|AMBLING INTO HISTORY|
March 13, 2002
Terence Smith talks to New York Times reporter Frank Bruni about his new book, "Ambling Into History," which charts President Bush's rise to power.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
SMITH: For more than two years from August 1999 until September of last
year, New York Times reporter Frank Bruni covered the campaign
and White House of George W. Bush. He's gathered his observations and
analysis of the 43rd president in a new book entitled "Ambling History,
the Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush."
Frank Bruni, welcome.
FRANK BRUNI: Thanks for having me.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe in detail the president's famous tendency towards malapropisms and how he gets tongue twisted on things. In fact you call it his adventures with English. What does that say to you about the man?
FRANK BRUNI: One of the things it says is that this is a guy who spent much of his life trying not to be too polished, rebelling in a sense from his north eastern origins, the blue blood pedigree of his family. And so that kind of casual approach to everything all of a sudden he gets on the campaign trail, he gets into this pursuit and it leads to a lack of polish that is sometimes humorous. He's also a guy who just happens to suffer from very bad brain-to-mouth coordination.
|The president's public face|
TERENCE SMITH: Does it... you describe him also as somebody who is articulate in private but awkward in public, as he so often has to be.
FRANK BRUNI: It's quite amazing when you spend a lot of time around him. The moments when I saw him being the most fluent, the most articulate, the most authoritative were if I were doing an interview with him and after 25 minutes he'd say that's the end, let's turn the tape recorder off, the next 20 minutes would be the best version of Bush I'd ever seen. It was kind of astonishing because if his campaign advisors had been able to translate that, if he had been able to translate that into the public arena, I think he would have done much better than he even did. Of course he was the presidency in a statistical tie practically.
TERENCE SMITH: What does that say to you - the fact -- this difference between the pubic and the private George W. Bush.
FRANK BRUNI: I think it's taken him a long time and it's an unfinished journey to become totally comfortable in the formal surroundings that are often, where politics places a candidate and now is the president of course the most formal surroundings of all. It's not what he naturally gravitates to. It's not where he's naturally comfortable. And I think if you've watched him over two years you've seen a gradual progression into greater comfort that is still ongoing.
TERENCE SMITH: And you describe this progression because you started with him early in the campaign and took him through, and the book takes him through the campaign and into the White House. You describe him as somebody who perhaps accepted it... the presidency and the campaign for the presidency more than he sought it.
FRANK BRUNI: Oh, absolutely. He was a guy, you know, after he was elected Governor of Texas and re-elected by terrific margins with great numbers among Hispanics the Republican Party beat a path to his door. The surname Bush, which had been a four-letter word in 1992 when he lost to Clinton, all of a sudden there was a lot of nostalgia and he looked like their best chance. He was in a major way recruited into his presidential campaign.
TERENCE SMITH: There are fascinating passages about the man and his relationship with to his father former President Bush. And in fact there is a conversation I guess you had with former President Bush in which he says of the family and of the current president, it's all family, everything.
FRANK BRUNI: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: What did that mean?
FRANK BRUNI: What he meant by it was that when he gets involved in the race, when he watches it, it's just about a father rooting for a son he loves very much. But it resonated in other ways. I mean George W. Bush would not have been in a position to seek the presidency if he didn't have that name ID, if he didn't have all the advantages that being a Bush had bequeathed to him. He wouldn't have thought it was something attainable unless it was something he had seen his dad do after the eight years in the Vice Presidency. You or I don't say the presidency I think I'll go for that. But if it's something in the family and politics and political successes to the degree it was in the Bushes, it doesn't seem like an unattainable goal.
|The president's sense of humor|
TERENCE SMITH: You also describe George W. Bush's self-deprecatory humor and the way he uses it as a tool.
FRANK BRUNI: One of his greatest strengths.
TERENCE SMITH: There was one passage you have in the book where he has turned such a joke on you. It's on page 197. Would you read us that passage.
FRANK BRUNI: This was in regard to that self-deprecating humor. "This was the thing about Bush. Whenever you wanted to dismiss him as slow witted or unreasonably pleased with himself he would do something along these lines. He would show in an instantaneous response a flash of cleverness and a clear self-knowledge about his own failings and he would be likable just as you were dwelling on aspects of him that weren't so likable at all. I don't think any of this was accidental. I think that on some instinctive level Bush sensed little disturbances in the atmosphere around him and calibrated his actions accordingly. Politicians are seducers -- at least the good ones are -- and Bush was practiced in the art of seduction."
