ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE -- George W. Bush has accepted that he won't live long enough to witness his legacy, though he still hopes to capture Osama bin Laden before leaving office in just over a year.
These were among his thoughts during an in-flight interview on Monday following a Thanksgiving address in Virginia. Bush looked relaxed in a blue jacket, and frequently gazed out the window as he reflected on his years in office, the war and this season of gratitude.
For his part, the president said he's grateful for men and women who volunteer to fight the war against radicals and extremists and help others "realize the blessings of liberty."
"I'm amazed at our citizens who understand the risks, understand the hardships, who volunteer to do this," he said.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Bush offers few new insights these days as he remains focused on his mission to build a foundation of freedom in the Middle East. If Americans can trust anything, it is that Bush won't relent in his conviction that security at home depends on creating democratic institutions and stability elsewhere.
To his critics, this may seem like denial and stubbornness -- "the Decider" sticks to script even when circumstances change. But, as Bush pointed out, "this notion of stubbornness is based upon the criticism of people who didn't agree with the initial decision to begin with."
His greatest critics are, of course, those who want to take his place in the Oval Office. Bush won't entertain hypotheticals about who that might be but says he's trying to make the next president's job easier by making the tough decisions now. "That's why it's very important for me to remind the American people that we've got to support these military commanders, support their decisions. ... I think anybody who's president will understand the strategic consequences of failure in Iraq."
He also said that anyone who believes we're not in a war against extremists and radicals will "learn differently when they get in there and hear the intelligence I hear."
Bush's confidence in a successor's wisdom, regardless of party, may be tied to his own convictions and his characteristic tendency to project his values onto others. No sentient American needs to be reminded of the president's core belief in the Almighty's gift of freedom to all people.
But what does that mean in a practical sense? What does George W. Bush see when he looks out that window? A big picture and a time in a distant future.
I suggested to him that he has acquired a sense of time shared by our enemies. Radical Islamists have said that Americans have watches, but that true believers have time. To successfully defeat such an enemy, one needs to think as the enemy does, to see time from the perspective of real stars rather than rising political ones.
That's a tough concept for a drive-thru nation accustomed to insta-everything and gratification at the tap of a button. Five years at war in Iraq is an eternity for impatient Americans, but it's a blink of a camel's eye if you're set on destroying the Great Satan.
Bush has learned to watch the camel.
"It's real important for the president to not be making moves based upon political calendars," he told me. "I really view this as a first chapter of a long struggle -- not the only chapter, not the last chapter, but the first chapter.
"And I've told our people, we're going to write it ... so that the next president will have an easier task of dealing with the threats. And that's why it's so important that we get the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) issue right, and that's why it's so important to get the detainee issue right, because presidents are going to need the information that comes from those programs in order to defend the homeland."
I asked the president if he found comfort in the possibility that, assuming democracy ultimately flourishes in the Middle East, history will vindicate him.
No, he said. Bush finds comfort in knowing that he didn't betray principle for popularity, that "I didn't sacrifice my soul for politics."
Finally, I asked about bin Laden. Bush said getting bin Laden is still important, but warned that his death won't end "extremist views" or the al-Qaeda threat. Only free societies will.
This is surely true. The question is whether Americans have the patience for such a long journey.
Time will tell.
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