“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.”