the choice 2004 [home]
homeleadershipgeorge w. bushjohn f. kerrydiscussion
traits and instincts

photo of bush

It was widely -- and wrongly -- assumed by most political experts that Texas Gov. George W. Bush was a moderate and unambitious, and that when he arrived in Washington this wouldn't change. Commenting here on elements of Bush's character and temperament that analysts didn't recognize at the time, are former speechwriter David Frum, New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann, journalist Bob Woodward, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, and longtime friend Clay Johnson. These excerpts are drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.

photo of lemann
read the full interview

david frum
Former speechwriter for President Bush.

…He's got a kind of perseverance, a tenacity. There's a story with Ulysses S. Grant, that Grant, from his earliest days had a habit, or a superstition, that he would never retrace his steps. That if he had found he was on a road, and he found he had gone too far, he would do a wide loop in order to get back to the place where he needed to be. But he would never go backward. I think there is something about that in George Bush. There is a kind of personal stubbornness that makes him take hold of something, and not let it go.

You could see many people who, at the time of 9/11 said, "The country will never forget this." And yet, time passed. And you could see it fading every day. And a lot of people in public life saying, "Well, it's a problem. But it's not the problem. It's possible to over-react. We can't let terrorism define our whole foreign policy." And you could, in the days after 9/11, you could sense that that was coming. And you could also sense that day would never come to him.

Why is that a good thing?

His approach to terrorism is a good thing, because in the days after 9/11, everyone said they believed the same things as George Bush believed. But he meant it. One of the things that a more ordinary politician would have done was he would have expressed all the things that George Bush expressed, but with a kind of asterisk beside them -- that he would reserve the option to return to normal at some point in the future, at some near point in the future, before all of this was expunged and avenged. …

related links
see a chronology of bush's life

photo of lemann
read the full interview

nicholas lemann
Political correspondent to The New Yorker.

… President Bush is a risk taker. And he does things that put a lot into play not especially carefully. A much less glamorous example [than the Iraq war] is the No Child Left Behind Act. I think one in five Americans is either a public school student, or a public school teacher. Maybe even one in four. It affects a huge part of the country enormously. It just isn't President Bush's way to say, "Well, wait a minute, if I'm going to be touching this many people's lives, I should really be careful about it." He wants to push, to get it. …

…When you say he's a risk taker, you talk about him being ambitious, you talk about him wanting to do big things, to be a transformative president. Where does it come from?

I've thought about that a lot. First of all, although President Bush often accuses other people of being members of the elite or the elitists, you can't come from a more elite background than him. Unless you're a Rockefeller or something, it's just very hard to think of more fortunate circumstances than the ones into which he was born, where he's connected from birth to practically everything and everybody. Every possibility is open to him.

Part of it is just that he's raised as a sort of prince to think of himself as a person for whom all things are possible. That's just woven into his life so much that it can't not express himself in ambition as a governing leader.

Is he intellectually secure? How would you characterize George W.?

Yes, here we're really speculating, [but] I'll give you an answer. I think he's a really complicated and subtle mix of secure and insecure. He's had a lot of experiences in life that he would read as, if not failure, at least not succeeding at things. Many people he has encountered in life haven't been won over by him. Bill Clinton's a guy [who], everybody he's ever met, he's made the sale.

Can you give me a short litany of those experiences for Bush?

He didn't do real well at Andover, at least compared to his father. Didn't do real well at Yale, at least compared to his father. Didn't do real well in the oil business, certainly compared to his father. Lost his first race for office. He didn't have a lot of experiences before the Rangers that were in the nature of, you're getting the message back, "Wow, you aced it." There just weren't a lot of things like that for him. So if he, after that run, were to be totally secure, it would be sort of amazing, because having all those experiences sort of works its way into you.

Yet there seems to be in him this utter confidence, deep inside, thinking, "OK, yes, I've had these experiences, but I know I'm right and they're wrong. If I can just get to a place where the rules are different, different people are in charge, I can show that I can be real successful."

He found that. So in a way, the insecurity-enhancing experiences led him to find places he could go where he felt much more secure, got much more affirmation. When he got to those places, we see him having this utter self-confidence. ...

photo of woodward
read the full interview

bob woodward
Author of Bush at War and Plan of Attack.

… Bush looks at problems, and he told me, he said -- "I'm a gut player. I play by instincts. I don't play by the book." And, of course, the book is Policy 101 about how you make these kinds of decisions [on going to war in Iraq]. And all of this coming from the gut.

And I think what the first step is -- "Do we have a problem? -- Saddam's a problem." There's this convergence -- "and fix it." In his mind is "fix it. Get it solved." You know, "Colin Powell, fix it. Condi, fix it. Rumsfeld, fix it. George Tenet, fix it." And, in this case, they had to all come together, and it took a long time. But I think he was pretty much committed.

And he said so in that famous U.N. address in September of 2002. His message was, "You, the UN, either solve the Saddam problem, or we're gonna solve it by ourselves."…

photo of slater
read the full interview

wayne slater
Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

… He's a person who, at the core, has absolute confidence in his ability to get something done, whether it's the education bill or whether it's winning over adversaries.

And 9/11-- ... That moment, when he went to the site, we saw a guy who had found himself, who understands fundamentally that there are a few core ideas that [he has] enormous confidence in. He has confidence in himself when it's simple, when it's direct, when it's black-and-white. He's not good when the issue is nuanced and difficult. He is really at his best when he can deal one-on-one, absolutely right and wrong way. He believes fundamentally in the nature of evil and the nature of good.

In a biblical sense?

He believes it absolutely in a biblical sense. In George Bush's world, he believes -- as many evangelicals do -- that we are engaged in a great drama, and this drama is one in which good is battling evil. This war gave him a fundamental opportunity to live out something that is very real inside him theologically, and that is "They are the enemy." When he uses the word, "evildoers," he does so in way that resonates beyond rhetoric. It is theological. It is fundamental. It is black-and-white. …

photo of johnson
read the full interview

clay johnson
A longtime friend of George W. Bush who has served in his administrations in Texas and Washington.

…He has a tremendous ability to get at the essence of things. He used to say that he was an instinctive decision-maker. He based a lot of things on gut feel. …

He did that in Texas, and he's doing that up here as well. Everybody knows that comes into his office for a meeting that he's going to ask, "What are we really trying to do here? What is the definition of success?" When the proposal was made to create a Department of Homeland Security, everybody explained the logic of why there ought to be homeland security.

There are 21 or 22 different departments that dealt with homeland security matters. Everybody felt like the logic was that these departments ought to be put together into one. He said, "Well, I understand the logic of it. But meanwhile, what's really going to happen different on the border? When the truck comes up to a border station, what's really going to happen differently that can only happen with the Department of Homeland Security?"

The same thing I know happened in the Middle East, where he asked, "What's the definition of success in the Middle East?" Not "Where do we want to be a year from now or two years from now?" [But] "Where would we like to be five or ten years?"

He gets everybody to focus on that. Then all the plans of the short term are those that maximize the probability of making that long-term solution come to be.

home · introduction · george w. bush · john f. kerry · what makes a good president?
interviews · links · join the discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
teacher's guide · plan a campus event · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted oct. 12, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
some photos copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation