Learning Curve

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To hear those closest to him tell it, George W. Bush never broke a sweat during the 36 days of electoral limbo that almost deprived him of the presidency. His closest advisers, friends and even family members all describe Bush's mood during that tense period as "serene" or "calm" or "even keeled." He was never angry, they say, never worried or self-pitying. His sister Dorothy Bush Koch was so concerned about his state of mind that she would call down to Texas periodically to see if he needed cheering up. He didn't. "Don't worry about me," George told her. "I'm fine." David Sibley, a Texas state senator, had invited the Bushes to his daughter's Dec. 2 wedding. Bush called up beforehand and said he'd make it if he'd lost by then but wouldn't be able to if he'd won, because of all the security and other encumbrances that come with the job. It seemed to his friend as if Bush could live with either outcome. "He takes life as it comes," says Sibley.

Bush's "serenity" over that period occasionally bordered on what seemed like total detachment. He spent days out at his ranch in remote Crawford, Texas, hacking away at cedar undergrowth. He dispatched Dick Cheney to Washington to start building a new Administration, in case one was needed. And at the very instant when the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Bush v. Gore were being broadcast to the public last Monday, a moment when so many Americans were riveted to their television sets and radios, Bush left his office and went to the gym - not because he was nervous, aides said, but because it happened to be the time of day when he likes to go to the gym.

Whether it's serenity or detachment, or a combination of both, Bush's ability to tune things out is real. But it is not the whole story. On election night, when Al Gore called a second time to withdraw his concession, Bush was famously "snippy" on the phone, his preternatural equanimity having been stretched beyond its limits. And some visitors to the Governor's Mansion in Austin during the postelection interlude say that Bush, when he was in town, was not always so sanguine and accepting about the things he could not control. He was especially bothered by the protesters and supporters who had lined the sidewalk across the street from the mansion. He would jump up and go to the window to stare at the demonstrators and complain about the noise they were making.

Within Bush, the tension between his quick temper and his capacity for detachment is not unique. It is mirrored by the clash between a self-confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance and a humility born out of faith and some experience with failure. And it is reflected also in his willingness to surround himself with smart advisers on the one hand and his disdain for haughty intellectuals on the other. The question is whether the crucible of a two-year campaign changed Bush and, if so, how.

There are several competing visions of Bush's presidential journey. In one he is a rock, his personality and beliefs so immutable that not even the extraordinary experience of running for President could affect them. "He's exactly the same good guy, 100%," says Brad Freeman, a friend of two decades who served as Bush's California finance chairman and who occasionally turned up on the campaign trail to keep the candidate in good spirits. "There are some situations when I can't kid around with him as much. He's more serious. But he's the same guy." Says campaign chairman and close friend Don Evans: "The important things haven't changed - his faith, his values, his belief that there's a higher authority."

Evans is right, for the most part. Bush has an immutable core. For one thing, he is a man of habits, and even a presidential campaign did not compel him to break many. He insisted on returning home from the campaign most weekends, even at the very end, so he could sleep in his own bed and play with his pets. He kept his days relatively short, often finishing the last speech by seven or nine. Bush didn't care about appearing lazy. And although he was criticized for talking openly about his faith during the primaries, Bush's religion wasn't just for the consumption of Christian conservative voters. During the October debates with Al Gore, he dealt with the pressure by squeezing a small cross he had tucked away in his pants pocket.

Yet if Bush stayed the same in some core ways, he changed profoundly in others. The campaign, say aides and others close to Bush, taught humility and patience to the lucky son of a President who is not naturally endowed with either quality. His loss in the New Hampshire primary was the turning point, but it took a while for the lesson to sink in. Three weeks after the blow, when he lost again to McCain in the Michigan primary, the Texas Governor was so angry at the way McCain had portrayed him to Roman Catholic voters that he refused to make the customary congratulatory telephone call to the victor. Nonetheless, that period, Bush told Time, "was an important moment because it showed people that the guy who, for some, was running on his daddy's name, could take a punch - and then turn around and recover."

It also forced him to learn how to improvise. When he launched his presidential campaign, his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, stuck with what had worked in Texas - a carefully laid-out strategy and message, to be executed with total discipline. When that plan was blown away in New Hampshire, no one knew whether the Texas Governor was capable of adjusting to his new reality. "There was a suspicion among some Republicans that once you shattered the myth of inevitability, Bush would go down," says a top adviser.

The thesis proved wrong. Bush did what he had to do to win after New Hampshire, displaying a nimbleness - and a stomach for political hardball - that the country didn't know he had. In September, after falling behind Gore in the polls, Bush had to change gears again. Aides say Bush was stunned and angered by public and media reaction to his attempt to ignore the tiny and relatively unknown Commission on Presidential Debates and instead to hold talk show-style debates. The gambit backfired, creating the impression that Bush, and not Gore, was trying to duck the debates. It had never occurred to the Governor that an institution as obscure as the commission would be vested with so much authority and would thus be so impossible to defeat. "He wanted it his way," says a top aide. "He didn't realize it had to be done a certain way. When he did, he adapted and did well."

Bush also learned to let go of things he couldn't control. In Texas, aides say, he was used to managing a relatively small staff and dealing with a press corps whose members he got to know personally. The size of his campaign operation and the unpredictability of the national press corps rattled Bush at first. Early on, when asked if he had ever used illegal drugs, Bush refused to answer. Then when he was hit with a series of cleverly posed questions about whether he could have cleared White House background checks, he didn't know how to handle them and became irritated. "That's the game in American politics," he scoffed, referring to press inquiries about past drug use, "and I refuse to play it." But when an old drunk-driving arrest was revealed just before Election Day, Bush handled the issue with aplomb. "It's an accurate story," he told reporters. "I oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes: I occasionally drank too much S? I learned my lesson." Says Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, another Bush friend: "In the early days, you could [tell] those questions were rubbing on him. At the end, he told people where the fence was and dared them to crawl over it. You never sensed he was publicly or privately having an emotional moment over it."

As the campaign wore on, Bush grew increasingly convinced that his strongest asset was his personality. But Bush also learned during his run that even with Texas-size charm offensives, "things don't always move the way you want," as one top aide puts it. "He won't waste a lot of energy trying to move mountains that won't move." His parents, who gave him everything and who have seen his limits up close, are impressed too by his growing political sobriety. "He did a great job of staying on message," the former President told Time last week. As usual, Barbara Bush put it more bluntly. "He is much better at controlling himself than his mother...And thank heavens."