The George W. Bush I know

Behind the scenes of the 2000 presidential campaign, Carl Cameron was one of the 10 or so reporters who covered George W. Bush day in and day out. Overall, he had more than 30 one-on-one interviews with the then-Texas governor. Following are some of the reporter's impressions of the new president.

To capture George W. Bush's attention - and keep it - baseball, jogging, and his ranch are surefire topics. Want to lose him? Bring up any policy issue other than education.

But he's not as uninformed or indifferent as critics charge. He just prefers to set broad goals, delegate the details, and move on quickly. He can also go on for hours about political tactics and strategy, though he tends to keep such thoughts private, lest he appear too calculating.

When it comes to political rivals and critics, President Bush is publicly and, for the most part, genuinely respectful. But when his patience wears thin, he has been known to shrug them off with a sniff that suggests "they are beneath my radar." Fairly regularly, he demonstrates a fluency with four-letter cuss words in keeping with his cherished self-image as a plain-talkin' Texan.

In the beginning, his campaign hoped familiarity would foster positive coverage, so most of Bush's conversations with journalists were on the record. Toward the end, just about everything that wasn't on camera was off the record. Aides wanted to prevent his increasingly hasty and heated comments from becoming headlines.

When he wanted to unwind, he would often leave his seat at the front of the jet and amble back to visit. As a natural cut-up and tease, he'd nod and kid his way past the section with his staffers. He'd exchange tough-guy glances with Secret Service agents and the Texas marshals, then turn to the reporters' section.

We wanted to talk about the campaign. He wanted to small-talk. Sometimes he'd linger with those who had covered him the longest. He nicknamed some of us: CNN's Candy Crowley is "Dulce," Spanish for sweets - Candy. I got "Camarones," Spanish for shrimp. At 6 feet, 2 inches, I never took it as a jab. I figure he was just playing off my last name.

As a candidate, Mr. Bush was often impatient and easily distracted. During many of those campaign conversations, it was obvious to some of us that he was itching to get to the back of the plane. That was where the camera crews and technical people were seated, and Bush would spend hours joking and yakking with folks he regularly referred to as "my people."

Like most politicians, Bush believes he can persuade just about anyone to like him - including reporters - through sheer force of personality. But he makes no secret of his distrust of the media, particularly the Washington media. This creates a dilemma for George W. Bush.

Even during rocky times Bush would want to hang out with the media, and it gave his staffers fits. They would often pull him aside in the front of the plane and almost shout, "Don't go back there, stay away from those people, they are not your friends."

But when reporters, myself included, wrote or broadcast something accurate that was potentially damaging, he seemed to go out of his way to be friendly.

The day after Fox first reported the story of Bush's old arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, he gave me his only interview on the subject - his last interview before Election Day.

Bush also likes to be underestimated. On his very first campaign swing, in June 1999, he almost boasted that he'd be ridiculed as "slow" in the same way Ronald Reagan was. Bush uses that, of course. It's easy to make a strong impression when expectations are low.

He has a disdain for elitists; he's an antisnob snob. He takes great pleasure in besting those who think they are better than everyone else.

He can be tough, and has a temper. He doesn't hold most grudges very long, but can blow up. He's glared and barked at certain reporters and on occasion refused to grant interviews to those he thinks have been unfair or dishonest.

That hothead image goes back to his youth; he admits getting the short fuse from his mother. Already in Washington, that reputation has served him well. D.C. veterans who knew him in his wilder days recognize that he has become a more seasoned, mature leader - but remember that "W" is not a man to be crossed.

Though Bush claims to ignore polls, he's always been a poll-watcher. He knows demographics and state-by-state politics, and knows that now that he's in office, rough patches can be waited out. He also knows honeymoons don't last forever.

Here's a warning for those inclined to heap praise on Bush, warranted or not: He has little use for suck-ups. He prefers the unpretentious. His own humility, often expressed through self-deprecating humor, is not an affectation. Nor is his Christianity. Nor is his commitment to keeping political promises.

Many in Washington see such things as naive at best, contrived at worst. On the campaign trail, it took a while for some of us to realize that much about Bush is what it appears to be. Take "compassionate conservatism." Fiscally and socially, he is undeniably conservative. As for compassion, our 43rd president cries - with loved ones as well as with polite acquaintances. He sees similarities between himself and Bill Clinton when it comes to showing emotion. Yup, he said it.

Though Bush prefers to avoid mortal combat in both his political and personal dealings, he will not run from fights.

There is one thing about Bush that I know for sure: He is sure of himself. He knows his limitations, liabilities, and weaknesses, and he knows his strengths.

And he likes to win. Over the next four years, his rivals should never forget that.

Carl Cameron is Fox TV's chief national political correspondent.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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