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Under siege, George Bush opens up

The Baltimore Sun

Dead Certain

The Presidency of George W. Bush

By Robert Draper

Free Press/ 480 pages/ $28

When a national magazine correspondent first sought White House cooperation for a real-time biography of President Bush, it was no surprise that the most secretive administration in memory said no, even to a fellow Texan.

But, 18 months later - his presidency beset by an unpopular war, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the lowest poll numbers of his career - George W. Bush opened the doors to the Oval Office, ignoring the advice of his wife and his chief strategist in an attempt to shape his legacy even before he packs his bags.

The result is Dead Certain, by Robert Draper, the kind of literary psychoanalysis that usually lands years after a president has left office.

In this age of instant books, this one takes its place among the tomes that have strafed the administration with accounts of a failed war and a dysfunctional White House. This appears to be Bush's answer, the latest vehicle for presidential spin made possible by a publishing industry that can produce in months what once took years.

"It speaks to how needful they are at this point," said historian Robert Dallek, who has written several presidential biographies. "They understand he is in serious trouble."

Draper is no apologist for the administration, and for Bush-bashers there are plenty of nuggets. The reader is drawn into a White House inner sanctum where Bush wolfs down a low-fat hot dog and, with crumbs on his chin, expounds on "the Iranian issue" as the strategic threat facing a generation of Americans.

But the overall portrait sheds a humanizing light on a much-vilified president, offering Bush an unusual opportunity to shape his image in book form: We see him privately mourning fallen soldiers, deftly rebounding from defeat and gulping down cheese.

While Draper's portrait of Bush isn't always flattering, it brings to life in compelling detail the everyman traits that endeared him to many voters in the first place. Such private sides of Bush are not new, but the detail in which they are presented is, collected from broad access to his closest confidantes and six hours of sit-downs that the famously press-hating president termed "the most time I've ever spent with one reporter."

Cooperating with an author who made no promises was an unexpected move by a president who has gone to extraordinary measures to secure his e-mail and official papers from historians and journalists.

It probably didn't hurt that Draper is a native Texan and known quantity who wrote a probing 1998 account of Bush for GQ magazine. But it was likely that the president's political predicament and declining public approval were what drove him to cooperate with an author who wanted to focus not on his policies, but on his personal traits - the very thing that had rescued him from countless predicaments in the past.

"President Bush's world had changed," Draper, 49, said in an interview, referring to the 18-month span between his first pitch to former counselor Dan Bartlett and August 2006, when Bush granted him an off-the-record interview in the West Wing. "He was no longer flying high as a man with lots of political capital to spend. . . . His presidency was in trouble," Draper said.

A Houston native, former Texas Monthly editor and GQ correspondent, Draper's Texas roots were deep. He was a longtime friend of campaign strategist Mark McKinnon, who favored the idea from the start, and knew many of Bush's loyal lieutenants.

Karl Rove, the president's former longtime political strategist, advised against the book, lumping Draper with the "Texas Monthly crowd" that considered Bush a great governor but lousy chief executive. First Lady Laura Bush, whose role it has been to "put the brakes on the president's impulses," was equally opposed, Draper said.

But Bush had other ideas. He had become an avid book reader in six years as president (at one point he proudly tells Draper he is up to 87 for the year), some of them biographies that explored the minds of Harry Truman, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. He came to see their self-revelation as historically enlightening rather than invasive, Draper said.

And of the countless journalists and historians gnawing at Bush for time, only Draper had suggested writing a simple biography about what motivates this sitting president, to help the country, as Draper put it, "get him."

"I said that 50 years from now no one would care what I thought about him, but everyone would care how this undistinguished Midland oilman changed the world for better or worse," Draper said.

Bush consented, making Draper earn access along the way, as White House officials assessed the author's methods. Draper said no promises were made, no content was reviewed before publication. Among those interviewed were Rove, Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The book landed in stores Labor Day week, the traditional kickoff of the presidential campaign season and the eve of congressional hearings on progress in Iraq, neither of which promises to be kind to the Bush legacy.

Sales have been brisk, and the publisher, Free Press, intends to supplement the 70,000 copies first printed with 30,000 more. Whether it will help Bush persuade the country to stick with him depends on which of Draper's many views of Bush readers decide to embrace.

"He is at times uncouth, reckless, petulant and stubborn," Draper said, summing up his subject. "He also has a clarity of purpose, a more aggressive intellect than commonly thought to be the case, and he is capable of true decency."

Faye Fiore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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