Questioning President Bush

Posted: May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

 THE WHITE HOUSE -- Battered but not beaten, President Bush met with several journalists here on Wednesday and said terrorists "want to sow fear so that we'll withdraw. I will not yield to them, to their blackmail, to their murders ..."

 The "I" was not an anomaly. George W. Bush, taught to identify that one-letter word with ego, infrequently used it in small groups while governor of Texas and during 2001. After 40 months in the Oval Office, though, he is sure about his presidential role and willing to assert it. "The job of the president is to help cultures change," he said. "I can be a voice of cultural change."

 He wants to influence domestic culture. He spoke, as he has before, of his opposition to abortion and his desire to "promote a culture of life, (with) every child welcomed to life and protected by law." He spoke, as he has done recently, about his commitment to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but -- as with abortion -- cast himself in a supporting role: "People have to speak. ... I'll be glad to lend my voice." Asked about the extent of the popular outcry so far, he said, "I'm not sure people understand the issue," and he seemed inclined to fold the marriage question into one of judicial overreach: "I don't want this decided by judges. It's too big an issue."

 President Bush also wants to influence Iraqi culture: Iraqis "haven't developed the habits of free people yet." But he believes they will, because "freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person in the world." He has aides researching statements of doubt made after World War II concerning the ability of the Japanese to develop a democracy, since they also had non-Western religious and political traditions

 Asked if something inherently evil in Islam makes the process of peacemaking difficult, the president specified that he was condemning radicals with "a deep desire to spread an ideology that is anti-woman, anti-free thought, anti-art and science."

 Is their religion at fault? "They conveniently use religion to kill. The religion I know is not one that encourages killing." Asked again about the nature of Islam, he smiled and said, "You're trying to lure me down a road ... where I'm incapable of winning the debate." Then he stated emphatically that our enemies "have a perverted view of what religions should be. ... These are people who will kill at the drop of a hat, and they'll kill anybody. That's not, at least, my view of religion."

 He says all this in his intensely personal way. Some politicians orate: The late Barbara Jordan, for example, spoke to one person sitting across a desk from her the way she spoke to an entire Democratic convention, shaping each sentence as if it would soon be etched in marble. But George W. Bush converses: He knows what he wants to say, but he still utters a phrase and stops, looking for a head-nod or a smile of agreement.

 So his "I" sounds not arrogant but self-consciously aware. He said, when asked about how he expresses his Christian faith, "I have a fantastic opportunity to let the light shine," but immediately followed that with a caveat: "I will do so, however, as a secular politician. ... My job is not to promote a religion but to promote the ability of people to worship as they see fit."

 In that sense, he is ready to talk about what sustains him as president. His wife: "My marriage is really good." His own prayer: "I pray all the time. You don't need a chapel to pray ... I just do." The prayer of others: When he shakes hands on the campaign trail, "every other person or every third person says, ?My family prays for you.'" His reading: "I read Oswald Chambers every morning. ... If you can figure out everything he's saying, then you have a depth of understanding of the gospel beyond the emotional."

 But President Bush also knows how talking about such matters is suspect, for good reason: "I'm sometimes in a world of fakery, obfuscation (yes, he knows and can use big words), political bank shots, so I'm very mindful of the use of faith in this process." He says he's not concerned about how journalists judge him: "Short-term history will be written by people who didn't particularly want me to be president to begin with." He expresses a deeper concern: You "can't use your faith as a shallow attempt to garner votes. Otherwise, you'll receive the ultimate condemnation."

 One thing that's changed about George W. Bush during his 40 White House months is his short list of presidents he admires. He's still a Reagan and a Lincoln fan, but he now talks more of Lincoln's role as a wartime president. New to his list is Franklin Roosevelt, because of FDR's growing awareness that Hitler had to be stopped: "In the face of another ?ism,' he saw the problems clearly."

 No. 43 is also learning more about No. 1, and particularly George Washington's thinking during the troubled Articles of Confederation period of the 1780s. President Bush uses history to make contemporary practical applications: Americans who expect Iraq to have an elegant constitution in one year's time should look to our own difficult experience.

 The president touched on other subjects -- his hope for improvements in Sudan and in Cuba, his concern for Israel: "We will stand side by side with Israel if anyone tries to annihilate her" -- but came back to what for him is the hardest part of being a war president: "death."

 When visiting the grieving, he said, "part of my job is to comfort ... hug them, laugh with them, cry with them, hold them, do whatever I can." He then said, with his straight-in-the-eyes look: "After most of those encounters, I'm the one who gets inspired. ... You hear amazing statements from the mouths of these grieving souls, inspired by the Almighty."