US President Bush laughs during White House Economic Conference in Washington
Larry Downing  /  Reuters file
Bush shares a chuckle with someone at the Dec. 16 White House Conference on the Economy in Washington.
updated 1/18/2005 5:53:36 PM ET 2005-01-18T22:53:36

He cried when he resigned as Texas governor. He fidgets in church. He’s quick to throw an aide a good-natured insult, or flash a cold stare when challenged. He spits while he’s working out.

When the spotlight dims and George W. Bush steps away from the lectern, he drops his guard a bit and allows rare glimpses into the man. Just offstage, the carefully disciplined public figure with the blue-blood pedigree sometimes yields to an everyman character.

Relaxing under an oak tree at his Crawford, Texas, ranch with aides one August day in 2002, the talk turned to castrating bulls, dove hunting and which young man had the most robust love life. A few months later, the president was unnerved by an incident that would have given the Secret Service fits: After a mountain bike ride around the ranch, he had unknowingly gone swimming in a river teeming with poisonous snakes.

Certain images linger.

The month after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as he prepared to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium during the World Series, Bush tossed mock warmup pitches to members of his entourage under the wing of Air Force One, leaning over playfully as if studying a catcher’s signals.

Every so often, one of Bush’s jokes falls flat. Rare is the occasion when an aide steps up to tell him.

It happened on the golf course in August 2001, as Bush prepared to tee off. He told a goofy joke that went over like a lead balloon. Long silence from the entourage of aides and agents.

A wisecracking presidential assistant let him twist in the wind for a few seconds, then piped up sarcastically: “Funny one, sir!” Bush teed off without further comment.

In public settings, Bush is more cautious.

Kevin Lamarque  /  REUTERS file
Bush found a moment of levity in his pardoning of the presidential Thanksgiving turkey in 2001.
Suppressing his smile at an “Ask President Bush” town hall appearance during the campaign, you could practically hear him running internal analysis on a joke before the words came spilling out of his mouth. When the material is particularly dry or wicked, his shoulders bounce up and down and he emits shallow little cackles, cues to audiences that they should laugh, too.

Bush’s fast, hard-edged humor is more visible when he doesn’t feel like he has to watch his back for fear of saying something unpresidential.

Earlier this month, with a leaked memo on Social Security cuts floating around town, Bush wasn’t in the mood to answer questions. He gave a half-minute statement on the evils of class-action lawsuits, and aides promptly cried “Lights!” — their way of giving journalists the hook.

One TV reporter ignored the signal. In the dimly lit Cabinet Room, he pressed: Did the president believe future Social Security benefits would have to be trimmed?

Bush clenched his jaw and stared wordlessly across the glossy conference table. The clamor of aides trying to hustle out Bush’s inquisitors gave way to silence. Advisers squirmed in their seats.

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Finally, Bush spoke up, breaking the uncomfortable pause.

“Nice try,” he told the reporter out of the corner of his mouth.

“Are the cameras off?” Then Bush jerked his thumb at the journalist. “GET OUTTA HERE!”

No, no, he immediately added with a chuckle, he was just kidding.

While he is adept at filtering his remarks, Bush often wears his emotions on his sleeve. Irritation, sorrow, discomfort — he’s terrible at masking them.

He cried in December 2000 when he resigned as Texas governor. “I’ve cleaned out my office. It’s ready for occupancy,” Bush said, choking up as he waved farewell to hundreds of lawmakers and supporters in the state Senate chambers.

He grew red around the eyes at a March 2002 news conference when describing his gravest moments as commander in chief.

“It breaks my heart when I see a mom sitting in the front row of a speech and she’s weeping, openly weeping, for the loss of her son,” Bush said. “I’m not very good about concealing my emotions.”

At St. John’s Episcopal Church, near the White House, Bush’s physical restlessness is readily apparent: His head swivels constantly, a contrast to the stillness of other parishioners.

Bush did sit ramrod-straight last year when he met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The pope read a long statement about war and peace, his English rendered completely unintelligible by his Parkinson’s disease. Bush sat through it stoically.

Bush makes no secret of his sense of entrapment at the White House, flying off to Camp David practically every weekend for four years. He has spent months, cumulatively, at his Texas ranch — 45 trips since taking office. He broke all records for fund raising and travel aboard Air Force One last election year, reflecting both his taste for the road and his hardball approach to politics.

Yet even out on the hustings, Bush is transparently restless.

Barnstorming the country by bus last year, he could be seen pacing inside his bulletproof coach like a caged animal. Rolling down back roads, he strode up and down the aisle, leaned toward the tinted side windows to wave at well-wishers, staring through the windshield at the world outside the presidential bubble.

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