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A president besieged and isolated, yet at ease

At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.
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At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing? How will history judge what we've done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.

Seems alone, isolated
These sessions, usually held in the Oval Office or the elegant living areas of the executive mansion, are never listed on the president's public schedule and remain largely unknown even to many on his staff. To some of those invited to talk, Bush seems alone, isolated by events beyond his control, with trusted advisers taking their leave and erstwhile friends turning on him.

"You think about prime ministers and presidents being surrounded by cabinet officials and aides and so forth," said Alistair Horne, a British historian who met with Bush recently. "But at the end of the day, they're alone. They're lonely. And that's what occurred to me as I was at the White House. It must be quite difficult for him to get out and about."

Friends worry about that as well. Burdened by an unrelenting war, challenged by an opposition Congress, defeated just last week on immigration, his last major domestic priority, Bush remains largely locked inside the fortress of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in the seventh year of a presidency turned sour. He still travels, making speeches to friendly audiences and attending summit meetings, such as this weekend's Kennebunkport talks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. But he rarely goes out to dinner, and he no longer plays golf, except occasionally chipping at Camp David, where, as at his Texas ranch, he can find refuge.

"I don't know how he copes with it," said Donald Burnham Ensenat, a friend for 43 years who just stepped down as State Department protocol officer. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), another longtime friend who once worked for Bush, said he looks worn down. "It's a marked difference in his physical appearance," Conaway said. "It's an incredibly heavy load. When you ask men and women to take risks, to send them into war knowing they might not come home, that's got to be an incredible burden to have on your shoulders."

Bush is fixated on Iraq, according to friends and advisers. One former aide went to see him recently to discuss various matters, only to find Bush turning the conversation back to Iraq again and again. He recognizes that his presidency hinges on whether Iraq can be turned around in 18 months. "Nothing matters except the war," said one person close to Bush. "That's all that matters. The whole thing rides on that."

And yet Bush does not come across like a man lamenting his plight. In public and in private, according to intimates, he exhibits an inexorable upbeat energy that defies the political storms. Even when he convenes philosophical discussions with scholars, he avoids second-guessing his actions. He still acts as if he were master of the universe, even if the rest of Washington no longer sees him that way.

"You don't get any feeling of somebody crouching down in the bunker," said Irwin M. Stelzer, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who was part of one group of scholars who met with Bush. "This is either extraordinary self-confidence or out of touch with reality. I can't tell you which."

A parade of setbacks
The reality has been daunting by any account. No modern president has experienced such a sustained rejection by the American public. Bush's approval rating slipped below 50 percent in Washington Post-ABC News polls in January 2005 and has not topped that level in the 30 months since. The last president mired under 50 percent so long was Harry S. Truman. Even Richard M. Nixon did not fall below 50 percent until April 1973, 16 months before he resigned.

The polls reflect the events of Bush's second term, an unyielding sequence of bad news. Social Security. Hurricane Katrina. Harriet E. Miers. Dubai Ports World. Vice President Cheney's hunting accident. Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Mark Foley. The midterm elections. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Alberto R. Gonzales and Paul D. Wolfowitz. Immigration. And overshadowing it all, the Iraq war, now longer than the U.S. fight in World War II.

Since winning reelection 2 1/2 years ago, Bush has had few days of good news, and what few he has had rarely lasted. Purple-fingered Iraqis went to the polls to establish a democracy but elected a dysfunctional government riven by sectarian strife. U.S. forces hunted down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, but the violence only worsened. Saddam Hussein was convicted, but his execution was marred by videotaped taunting. Perhaps the only unalloyed major second-term victory for Bush has been the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices who have begun to move the court to the right.

Other presidents have been crushed by the pressure. Lyndon B. Johnson was tormented by Vietnam War protesters outside his window shouting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Nixon swam in self-pity during Watergate, talking to paintings and once asking Henry Kissinger to pray with him. Bill Clinton fumed against enemies and nursed deep grievances during his impeachment battle.

But if Bush vents like that, no one is talking. Kissinger, who advises Bush, said the president has never asked him to kneel down with him in the Oval Office. "I find him serene," Kissinger said. "I know President Johnson was railing against his fate. That's not the case with Bush. He feels he's doing what he needs to do, and he seems to me at peace with himself."

