A Humbled Presidency
After a series of setbacks, Bush tries a more thoughtful approach
Maybe it was the influence of his wife, Laura, a former librarian, or his mother, Barbara, a longtime promoter of literacy. Or perhaps he was just eager to dispel his image as an intellectual lightweight. But President Bush now wants it known that he is a man of letters. In fact, Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove, his political adviser. White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year (while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50). The commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone-two on Abraham Lincoln and, more surprising for a man of unambiguous convictions, The Stranger, Albert Camus's existential tale of murder and alienation (story, Page 38).
Bush's critics aren't buying. A man who so regularly mangles the English language and seems to disdain complexity couldn't possibly be so cerebral, they argue. But portraying Bush as a voracious reader is part of an ongoing White House campaign to restore what a senior adviser calls "gravitas" to the Bush persona. He certainly needs something. Only about 34 percent of Americans approve of his job performance-and 58 percent say Bush "seems in over his head," according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. If nothing changes, the president could be a major liability for Republicans in November's congressional elections.
Changing these perceptions won't be easy. "A president's image is pretty much set after a few years in office, and it will be very difficult [for Bush] to quickly reverse that image with the public," says political historian Julian Zelizer of Boston University. "It's a cynical age and a cynical country, and it's a savvy public." But the White House is giving it a try. Last week provided a glimpse of Bush's new "gravitas campaign"-and illustrated why his presidency has been humbled-if not in spirit, then in Bush's grudging acknowledgment of his current limitations. The latest blow came when a federal judge in Detroit declared Bush's warrantless eavesdropping program unconstitutional (box, Page 38). More broadly, Bush has been forced to come to terms with reluctant allies abroad, continuing bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan, a protracted crisis in Lebanon, looming showdowns with Iran and North Korea, and, at home, a balky Congress and a disapproving electorate.
Stepping up. So Bush is changing the way he does business. He returned to Washington from an August vacation at his Texas ranch after only 10 days, in contrast to the five weeks he spent in Crawford a year ago. His public pace seemed especially frenetic-featuring high-profile meetings to discuss the Iraq war on Monday, sessions to discuss homeland security Tuesday, a visit to a motorcycle plant in Pennsylvania Wednesday, signing a new pension security bill Thursday, and meeting with senior economic advisers at Camp David Friday. Pointedly, Bush didn't hold his meetings in the West Wing but traveled around the Washington area-to the Pentagon, the State Department, a new National Counterterrorism Center in suburban Virginia, and Camp David-all to project a sense of vigor and activism.