WASHINGTON — The puzzle that historians of the future will have to try to solve is how George W. Bush was transformed from what appeared to many people to be rather a frivolous lightweight into a serious minded, poised, and effective national leader.
One answer is that this is what happens to leaders when they meet with adversity. Or it doesn't happen. But it did with Mr. Bush. He had the stuff inside him all along. It just took a challenge of the dimension of Sept. 11 to do it.
The New York Times newsman Frank Bruni, who dogged Bush's footsteps during the last presidential campaign, came up with this "rising to the challenge" answer to the Bush enigma. He writes in his new book, "Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush," that the "unthreatening, easy-going man" for whom many Americans voted had changed with the crisis, "turning him into one of the most interesting presidents in decades."
He adds, "Bush has indeed exceeded expectations, at least as an unusually riveting character in a newly compelling drama."
But Mr. Bruni had discerned that the "maturing process" of George W. had started during the presidential campaign: "He clearly learned something about his limitations and how he needed to adjust to them.... He was not a new man, but he was a slightly different one, and maybe a slightly better one...."
Then Bruni tells us that there was something else Bush's faith that was "perhaps crucial" in "his ability to handle himself so well in public and, by all accounts, in private after the attacks."
Bruni then writes about a visit by a group of religious leaders to the White House. When one told Bush that his leadership at this time of crisis was part of God's plan and Bush responded, "I accept the responsibility."
Apart from providing insights into how the "new Bush" emerged, Bruni gives us the most insightful view of the day-to-day activities of the press covering a presidential campaign that I've seen since Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus" was written back in the early '70s.
Bruni writes of working long, long hours and suffering all kinds of traveling hardships as he and his colleagues for the most part strove to provide an accurate chronicle. But he also writes about some exceptions to this dedicated effort to provide an honest account. For one, he noted that some reporters' "stock in trade" was, during the primaries, to goad one candidate into criticizing a second candidate's position on an issue, use that comment to coax a retort from the second candidate, then write about how the two had "feuded" or "sparred" on the campaign trail that day.
May I make a prediction? Just as "The Boys on the Bus" has become a fixture on journalism schools' "must read" list, Bruni's account (it is more an in-depth study) of the making of the G.W. presidency (particularly Bruni's expert portrayal of the candidate's "growing up" and the relationship between the candidate and the press) will be turned to eagerly by young journalists heading for a career as political writers. Teddy White, that almost-revered chronicler of presidential campaigns, would have loved this book.
I was one of the boys on the bus on several presidential campaigns, going back to the Eisenhower-Stevenson race of 1956. But I seldom stuck with a bus, or a plane, for days and weeks on end, the way many reporters did and do. Instead, I would drop off for a few days and talk to voters to get a "feel" of how candidates were faring in that part of the country. Then I'd catch up with the candidate and get back on board again.
I, too, for the most part, saw very good and honest reporting going on back then. But there were exceptions.
The best reporters, I thought, were the "loners," those who dug up their stories on their own. I would sometimes note a similarity in the "story line" of those reporters who were always together on the bus or plane and, later in the day, at a hotel or dining room. To me, it was a good example of "pack journalism."
At times it also became clear in campaign after campaign that a lot of reporters had picked out their favorite candidate. I vividly recall the anti-Nixon satirical songs that many of the press were singing back in 1968 and 1972. I used to wonder: Wouldn't that bias seep into their stories?