The first time we met, I was not as impressed as his handlers had planned. It was September 1999, and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush made an appearance at Bennett-Kew Elementary school in Inglewood, Calif. The choice of Bennett-Kew showed that Team Bush knew how to pick a good school, as then-Principal Nancy Ichinaga had worked miracles in improving reading and math performance of her students. Yet, the interview didn't quite work.
My esteemed colleague, Chronicle political writer Carla Marinucci, wanted me to sit in on an interview she had with presidential candidate Bush. Bush's handlers knew I was a McCainiac. They agreed with the proviso that I not ask any questions. I said yes, knowing that at the end of the interview, Bush would ask me why I hadn't asked him anything or if I wanted to. And that's exactly how it went.
The setup was too cute, as was his ribbing of me for criticizing his support of federal ethanol subsidies. (I have no sense of humor about corporate welfare.)
Worse, Carla and I each got bills for $1,297 for the cost of using a press room after a speech he made on education. A year later, I had a solo interview with Bush. He was clearheaded on where "feel-good education'' went wrong and how reading curricula can work well.
He liked talking about education, but when the subject switched to the death penalty, there was pain in his eyes. It was clear he was tired of getting hammered by the national media on the issue, as he had been for weeks. Bush impressed me as a man who knew where he wanted to go. He had his priorities -- education and an ideologically broader and more ethnically-diverse GOP -- and he kept his gaze fixed on them.
But it wasn't until the August 2000 GOP convention that I saw what he really could do. His speech and the speakers who preceded him changed the tenor of GOP confabs by providing a needed antidote to stale Bob Dole (1996) and angry Pat Buchanan (1992). Where there had been division, he restored goodwill.
Even if he lost the election, I thought, he helped the Republican party turn a corner. In office, he has exceeded my expectations. OK, he still doesn't get it on ethanol, but his Office of Management and Budget has worked to trim superfluous federal spending.
He has withstood cheap criticism for his opposition to the bad Kyoto global warming treaty -- from people who don't seem to know the Senate opposed a key provision by a 95-to-0 vote. He has weathered the sneers of SUV drivers who see him as Satan because he wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Best of all, he stuck to his guns on the tax cut.
His success never fazed the ridicule crowd. They mocked his bad syntax. They demoted him from president to the vice president's puppet. Dripping with undeserved self-satisfaction, they berated his intelligence. Yup, he was so stupid, he got elected president.
Even on Sept. 11, the carping continued. Bush should have made reassuring speeches sooner than he did, some critics charged. He should have flown to Washington D.C. sooner. His speech that night was tepid. It's true -- Bush got a C on public relations on attack day.
But as the critics have learned, Bush's first priority is not winning the PR game. And he would rather take his time than rush to the TV cameras; he doesn't measure success by the first 24 hours. Better yet, Bush didn't feel the need to order instant retaliatory bombings before a solid military strategy was in place.
Now for the first time, many Americans see the qualities I have come to treasure in Bush. He doesn't put politics first in this. While he has been no fan of "nation building,'' he will help support a new Afghan government, if that's what it takes to bring stability to that part of the world. He has understood where to use force -- against Terror -- and where to give bread -- to hungry and powerless Afghans.