Miracles do happen. I was astonished when President Bush granted my request for an interview. The truth is that I had almost forgotten making the request. As a matter of course in journalism you cover your bases, asking for all sorts of things that you don’t expect to get. The theory is that lightning can always strike. So when the current administration came into office I made the usual petitions at State to talk to Condoleezza Rice, at Defense for the SecDef, and so on. It was pro forma.
Then my phone rang in Guadalajara. It was the White House press office telling me that Bush would see me. At first I assumed that it must be a joke. After all, I was semi-retired, no longer with major outlets in Washington. In the news racket we have large egos, but at bottom we know that officials don’t care about us, only about our publications. If a chimpanzee worked for the New York Times, any president would talk to it. And I had been critical of Bush in my web column. Why…? It didn’t make sense.
Finally it dawned on me. Years back, when Bush was governor in Texas, I had worked as the Washington editor for Richard Cabeza Productions, a now-defunct news service based in Austin. I wrote some puff pieces on Bush, suggesting that he had presidential timber, and we gave him the Richard Cabeza Award. This was a twelve-dollar mahogany plaque that the Press Secretary throws in the trash, but the news service gets a form letter of thanks from the White House to put on the wall.
I surmised that Bush, getting a lot of bad press about the wars, remembered that Richard Cabeza had praised him, and just wanted to hear a kind word about himself. We forget that politicians are human.
Anyway, I flew into Reagan National after changing planes in Atlanta. On final into Reagan, the Potomac shone in the sunlight and I could see wind surfers at the Washington Sailing Marina. I caught a cab to the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House—the Wedding Cake as it is known for all of its ornate columns—and went through security. A Secret Serviceman escorted me to the Oval Office, irreverently called the Oral Office since the Clinton Administration. I didn’t know what to expect but, what the hell, presidents were good copy.
President Bush was sitting at his desk with a heavy wool scarf around his neck. He looked—tired I guess is the word. He was a bigger man than I had expected, with an athletic cut to his shoulders, but he looked exhausted.
He said hello and got up to shake my hand. I indicated the scarf and asked whether he was well.
“It’s, you know, the windows aren’t sealed too well. Sometimes there’s a draft. I always try to avoid the draft. I am the Decider. I need to be healthy for the country.”
“Yes, Mr. President. I understand. It wouldn’t do for the president to have a cold. Your responsibilities are heavy…I don’t want to take up too much of your time, sir. If I may, I’d like to touch on the War on Terror. Would you mind answering a few questions for my readers?”
“Certainly, Fred. I think a free press is important for a country that doesn’t have terror. That’s what America is, a country that doesn’t have terror. All those other countries, the bad ones, they do have terror. They hate us because we’re free. That’s why—when the Decider talks to the press…I have friends in the press you know—when he talks to them, one on one, in a group, that’s what keeps us free. The public ought to be informed, except about things it shouldn’t know.”
“Yes, Mr. President. The polls show that a majority of the American people believe that the war in Iraq is a failure, and want to bring the troops home. Yet you have said that you will not pull out even if Laura and your dog are the only ones who support the war. Is this an accurate statement of your views?”
“Yes. Democracy is what makes us strong, not terror. My job—the people elected me—twice—what people think doesn’t matter. Democracy isn’t about polls and what people think, it’s about freedom. From terror. Americans want to finish the job, even if they don’t want to. That’s what the public has to understand. What it wants. That’s why we have press conferences is this great country of ours.”
As the interview continued, I was pleasantly surprised to find that President Bush was more articulate than I had expected.
“Yes sir. Now, some critics have said that America is becoming a police state, that the government is too authoritarian. Would you comment?”
“You can’t have freedom unless people do what they’re told. Freedom isn’t free. I’m a War President. I have to decide. That’s why we have to get the job done in Iraq, not cut and run. If we pull out, we won’t be there anymore.”
“Sir, you have charged that Iran is interfering in Iraq. The Iranians say that the United States is interfering in Iraq. How is the public to know who is telling the truth?”
“America is not interfering in Iraq. America stands for democracy and democracies don’t interfere with each other. That’s why so many brave American soldiers are there, so nobody interferes in Iraq.”
“Some commentators say that victory is not possible. Would you characterize them as too pessimistic?”
“Yes, they are very too pessimistic. We are making progress, not instant—in life you can’t get everything at once, except some things, but progress in Iraq and in…that other place.”
“That’s it. Dick Cheney tells me the Afghans want nuclear weapons—those can do mass destruction, you know—we can’t let Al Quaida destroy our freedom. And Dick says we’re starting to have democracy in Iraq too. That’s what elections are for, to have democracy. If there’s a message I could give to people everywhere, that’s what America is about, democracy in Iraq. The Iraqis have to learn that democracy isn’t optional.”
“Finally, sir, what do you say to those who accuse you of dissimulation?”
“Fred, when I was in the Air Force in Texas, where I learned to keep America free, and not have terror, dissimulation was part of our training. It’s what—some other countries are free but—dissimulation is what America stands for. Our dissimulators were just like real airplanes. The buttons worked like real buttons.”
I thanked him for his time and left, chastened. The Secret Service quickly passed me on to Pennsylvania Avenue and I walked into Lafayette Park to reflect. The press had led me believe that the President was less impressive, less informed than I had found him to be. As I rode the subway to my hotel on Upper Connecticut, I thought of the tired man in his scarf, and thought that maybe Richard Cabeza Productions, obscure though it had been, had a better grasp of reality than the New York Times.