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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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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.

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