I have known President Bush for 40 years -- ever since we attended Yale College together in the 1960s. I'm a Democrat (and I was a Democrat then), but I liked him and I still like him, as a sincere and kind man and a good friend.
Because I've known him for so long, it was clear to me when he first began running for president that he could beat Al Gore, and I warned Gore of that early on. I knew it then (and again in 2004) because I knew, from my earliest memories of George W. Bush, that not only did people routinely underestimate him -- but that he encouraged them to do so. Ask Ann Richards, who was 20 points ahead in the closing weeks of Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas but lost to him after his last-minute surge.
The master of low expectations -- that is my clearest, and fondest, memory of George Bush at Yale. We would hang out together in the wood-paneled common room at Davenport College, where we both lived. I'd be worried about studying for my history exam or outlining my outlines; he would be relaxing on the couches, observing people walking by, maybe chatting up a girl or talking sports with another guy. As far as I could tell, he never studied or worried much about his grades. He looked exactly the same then as today, without the gray hair. Same sardonic grin, always comfortable with himself, no sense of pressure, coasting intellectually. Yet when the term was over, he would get by -- sometimes Bs, sometimes Cs. I could never figure how he did it without, apparently, ever opening a book.
But despite what you may have heard or read, George was not just frat-house party boy. One of my most vivid memories is this: A few of us were in the common room one night. It was 1965, I believe -- my junior year, his sophomore. We were making our usual sarcastic commentaries on those who walked by us. A little nasty perhaps, but always with a touch of humor. On this occasion, however, someone we all believed to be gay walked by, although the word we used in those days was "queer." Someone, I'm sorry to say, snidely used that word as he walked by.
George heard it and, most uncharacteristically, snapped: "Shut up." Then he said, in words I can remember almost verbatim: "Why don't you try walking in his shoes for a while and see how it feels before you make a comment like that?"
Remember, this was the 1960s -- pre-Stonewall, before gay rights became a cause many of us (especially male college students) had thought much about. I remember thinking, "This guy is much deeper than I realized."
In light of that memory, I wondered last year why Bush chose to exploit the gay marriage issue in his campaign. I'm still not sure, but I think that's what politics sometimes does to a person. Now he appears to be backing off, and I am not surprised. I hope it suggests a return to the "compassionate conservatism" I remember and that he practiced in his two terms as governor of Texas.
But there's one potential obstacle. The trait that I remember that worries me most of all today is his stubbornness.
I remember a late night of playing pool in the grubby pool room at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house where we spent our evenings when George insisted on trying to complete a double-bank shot in the side pocket. He attempted it over and over, and he wouldn't give up until we forced him to leave.
I admired that competitive stubbornness at the time and still do today. But I must admit it also worries, even scares, me today as I watch him in the White House on the issue of Iraq.
I never doubted Bush's conviction or sincerity when he said that preemptive war against Iraq was necessary in the war against terrorism. Frankly, I was concerned about WMD too.
But I've heard new facts since then and I've changed my mind about whether a preemptive strike was necessary. Will George Bush do the same? As I saw at the pool table, the flip side of deep conviction can be a stubborn refusal to change positions even when the facts change.
There were no WMD; we know that now. And far from helping us in the war against terror, the U.S. presence in Iraq has created opportunities for new terrorists. A stubborn decision to "stay the course" will only mean that more lives will be senselessly lost and his presidency will go the way of Lyndon Johnson's.
In truth, if he ever makes that very difficult decision to get us out as quickly and humanely as possible, it would be consistent with the George Bush I remember, still like and admire -- a man who is humble, not afraid to admit a mistake, and optimistic about the future.