If there is one thing about President Bush that is different in private from his public persona, it is probably intensity. Before big crowds he is folksy and self-deprecating. Before the hostile press, he is a bit wary. But in our setting -- a meeting with half a dozen conservative columnists in the Oval Office on Sept. 12 -- he was intense.
The president called the meeting to let us know directly how he views the war on terror. Some of what he said was a reprise of his televised speech of the evening before -- that our struggle against the extremists is the ideological war of the 21st century, and that only two outcomes are possible, either we will be victorious or what the president calls the "Islamoradicals" will.
Busts of Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln adorn the Oval Office -- the president notes that he put them there before 9/11 but finds them even more inspiring now that he himself is a wartime leader. He mentioned that he has just read three biographies of George Washington (whose picture hangs over the fireplace).
President Bush was at his most passionate on the subject of democracy. He reiterated his belief that policies of previous administrations toward Middle Eastern autocracies helped give rise to the fever that now convulses the Arab world. "I understand why they did it," he adds, "concerns about oil or the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But while the surface may have looked calm or stable, we've seen what was happening beneath the surface." This administration is determined that the only way to break the fever is to change the conditions that give rise to extremism. "You can call it draining the swamp. I call it advancing democracy." Acknowledging that he wasn't thrilled when Hamas won the election in the Palestinian territories, he nonetheless believes that the election itself was a blow to centuries of absolutism.
As for the progress of democracy in Iraq, the president is basically optimistic and impatient with the nation's impatience. "We live in a world where there has to be instant success. 'Why is there no democracy in Iraq yet?' Because there are people willing to kill to stop it." (Would the Second World War have been won if we'd had daily body counts in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima?) "We must be steadfast in our deep belief in liberty and stand with those who are committed to freedom." Does Nouri al-Maliki have the right stuff? President Bush thinks he is willing to seek the reconciliation that is so urgently necessary in that abused nation.