By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008
For President Bush, it seems, love is in the air.
Standing Friday before a welcoming crowd at Texas A&M University, he talked about the "unconditional love" he received from his father, the "gift of love" given by a couple who care for foster children, and his eagerness to return to the "place I love" once he leaves office.
The president who once dared militants to "bring 'em on" is getting a bit misty in his final weeks, taking frequent opportunities to explore his sensitive side while discussing his legacy -- from the importance of his Christian faith to his conviction that, sometimes, all we need is love.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush referred to the "loving influence of God" and called on those battling addiction "to seek treatment, because your life is precious to the people who love you."
In defending federal anti-drug programs recently, the president said: "Government must not fear places of love." In a television interview, he pondered God's love and how he seeks to show "appreciation for that love." At a meeting with children of prisoners this month, he extolled the virtues of loving those who are less fortunate.
"Oh, it takes some time, it takes a little bit of extra love, but by helping a child, you can really help the country," he said in North Carolina. "You help yourself by loving, but you help America -- one heart, one soul at a time."
Such touchy-feely rhetoric is not entirely foreign for Bush, who first ran for the presidency as a "compassionate conservative" and spoke frequently about his religious faith and the need to "love a neighbor" in his 2000 campaign. But during eight years that have included war, partisan battles and an economic catastrophe, Bush's kinder and gentler side has not often been on such full display.
The wave of presidential emoting comes as part of an effort by Bush and his aides to highlight the positive side of his legacy as he nears his final month in office, while also bidding farewell to world leaders and longtime colleagues. Between boasts about vanquishing terrorists and succeeding in Iraq, many of his recent speeches and interviews have focused on social programs and initiatives -- such as anti-drug and anti-AIDS efforts -- that lend themselves to an emotional appeal.
"I believe that when people join organizations to love their neighbor, that is . . . not only a recruiting tool, but it's a powerful incentive for effectiveness on the ground," Bush said at a World AIDS Day event on Dec. 1, accompanied by the first lady.
"He's an emotional guy, and he's passionate about whatever he's involved in," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Unfortunately for the president, the warm feelings are unrequited at the moment. A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 79 percent of Americans will not miss Bush once he is gone, and that nearly half think he will go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Senators from his own party revolted against him this week, shooting down a government bridge loan the White House had sought for foundering Detroit automakers.
"Everything he's saying is soft and spiritual and considerate, yet if you consider the way he governed, it's the very antithesis of what he did in office," said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution. "He's a diminished figure. You can be angry about it, or you can be wistful; he's being wistful."
Bush's rhetoric has always offered a mix of the tough and the tender, reflecting the personality of a taciturn Texan who nonetheless has talked publicly about his struggles with drinking and the born-again Christian experience he had after he turned 40. John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, wrote in 2002 that "in many ways, he is all heart."
"Clinton talked, 'I feel your pain,' " DiIulio wrote, referring to the 42nd president's famous public empathy. "But as Bush showed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he truly does feel deeply for others and loves this country with a passion."
Bush has been especially outspoken about his faith in recent weeks. In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" broadcast last week, he spoke at length about his belief in God and said his conversion made him a less selfish person.
"My relationship is on a personal basis trying to become as [close] to the Almighty as I possibly can get," Bush said. "And I've got a lot of problems. I mean, I got, you know, the ego . . . all the things that prevent me from being closer to the Almighty. So, I don't analyze my relationship with the good Lord in terms of, well, you know, God has plucked you out or God wants you to do this. I know this: I know that the call is to better understand and live out your life according to the will of God."
Peter Wehner, a former Bush aide, said the president's willingness to talk about love and faith "is not a surprise to those who know him. Faith is central to who he is."
Wehner also said there is a "symmetry" to Bush's recent focus on social initiatives. "His presidency began with compassionate conservatism, and it's not surprising that it's ending with him talking about it," said Wehner, now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "It was an animating spirit for him and for his run for office and what he wanted his presidency to stand for. A lot of that got obscured by 9/11, and he became a war president."
But Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature," argues that Bush's frequent invocation of love is intended as a "dog whistle" to other Christian believers that obscures his failings.
Pinker pointed to past episodes when Bush has alluded to faith in his rhetoric, such as a reference in the 2003 State of the Union address to the "power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism of the American people." The phrasing echoes "There Is Power in the Blood," a Christian hymn that refers to "wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb."
"Having failed by every secular standard, Bush is trying to convince the remaining people who will listen that he has succeeded by an inscrutable divine one," Pinker said in an e-mail, adding: "These are, no doubt, the emotions he's feeling, but it also can't hurt to frame his presidency in touchy-feely terms rather than a hardnosed accounting of successes and failures."