'All he can do is do his best'
Bush has virtually given up on winning converts while in office and instead is counting on vindication after he is dead. "He almost has . . . a sense of fatalism," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who recently spent a day traveling with Bush. "All he can do is do his best, and 100 years from now people will decide if he was right or wrong. It doesn't seem to be a false, macho pride or living in your own world. I find him to be amazingly calm."

To an extent, Bush walls himself off from criticism. He does read newspapers, contrary to public impression, but watches little television news and does not linger in the media echo chamber. "He does a very good job of keeping out the extreme things in his life," Conaway, the congressman, said. "He doesn't watch Leno and Letterman. He doesn't spend a lot of time exposing himself to that sort of stuff. He has a terrific knack of not looking through the rearview mirror."

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who attended a legislative meeting with Bush last month, said his impervious nature works both ways. "The things that make him unpopular also help him deal with all the pressure," Kingston said. "He's stubborn. He's loyal to his philosophy."

Reproached by his own
The fabled loyalty of the Bush team, though, has frayed far more than might be apparent to him. The fight over whether Gonzales should remain attorney general has exposed a deep fault line. Bush remains convinced that his old friend did nothing wrong ethically in firing U.S. attorneys, and senior adviser Karl Rove angrily rejects what he sees as a Democratic witch hunt, according to White House officials. Yet beyond the inner circle, it is hard to find a current or former administration official who thinks Gonzales should stay.

"I don't understand for the life of me why Al Gonzales is still there," said one former top aide, who, like others, would speak only on the condition of anonymity. "It's not about him. It's about the office and who's able to lead the department." The ex-aide said that every time he runs into former Cabinet secretaries, "universally the first thing out of their mouths" is bafflement that Gonzales remains.

Some aides see it as Bush refusing to accept reality. "The president thinks cutting and running on his friends shows weakness," said an exasperated senior official. "Change shows weakness. Doing what everyone knows has to be done shows weakness." Another former aide said that no matter how many people Bush consults, he heeds only two or three.

Beyond Gonzales, the discontent with the Bush presidency is broader and deeper among Republican lawmakers, some of whom seethe with anger. "Our members just wish this thing would be over," said a senior House Republican who met with Bush recently. "People are tired of him." Bush's circle remains sealed tight, the lawmaker said. "There's nobody there who can stand up to him and tell him, 'Mr. President, you've got to do this. You're wrong on this.' There's no adult supervision. It's like he's oblivious. Maybe that's a defense mechanism."

Aides said they do challenge Bush. White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had what one colleague called "a lot of hard discussions" with the president after the November midterm elections to shock him into recognizing that his approach to Iraq had failed. Bolten set up meetings so Bush could hear from critics of his policy and sent him written material to emphasize the need for change, the colleague said. That led to the decision to send more troops.

Even if he tries to avoid the media surround sound, Bush cannot help running into criticism. A group of moderate House Republicans bluntly told him during a recent White House meeting that he had become a drag on the party. And when the president invited conservative radio host Laura Ingraham for a bike ride last month, she upbraided him for his position on immigration.

Bush's unpopularity appears to impose limits on where he goes. He turned down an invitation from the Washington Nationals to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day, pleading a busy schedule. The former baseball team owner instead hosted an invitation-only ceremony for a college football team in the East Room, where no one would boo. When commencement season rolled around, he stayed away from major universities, delivering addresses at a community college in Florida and a small religious school in Pennsylvania run by a former aide. And even then he was met by student and faculty protests.

Seeking history's lessons
Amid the tumult, the president has sought refuge in history. He read three books last year on George Washington, read about the Algerian war of independence and the exploitation of Congo, and lately has been digging into "Troublesome Young Men," Lynne Olson's account of Conservative backbenchers who thrust Winston Churchill to power. Bush idolizes Churchill and keeps a bust of him in the Oval Office.

After reading Andrew Roberts's "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900," Bush brought in the author and a dozen other scholars to talk about the lessons. "What can I learn from history?" Bush asked Roberts, according to Stelzer, the Hudson Institute scholar, who participated.

Stelzer said Bush seemed smarter than he expected. The conversation ranged from history to religion and touched on sensitive topics for a president wrestling with his legacy. "He asked me, 'Do you think our unpopularity abroad is a result of my personality?' And he laughed," Stelzer recalled. "I said, 'In part.' And he laughed again."

