This is the third in a series examining President Bush's legacy.
Eric Draper/The White House/AP
President Bush drives his pickup Aug. 9, 2002, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was vacationing. At Crawford, he said, "I'm able to clear my mind, and it helps me put it all in perspective."
President Bush drives his pickup Aug. 9, 2002, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was vacationing. At Crawford, he said, "I'm able to clear my mind, and it helps me put it all in perspective." Eric Draper/The White House/AP
Extended conversations with an academic, a historian and a journalist who have followed the career of George W. Bush can be heard — and downloaded — here.
President Bush's poll ratings were among the highest and lowest that modern presidents have ever received — but feelings about George W. Bush the person never fell as far as his job approval numbers.
Ask his staff or his friends to describe the president, and they'll say "Normal, regular — if he moved in next door, you'd be friends." The president made an effort to keep his life normal. He likes meetings to begin and end on time; he likes a schedule.
Dan Bartlett works in Austin now, but he was a close White House aide for seven years and was involved in all of President Bush's winning campaigns, beginning with the race for governor of Texas.
"He's a very disciplined man who appreciates systems and routines," Bartlett says. "The scheduled times to work out, the scheduled times to have dinner with his wife — those things, I think, were trying to ingrain into his life as much normalcy as possible to help sustain him during the presidency."
The president apparently does not relish pomp or circumstance. He has had very few state dinners or official dinners at the White House, the sort of events that involve dressing up, long receiving lines and lavish banquets. Cox Newspapers' Ken Herman, who has covered Bush for years, says the president prefers a quiet life.
"Quiet enough that he can get to sleep by about 9:30 every night or so, as is his preference," Herman says. "Indeed, the president has been out to dinner in restaurants three times in Washington — twice for Mexican; once for Chinese — and not since Jan. 15, 2003."
The Bushes prefer old friends and dinners at home, but it was not always so. He talked about his past in an interview on C-SPAN in December.
"I wasn't a knee-walking drunk, but I was drinking. And alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections. So I quit. One night I had too much to drink in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I haven't had a drink since," Bush said.
That was in 1986. Don Evans, secretary of commerce in the president's first term and a friend of 40 years, says that act demonstrated the president's commitment to his family and to the Bush family's belief in public service.
"He realized at that point in his life, not only for his children and his family but for all fellow man — he can't honor that core belief like he wants to if he's drinking," Evans says. "So he quit. Pretty amazing, I might say."
The Presidential Peloton
These days, the president's only addiction appears to be exercise. He played sports as a younger man — he was a runner until an injury sidelined him — and now he's a mad mountain biker. Herman has ridden in the presidential peloton.
"This was in Crawford ... a couple of summers back," Herman recalls. "It's a rigorous activity, and it's hard to keep up. There's no small talk. It is not a leisurely ride in the park. He does mountain bike riding like he does foreign policy: It's full-speed ahead, there's no turning back once a decision has been made, and it's grueling."
Participants, including the president, often come back scratched up from falls and collisions. There are favorite bike trails at Camp David and at the FBI training center at Quantico, Va., but the ranch at Crawford, Texas, is a special place. Daughter Jenna decided to forgo a White House wedding and get married at the ranch. Friends say it was her choice.
'He Is Really A Good Man'
The president is devoted to his wife and twin daughters. And, Bartlett says, he's always interested in the lives of people who work with him. Bartlett's wife had twins during the 2004 presidential campaign.
"The president was repeatedly calling from Air Force One into the hospital, trying to find out the status of the birth of my boys," Bartlett recalls. "I put him on the phone with one of the nurses and she completely freaked out, and he was trying to tell her to focus on her responsibilities. It was pretty funny."
And then there are the pets: the cat, India, who died recently, and two Scottish terriers. Bartlett jokes that the older dog, Barney, is the son the president never had. Bush's friends make the point that hanging out with the president is fun even in challenging times — watching football, playing golf, biking. If only, they say, the American people knew him as we do.
"I promise you this," Evans says. "Anybody that has a chance to sit down and visit with George Bush will come away saying, 'You know what? I really like that guy. He is really a good man.' "