president in a time of war. But, Waldman says, “clearly some people feel that we’re seeing the negative underbelly of that trait, that his steadfastness has turned into stubbornness and unwillingness to face disappointing facts.”

Wead, who worked with Bush to court evangelicals during the 1988 campaign, says the president’s expressions of faith are both sincere and calculated: “I don’t think George Bush knows which sometimes.”

The 'Alpha male'
Laura Bush jokes that her husband has such a strong “Alpha male” personality that even her dog, Barney, pays more attention to him than to her.

But she also says he “has a heart of gold, which doesn’t always come across.” Aides mention private meetings that don’t appear on the president’s schedule in which he comforts the families of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan or who have lost loved ones.

The president loves to keep tabs on what the rest of the Bush family is up to, although he is quick to dismiss the notion that he seeks much advice from his father, the ex-president.

Still, there are plenty of echoes of the first President Bush.

When the son prepared for war after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he declared: “This act will not stand.” The same words his father had used in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Bush’s sister, Doro Bush Koch, says that when family members gather at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, they sometimes congregate around the speakerphone in her parents’ bedroom at 6 a.m. to call George W. at the White House.

“It’s 99.9 percent family stuff,” says Koch. “He likes to know what’s going on in Maine, and who are the cousins who are there.”

Chainsaws and jigsaw puzzles
The president’s idea of gardening might involve a chainsaw. But he also loves to work jigsaw puzzles, go for long walks and birdwatch — not exactly typical Alpha male activities.

“He’s the one, when we were at camp, who spotted the scarlet tanager,” says the first lady. “He has great 20-20 eyesight.”

Koch says there’s usually a jigsaw puzzle in the works at the White House, Camp David or the president’s Texas ranch.

At the White House, says Laura Bush, “we’ll turn on the Texas Rangers baseball game at night and sit in front of it and work the puzzle for a little bit.”

A puzzle is a good way to get their twin daughters talking, the first lady says, a tactic she learned from her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, who used it with her own children.

“You learn what’s going on,” Laura Bush said.

That’s all very well, in the president’s book, but it’s mountain biking that clearly is his newest passion.

Dusting himself off after sailing over his handlebars and landing on his back during a recent biking outing on his Texas ranch, Bush declares, “We’ve got thrills, spills — you name it,” and quickly gets back in motion.

Much as with his presidency and his politics.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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