The Imperiled Presidency Inside the Bunker

A President Besieged and Isolated, Yet at Ease

George W. Bush has invited a range of scholars to the White House to discuss how his presidency has gotten off course.
George W. Bush has invited a range of scholars to the White House to discuss how his presidency has gotten off course. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

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.

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.


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