History And The Bushes

PrintPrintEmailEmailDuring the years I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and worked as a historian there, I’ve been privileged to visit the West Wing of the White House many times. Every administration’s West Wing reflects a different air, often dictated by the events of the moment. On May 13, 2004, I went there to interview President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in the midst of the Iraq War, just weeks before the country was to be turned over to its national governing council. The waiting room and hallways of the West Wing seemed to buzz with activity in a strangely hushed, expectant atmosphere. As I waited in a vestibule outside the Oval Office with the First Lady’s press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, the door to the most famous room in America suddenly opened and there stood Laura Bush, offering a warm welcome and a wide grin. The President was finishing up a conversation with a departing aide, and then he gave me a hearty handshake and pat on the back. We immediately began the interview, joined also by his press secretary, Scott McClellan.

Throughout our conversation I was struck by just how intensely the President felt about American history and the records of his predecessors. He was quick to point out that it had been a high school history teacher who had sparked his interest, and Mrs. Bush remarked that he had majored in history at Yale. While he was firm on his reasons for pursuing the war, he emphasized that history would be the real judge. He spoke so passionately, and at such length, that I momentarily feared, wrongly as it turned out, that Mrs. Bush would not be able to respond as fully as she might have wished. (Curiously, this was also the case when I interviewed the Clintons for American Heritage a decade ago on the magazine’s fortieth anniversary. Presidents do seem to know and enjoy history.) Mrs. Bush’s knowledge of history and adoption of such preservation projects as “Save Our History” are more widely known, but it was a happy surprise to learn that a childhood in which the old hardback American Heritage magazines were read and cherished may have prompted her interest.

As we neared the end of our talk, any fears I had of running over the allotted time were allayed by the engrossed President, and it was Mrs. Bush who finally explained that she had to dash out of the West Wing to get to another interview. The President smiled and quipped that he wanted to “let the record state” that if it were up to him, he would have liked to continue our discussion.

As you know, this discussion is taking place on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of American Heritage magazine. And the White House still looks very much the way it looked back then, when Harry Truman was in office. That’s more than a half-century’s worth of Presidents, including your father. Tell me a little bit about how it feels living and working with history.

The President: Well, the Oval Office is about a hundred years old. And every time you come in here, you’re reminded that a President is a part of history. There are reminders of my predecessors throughout the Oval Office. I’ve got the bust of Eisenhower here, a portrait of George Washington, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. I sit at the HMS Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria that was used by many Presidents, including President Reagan. Franklin Roosevelt put on its door, out of which John-John Kennedy poked his head in the most famous Oval Office photo. These furnishings and mementos remind me of the obligation I have to uphold the honor of the office, of the necessity of thinking big thoughts for a grand nation, and of the need to make decisions based upon principle—the principles embodied in our founding.

That’s why learning about the past is so important to our understanding of the present, because by looking back, we’re able to discern the greatness of our country. My job is to think boldly and to lead, because a great country can affect the world in such positive ways. The Oval Office—the history of the Oval Office—constantly reminds me of that.

Are the busts and portraits of Presidents ones you personally chose?

The President: Yes, I like the steadiness of Ike. I like the vision of Lincoln. He understood that the country needed to be united. A President must understand that the job is to unite the country in order to achieve big goals.

One of the hardest parts of this job is to unite the country. Presidents have always complained about Washington being too political, that politics makes it difficult to be a unifying figure. And Presidents have always complained about the press corps making it more difficult to be a uniter. I suspect my writings will reflect the same frustration. [Laughter.]

A bust of Churchill is here. He’s obviously not an American, but in many ways he is an American figure because he was so much part of our struggle to win World War II. He was tough, strong, visionary, funny, and he did not yield in the face of criticism. A President has got to be clear in thought, clear in vision, and willing to stand strong in the face of inevitable criticism when he does big things.

It’s just part of the job. But I’ve got great confidence in what we’re doing. I strongly believe in our mission to secure America, to spread freedom, and, by doing so, make the world more peaceful.