The Bush Enigma

The political ascension of George W. Bush is difficult to explain. He put forward the unthreatening face of a man who couldn't care less about the presidency for a party so desperate to attain it that they'd embrace him even though they considered his father a traitor or -- worse -- a moderate. With quite possibly the thinnest résumé of any person ever to seek the office, he managed to unseat the vice president of a popular administration by one of the closest margins in history.

"The exact analogy is where the Democrats were in 1992," says Bush biographer Frank Bruni. "The Republicans really peppered over a lot of their internal divisions."

Fairly or not, presidents always get blamed for the country's problems under their watch. Yet in his first year in office, the nation has gone from peace, prosperity and surpluses to war, recession and deficits, yet Bush has some of the highest approval ratings on record -- a feat that could be possible only with the help of Osama bin Laden.

So what's the deal? Is he competent, or is it true that only the administration matters? Are people just underestimating the guy, or is he Forrest Gumping his way through a term? According to Bruni, it's too early to tell. "The most important chapters of this war against terrorism he has proclaimed have yet to be written. It only gets more complicated from here," he says. "I think other presidents could have handled the situation just as well…What's interesting is I think this was exactly the type of thing people thought he would not be able to handle."

Bruni's book, Ambling into History, is not like the many muckraking biographies written by nonjournalists during the Clinton presidency. You'll find no insinuations of murder or drug running here. Having followed Bush through the campaign and into his first months in office as a reporter for The New York Times, Bruni seeks to reveal the Bush he encountered on campaign planes and buses. Whether Bush is leading the administration or the administration is leading Bush is a question left to the historians.

Bruni's Bush is fluent when talking policy one-on-one, sincere in his religious convictions and quick off the cuff, but not intellectually curious. Those who regard Bush as a juvenile frat boy will find confirmation that the person they see on TV is on his best behavior. Bruni recounts one instance in which Governor Bush made funny faces at reporters during a church service for the victims of a shooting spree at Wedgwood Baptist Church. On a campaign flight, Bush placed a washcloth on his face and played peek-a-boo. This is the portrait of a classroom cutup for whom no situation was too somber to cross his eyes and puff up his cheeks.

The book was in galley proofs on September 11, and publishers delayed release a couple of months to incorporate some of that material. Bruni doesn't believe it changed his central thesis much. "The arc of the book had always been Bush learning to tame or gain control of the more irreverent, scampish parts of his personality as he buckled down to the seriousness of a presidential campaign and then the presidency," Bruni says. "I think he was heading that way all along…I just think 9/11 really added a whole bunch of velocity to it."

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Dylan Otto Krider