The call came last Saturday: President Bush would do an interview with me at 11 a.m. Monday morning. Be there or be square.
This was the third time I had interviewed George W. Bush, but the first time that he was on the defensive, back on his heels. I first met the man when his campaign had momentum in the fall of 2000, and spoke with him again six weeks before the 2004 vote, when he was confident he would defeat John Kerry.
But in the fall of 2006, the President’s job approval poll numbers are hovering around 40%, and he is taking a beating over the stalemate in Iraq. So I was interested to see what kind of a toll all this had taken on the man. Most presidents age in dog years while occupying the White House; how was Mr. Bush faring?
The answer is quite well, at least physically. He works out like crazy and mountain bikes in his rare spare time. Six years have given him a few more wrinkles, but honestly, I have aged far more than he has and I don’t have to deal with Putin or the nutty North Korean guy.
My theory about President Bush is that he is a true believer; he sincerely thinks he is looking out for America in the best ways possible, the polls be damned. That kind of certainty provides solace and calm.
However, this type of attitude is a double-edged sword. Mr. Bush reportedly sleeps well; he is not prowling the White House at 4AM the way Bill Clinton was, but true believers often do not react quickly to changing circumstances. They tend to set a course and stay the course. Sometimes that philosophy drives one off-course.
Iraq is the defining issue of Mr. Bush’s presidency. His administration has succeeded in badly damaging Al Qaeda and making it very difficult for terrorism to take root on American soil. This is undeniable. The Bush haters will tell you that the President is fear-mongering and the like, but this is just hyper-partisan nonsense. Stopping Al Qaeda is a huge job and President Bush is on top of it.
But few anticipated that Iran would pile on the Iraq situation, and that is why the conflict over there remains bloody and unstable. The Iranians are arming and funding Shia killers and do not want a stable government in Iraq. They are promoting chaos so the USA will leave—leaving Iran calling the shots in Baghdad. If that happens, Muslim terrorism will dramatically increase in power everywhere, and moderate Muslim Gulf States will lose faith in the USA.
Most Americans are depressed over Iraq and blame the Bush administration for failing to win the war. That is understandable. But Mr. Bush believes he can outlast the insurgents, and that his strategy is the only viable way to blunt the savage jihad. The President sees himself as a modern day Abraham Lincoln before Gettysburg, under siege but standing firm.
Nobody knows how Iraq will play out in the two years the President has left in office. But what I can tell you is that he is committed to the fight, and believes in it with all his heart.
Is that enough for victory? Impossible to tell. But I’m praying it is.