George W. Bush leaves office with a job-approval rating that once soared to historic highs, then fell slowly but steadily for five years before settling, in the last couple of years, into lows that no president has ever experienced for so long. The president’s final Gallup approval rating of 2008 is 28 percent; a number like that means some core Republicans don’t approve of Bush’s performance, and even among the many in the GOP who still approve, there are a number who are ready to see the president go.
Bush knows that. The White House staff knows it. But the president’s political fortunes haven’t affected the intense loyalty that those who know him best feel for him. The people who have worked with George W. Bush in the White House for many of these past eight years have seen a different man from the one reflected in so much negative press coverage. And as they prepare to leave on January 20, their feelings for him are, if anything, stronger than when they arrived.
In the long ago, pre-9/11 days of January 2001, Bush came to office determined to run the White House in a careful, orderly way — a complete change from the disorder of the Clinton White House. When I recently asked former top political adviser Karl Rove about Bush’s approach to managing the White House, Rove never mentioned Clinton, but the point seemed clear: “If a president is personally disorganized and late and inattentive and meanders intellectually across the landscape,” Rove told me, “that’s what is going to happen inside the White House.” Bush was determined to avoid that.
And he did. There’s no doubt that in the early months of the Bush administration, the White House was tightly run, with extraordinary discipline running through all levels of the organization. There were, for example, virtually no leaks — which was itself a story. I wrote an article, just before September 11, about the “remarkable cohesiveness” of Bush’s staff and the inner workings of the “smooth-running White House message machine.” That stood in stark contrast not just to the Clinton years, but to the Bush I and Reagan administrations, as well.
Then George W. Bush became a war president. Planning retaliation in Afghanistan and working 24/7 to prevent another attack here in the United States — remember when there was a near-consensus among experts that another would come soon? — the White House ran with even more extraordinary discipline. That discipline remained intact in the months leading up to the March, 2003 beginning of the war in Iraq.
But then, by Fall 2003, Bush the war president became Bush the long-war president. U.S. forces did not find the expected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The American post-invasion handling of the country was disorganized and inadequate. A hyper-violent insurgency developed. The White House came under daily attack from a political opposition that had previously supported the president, or at least stood by as he prosecuted the war on terrorism. Bush’s job-approval rating, which stood at 70 percent when the war began, fell 20 points in the course of a few months.
Inside the White House, Bush’s job changed. Fully aware of the criticism coming from the outside — those reports that Bush didn’t read the papers were never correct — he became even more mindful than before of the effect his own moods had on other people. If the president got down about things, if he panicked, if he was angry — if any of that happened, then the bad feelings would trickle down to the White House staff, and malaise, or worse, would set in. Bush was determined not to let that happen. “I think he believes that if he lost faith and became downcast, that would radiate to the rest of his staff and administration and other Americans,” Peter Wehner, a former Rove deputy, told me. “He believes the man at the top sets the tone; and he was determined to set an upbeat tone. If he was seized by doubt, others would be, too — both in his administration and in the country.”
Of course, the worst days lay ahead, as the war stretched into its third and fourth years and the violence increased. “In 2006, even the end of 2005, it was pretty grim,” William McGurn, former chief White House speechwriter, told me. “He always thought, ‘These guys on the front line don’t need the commander-in-chief wringing his hands and saying, oh, this is harder than we thought.’ For me, I just admired the fact that everyone tried to give him an out on Iraq and he wouldn’t take it. He would comment on that a lot in meetings, in the sense that, ‘I’m not going to withdraw until we win.’ In 2006, there were a lot of people who didn’t want us to lose, but boy, they would have liked to be done with Iraq.”
Beyond that steadfastness, another thing the White House staff admired about Bush was his loyalty. They felt their loyalty to him was returned in full measure, and it gave them confidence when the White House seemed engulfed in criticism. The president’s loyalty usually paid off, but occasionally it didn’t. For example, Bush and others at the top level of the White House had some doubts about whether Scott McClellan was up to the job of spokesman. When the time came to promote him, or not promote him, Bush went along with those to whom he had delegated the decision-making authority. McClellan turned out to be an ineffective spokesman — at a time the White House desperately needed an effective one — and later turned on the president with a highly critical kiss-and-tell book. In that case, at least, Bush’s loyalty was misplaced.
But most of the time, it paid real dividends. When I sent Dana Perino, the current White House spokeswoman, an e-mail asking for her thoughts on this topic, her enthusiasm jumped off the screen. “It’s always amazed me that he’s constantly trying to buck us up,” she told me. “For example, during the election cycle, the president said that I should not rise to the bait when he was attacked, that I should let it go and not get caught up in the election. For a while there, it was really difficult — after all, over $125 million in negative ads against him were run the last several months. One day the president called me and said he’d heard I’d had a tough briefing, and that no one wants to stand up there and be a piñata — but that I was doing the right thing and he was proud of me. I have a ton of examples just like that.”
So do lots of others in the Bush White House. And now, as they prepare to leave, those stories are what they’ll remember most about the president.