Much of the discussion focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord's work.

"His faith is very strong," said Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Faith is not enough by itself because there are a lot of people who have faith but weak hearts. But his faith is very strong. He seeks guidance, like every other president does, in prayer. And that means trying to be sure he's doing the right thing. And if you've got that set, all the criticism, it doesn't faze you very much. You're answering to God."

Horne, the British historian, found himself with Bush on another occasion after Kissinger gave the president "A Savage War of Peace," Horne's book on the French defeat in Algeria in the mid-20th century. Bush invited Horne to visit. They talked about the parallels and differences between Algeria and Iraq as Bush sought insight he could apply to his own situation.

Horne said he is not a Bush supporter but was nonetheless struck by the president's tranquility. "He was very friendly, very relaxed," Horne said. "My God, he looked well. He looked like he came off a cruise in the Caribbean. He looked like he hadn't a care in the world. It was amazing."

Loyalists lost
As Bush heads toward the twilight of his presidency, the White House feels increasingly empty. One after another, aides who have stuck with him are heading out the door. Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff for more than five years, stepped down last year. And now counselor Dan Bartlett, an aide for 14 years, is leaving.

Card and Bartlett were the aides who spent the most time at Bush's side. Bolten, Card's replacement, and Ed Gillespie, Bartlett's successor, each decided not to devote as much time to "body duty," leaving the president without their constant presence. Others who have left have publicly castigated the president. Bush was particularly hurt, friends said, when reelection strategist Matthew Dowd disavowed him.

Bush seeks solace in his oldest friends from Texas and Yale University, hosting an annual summer picnic and a Christmas party. He invites friends to the White House or the ranch in Crawford. But those experiences are strangely impersonal. "It can be kind of clinical," said a friend who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "You're in there and in that event it's all very controlled -- you come in for drinks at 7, you have dinner at 7:30 and by 9 you're back at your hotel."

Bush rarely leaves the White House for social outings in Washington, though lately he has tried to get out more, attending dinners last month at the homes of two old friends, attorney Jim Langdon and budget aide Clay Johnson III. Bush avoids politics in such moments. He reaches out for signs of normalcy, asking about business or mutual friends. "He wants to know if we've caught any fish," said Robert McCleskey, a friend since grade school.

Bush also deals with stress through discipline, routine and exercise. On a typical day, he wakes at 5 a.m., arrives at the Oval Office at 6:30, then leaves at 4:30 p.m. for a 60-minute workout. He returns to work for a while before retiring to the residence, where he turns in at 9:30. On weekends, he favors two-hour biking sessions at a Secret Service facility in Beltsville with companions such as Card or Alexander Ellis IV, a young cousin.

Friends say this does not make him ignorant of his troubles. "There isn't any doubt that he is totally and completely aware of all the existing circumstances around him," said a close friend. "There's not anything that he's not aware of -- how he's perceived, how his people are perceived, the problems his people have. He is the furthest thing from oblivious. . . . Somewhere in the back of his mind there's a pretty complete autopsy."

Can seem disengaged
Yet Bush can seem disengaged. When he flew to New York to visit a Harlem school and promote his education program, he brought along New York congressmen on Air Force One, including Democrat Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The White House was in the midst of tough negotiations with Rangel over trade pacts. But Bush did not try to cut a deal with Rangel, chatting instead about baseball. "He talked a lot about the Rangers," Rangel said. "I didn't know what the hell he was talking about."

Still, that trip demonstrated that Bush cannot escape his burdens. King, the GOP congressman, introduced him backstage to a soldier injured in one eye. Bush teared up and asked the young man to take off his dark glasses so he could see the wound, King recalled. "Human instinct is when someone has a serious injury to look the other way," King said. "He actually asked him to take them off. He actually touched the eye a little. It was almost as if he felt he had to confront it."

As they headed back to Washington a few hours later, with the televisions aboard Air Force One tuned to the New York Mets game, King mused that Bush must be feeling the weight of his office.

"My wife loves you, but she doesn't know how you don't wake up every morning and say, 'I've had it. I'm out of here,' " King told him.

"She thinks that?" Bush replied. "Get her on the phone."

King dialed but got voice mail. Bush left a message: "I'm doing okay. Don't worry about me."