TERENCE SMITH: He implied the art of seduction in part anyway on the reporters who traveled with him -- you and others.
FRANK BRUNI: Absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about that. He spent a lot of time with the care, feeding and courting.
FRANK BRUNI: He would come back in a virtually everyday from the front section of the plane to where we were all sitting. He would jest with us, he would rib us. He would tell little stories. And he was, of course, seducing us. One of the interesting questions I think about the 2000 campaign was how much effect on the outcome on the press coverage and then the outcome Bush's willingness to mingle with the press versus Gore's incredible distance from and caution about the press that may have had a real impact on the election I think.
TERENCE SMITH: What difference did it have on the press coverage and maybe the way he was viewed by the public?
FRANK BRUNI: People wrote about Bush as a sort of full fledged human being. We wrote about his warts but we also wrote about his warmth, which is real. I don't know that the reporters with Vice President Al Gore had the opportunity or ability to do that because I don't know that they ever got close enough to him to do that.
|Sept. 11's effects|
TERENCE SMITH: You also suggest that there are, as I think the nation has observed perhaps two George W. Bushes, one before September 11 and one after. Right?
FRANK BRUNI: Well, yes, there's two of him but it's two halves of the same guy. I think what he's doing is mixing the different parts of his personality in different ratios. One of the things I write in the book is as I watched him in the beginning it was like this irreverent Jim Carrey trying to incorporate a few elements of Jimmy Stewart. And I think that's sort of this continuum of his personality and he's moved consistently toward the Jimmy Stewart end.
TERENCE SMITH: You said at one point he seemed determine to preserve his inner imp.
FRANK BRUNI: Yes. And you still see that today. You see him maybe right after he's given a speech or right before he's given a speech giving a little win being to a reporter, telling a slightly sassy joke. I mean that's who he really is. It wouldn't serve him to let go of that entirely. Americans like that. But I think he's learned over the course of time if you're going to lead, inspire, console a nation you have to adopt a little more gravity than he sometimes did in the beginning.
TERENCE SMITH: And certainly this has been on display since September 11. I mean this is a different president, a different presidency, and maybe a different country.
FRANK BRUNI: The stakes became enormous after September 11. And in the immediate aftermath there were a couple days there where it looked like he was shaken by it. But I will never for get looking at my TV screen seeing him give that speech to Congress. I think that was on September 20. I had never heard him that eloquent. I had never seen him look that confident. It was at that moment that I thought this guy has really, really come a long way.
|The inner circle|
TERENCE SMITH: When you describe the Bush White House, once he's in the White House, you describe a staff and an inner circle that is slavishly, almost obsessively loyal and careful about what they say about the president. Explain that.
FRANK BRUNI: Well, I mean the slavishly loyal to the point of comedy. One of the things I put in the book that I think you're probably remembering is a conversation I once had with Andy Card where I knew the White House had been talking a lot about putting him in slightly more informal settings so that he would be more natural. This is once he was president. And I asked Andy Card about that. And he completely rejected it because there was just an implicit criticism of the president and he said to me the president is spectacular in every setting. I mean not a quote any reporter is going to use but that is the level of fealty that is expected and demonstrated to him by the people around him.
TERENCE SMITH: That never cracks.
FRANK BRUNI: Rarely cracks. It cracks at times but I mean not like in the Clinton White House more tellingly not like it did in the first Bush White House. I think that's the salient comparison. He saw his father sometimes being contradicted or undermined by advisors who were chattering on background to the press. And I think he made a decision he would never ever have that happen-to him.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally how about the media and the image that they have projected of George W. Bush -- fair, accurate, reasonable?
FRANK BRUNI: Since September 11? Probably... probably a little bit too nice. I think after September 11, all of us wanted to believe so much in him that I mean you saw columnists writing columns on September 13 about how radically he'd grown in the presidency since September 11. That's a heck of a 48 hours. You know? And I think we're now going to get back towards a little bit more balanced portrait. He's done some things very well. The media has noted those things and has been right to do so. But I think there's been a little bit too much gush.
TERENCE SMITH: Frank Bruni, thanks so much.
FRANK BRUNI: Thank you.
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