In "What I Saw at the Revolution," speechwriter Peggy Noonan's chronicle of her time in the Reagan administration, she includes a story about sitting in the Oval Office with President Reagan when his hearing aid starts to beep. As she relates the scene, none of the President's super-serious, gray-looking aides bothered to tell the President about the device's malfunction. Noonan looks on, perhaps a little embarrassed, as the President finally figures it out for himself and pulls the thing out of his ear and fixes it. It's a brief little moment in Reagan's presidency, but something about it stuck with me. Maybe it was because I could picture it in my mind. I could see Reagan there, charmingly non-plussed about the problem, while his aides shifted around uncomfortably in their chairs. Or maybe it was the simple humanness of it all -- a man, a great man, in his seventies coping with old age. Like many young conservatives, I admired Ronald Reagan. I wanted to know everything about him.
There are many stories about great men that, while not always flattering, offer a special glimpse into who they were as people. We know about Lyndon Johnson’s famous dictation sessions from his toilet. We’ve learned about his wily machinations with political figures. We know about Richard Nixon asking Henry Kissinger to pray with him during Watergate and we know about his wild rants directed against his political enemies. These are stories that these prominent men never wanted us to know, but they add a rich texture to who they were as human beings.
Recently, my book SPEECH-LESS was subjected to the usual tut-tutting from over-serious Washingtonians about some of the behind-the-scenes glimpses I offered of well-known figures I worked with during my time on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in the White House. The glimpses of President Bush in particular raised ire.
None of the comments I attributed to the President were all that shocking. He didn't think much of the McCain campaign. Who did? He questioned Barack Obama's qualifications and thought Joe Biden was a big mouth. Not exactly a newsflash. He used salty language about Hillary Clinton. This shouldn’t be a surprise: many Presidents have said equally bracing things and with similarly colorful words. We don't think differently of Harry Truman because he cussed from time to time. (Some people may think more of him for it.)
Another scene in the book hasn't received as much attention. It's a small one, to be sure, but equally telling about the President. In 2007, my dad had come with me to the White House Christmas Party and we stood in line to get our picture taken with President and Mrs. Bush. As we stood getting our picture taken, President Bush leaned over and told my father, “You should be really proud of your son.” My dad was so startled to be in the White House that it was clear he didn't hear what Bush had said. The President noticed that too. He knew what a special moment it would be for me, so he tapped my dad on the shoulder and tried again. "You should be very proud of your son," Bush repeated. My dad beamed. "I am," he said. It is one thing to tell people that George W. Bush could be a generous and thoughtful man. But it is quite another to tell a story that demonstrates it.
Perhaps most telling for me and many other conservatives was the scene I chronicled in which the President expressed his separations from the conservative movement that the rest of us believed in. "I redefined the Republican Party," he told us. With a shrug, he seemed to look at the Goldwater-Buckley-Reagan movement as a relic of the past. That doesn't make him a bad person. But it does explain why many conservatives were uncomfortable with his presidency. He never really thought of himself as a member of the base conservative movement. And as we begin to weigh the Bush record, and what it meant for the Republican Party, that's something Americans need to know.
According to those who actually read my book, President Bush comes off as smart, funny, quick-witted, tart-tongued, occasionally offensive, sometimes playful, keenly self-aware, uncomfortably edgy, deeply compassionate, politically insightful, and blunt (sometimes to a fault). In fact, he was all those things. He was a far more complex and interesting figure than people usually saw on their television screens. Reading what he said in his own words gives him a weight and fullness. a certain realness, that people have a right to observe and measure on their own.
So when I'm asked how I feel about revealing a behind-the-scenes look at President Bush, my answer is I wish I'd revealed even more. Thankfully, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and many others will be publishing their own memoirs, providing their own glimpses of truly historic times and their own behind the curtain looks at a momentous presidency.
I can't wait to read them.
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