WASHINGTON - What's on the president's mind these days? We do still have a president, though it's sometimes hard to remember in our impatience to replace him.
Amid dwindling interest in anything Bush, the president called a meeting June 30 of a few opinion writers. He spoke briefly about his current concerns, then opened the floor for questions. Unfortunately, little he said can be reported because it was mostly off the record. An official transcript of the 90-minute meeting was just three paragraphs.
Then again, little Bush said would qualify as newsworthy. In non-news from the White House: Bush hasn't changed his mind about anything. And he still doesn't care whether anyone likes it. Popularity has never been his muse.
The three items that made the transcript were gas prices, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Iraq.
Bush is concerned about gas prices and insists that we need to drill for oil in the U.S. No surprise there. He is pleased with the FISA bill recently passed by the House. The bill effectively grants immunity to phone companies that wiretap suspected terrorists, while providing greater congressional oversight.
The president stressed that our war on terror "requires us to be proactive and to prevent attacks," and that phone companies have to be protected from liability. Again, nothing new.
Finally, Bush expressed relief that initial skepticism about Iraq is beginning to fade among Middle East leaders. Bush noted that Jordan's King Abdullah II has named a new ambassador to Iraq and that other countries (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) plan to open embassies in Baghdad.
That's it for the record.
Off the record, Americans aren't missing much. Anyone who has followed Bush's speeches knows more or less what he said, minus an anecdote or two. Bush doesn't pull rabbits out of hats. No surprising insights spring through the parted curtain of the president's mind.
The Bush you know, in other words, is the Bush you've still got. If any "aha's" lurk unbidden, they will remain in the shadows until Bush writes his promised book. Whereupon we'll know the real story, which, one gathers, will differ significantly from other books recently in circulation.
In the meantime, a few impressions and observations from the Oval Office: Bush is dressed in a blue suit and sits slightly slouched in an armchair. The rest of us, journalists and staff, take seats among chairs and couches that form a loose circle, while a server offers tall glasses filled with ice water or Diet Coke.
As Bush talks, he scratches his head, noisily chomps his ice, and occasionally flutters his lips with a loud exhalation the way horses do. Is that a snort or a nicker? Whatever the technical term, it sounds like frustration mixed with ennui.
As in, how many times do we have to go through this? We're at war. An ideological struggle. A fight for civilization. Et cetera, et cetera. Despite his insistence that he is "sprinting toward the finish," Bush seems weary, if also characteristically optimistic.
Is he completely out of touch with reality, as Bush-bashers insist? Or does he know something the rest of us don't?
Observing Bush the past seven and a half years has been like watching a variation of David Mamet's "Oleanna." In the play, two people share the exact same experience, yet have completely different interpretations of what occurred.
Bush looks out his window and sees an ideological clash that America must win, by pre-emption if necessary, while a majority of Americans see an unnecessary war. While Bush is confident that the future will feature a free, peaceful and democratic Middle East, and is content to let history judge him, the rest of the world wants a new play. And fast.
Whatever one's view, Bush believes - as he told me on another occasion - that the next president, once he reviews the intelligence, will see what Bush sees. That shared view, the president implied, will make it less easy for his successor to condemn Bush's decisions.
Or, presumably, to dramatically change course.
Whether Bush is right remains to be seen, but the Mamet analogy, meanwhile, may prove more prophetic than merely ironic. The title "Oleanna" comes from a 19th-century Norwegian folk song, popularized by Pete Seeger, that was a critique of a utopian society where "wheat and corn just plant themselves/Then grow a good four feet a day/While on your bed you rest yourself."
A president can dream, can't he?
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