DAVID GREENE, Host:
Today, we're looking at the legacy George W. Bush will leave behind. His poll ratings have been among the highest and the lowest received by modern-era presidents. But feelings about him personally never dropped as low as his job-approval numbers did. NPR's Linda Wertheimer looks at what people liked about the president.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: 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. And 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 involved in all the president's winning campaigns, beginning with the race for governor of Texas.
WERTHEIMER: He's a very disciplined man who appreciates systems and routines. So 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.
WERTHEIMER: President Bush apparently does not relish pomp or circumstance. He's had very few state dinners or official dinners at the White House, the sorts of entertainments that involve dressing up, long receiving lines and lavish banquets. I asked Cox Newspapers' Ken Herman, who has covered him for years, if the president prefers a quiet life.
WERTHEIMER: Quiet enough that he can get to sleep by about 9:30 every night or so, as is his preference. And indeed, the president has been out to dinner in restaurants three times in Washington - twice for Mexican, once for Chinese - and not since January 15th, 2003.
WERTHEIMER: The Bushes prefer old friends and dinners at home, but it was not always so. The president apparently once liked parties and liked to drink. He talked about that in an interview on C-SPAN in December.
(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN INTERVIEW)
P: I wasn't a knee-walking drunk, but I was, I was, you know, I was drinking. I mean - and alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections. And so I quit. One night I had too much to drink in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I haven't had a drink since.
WERTHEIMER: That was in 1986. Don Evans is a friend of 40 years. He was secretary of commerce in the president's first term. He says that act demonstrated the president's commitment to his family, and to the Bush family's belief in public service.
WERTHEIMER: And 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. So he quit. Pretty amazing, I might say.
WERTHEIMER: 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. Now, he's a mad mountain biker. Reporter Ken Herman has ridden in the presidential peloton.
WERTHEIMER: This was in Crawford. I've done two, a couple of summers back. And 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.
WERTHEIMER: Participants, including the president, often come back scratched up from falls and collisions. There are favorite bike trails at Camp David, at the FBI training center at Quantico - but the ranch at Crawford, Texas, is a special place. Daughter Jenna decided to forgo a White House wedding and be married at the ranch. Friends say it was her choice. The president is devoted to his wife and twin daughters. And Dan 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.
WERTHEIMER: And the president was repeatedly calling from Air Force One into the hospital, trying to find out the status of the birth of my boys. And 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, and it was pretty funny.
WERTHEIMER: And then there are the pets: the cat, India, who died recently, and two Scotch terriers. Dan Bartlett jokes the older dog, Barney, is the son the president never had. And everyone we talked to makes 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.
WERTHEIMER: I promise you this. 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.
WERTHEIMER: That's Don Evans - the last word from one of the president's oldest friends. Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington.
GREENE: And you can retrace some of those highs and lows of President Bush's eight years in office through an interactive timeline at npr.org.
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