Buddy, life's a breeze for the man in the eye of the storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 August, 2008, 12:00am

Entering the White House, do not expect any laughs from the stony-faced security guards. Elsewhere, flustered aides charge about in the furnace of a Washington summer, sweating over their files and clipboards.

But if there is one person in the building who gives a good impression that life is something of a breeze, it is President George W. Bush.

'How y'all doing?' he asks as he bounds into the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing to talk about his upcoming trip to China, South Korea and Thailand - a mission almost certain to be his last to East Asia. Any sense of ceremony is automatically forgone as he puts himself on first name terms with a gaggle of regional reporters. Then the names are dispensed with, in favour of 'buddy' or 'lad', sometimes delivered with a one-liner.

He's eager to give a sense that his East Asian diplomacy is at least one success story from a presidency that will see him leave office in January as one of the most unpopular leaders in modern US history, thanks to the quagmire of Iraq and a severe economic downturn. If that is weighing on him, he doesn't show it.

In the comfort of the windowless room that once served as the president's office, Mr Bush talks extremely quickly, sometimes covering several concepts and countries in a couple of sentences. The famously stilted public utterances - whose delivery was described earlier in his career as like watching a drunk man crossing an icy street - are the stuff of his rare live press conferences. In a small group, he clearly feels on safer ground and the words fly. He occasionally gets ahead of himself, as China segues into South Korea and then into Iran. Yet through it all there is a common theme, that he's 'sprinting to the finish' to secure a legacy of deeper relations with the major powers of East Asia, old allies and former foes alike - something no other president has enjoyed, he claims. He repeatedly ties this down to his faith in strong personal diplomacy, based on openness and frankness. 'And my only point to you is, is that I'm very pleased with the state of relations now, and I recognise that it took a lot of work to get them there.

'But I feel comfortable in telling you that if there is a common problem, I've got personal relations with the leaders where I can sit down and say, 'here's my point of view; what is yours?'' he says.

As he talks, he frames his answers with his hands, using his index fingers and thumbs to box-in every point. A more expansive frame hangs on the walls above him, holding an oil painting of a formidable president Theodore Roosevelt on horseback. The western theme is continued with a bronze sculpture on a side table of a charging bison being cornered by wolves - a suitable metaphor, perhaps, for the state of the US markets at the end of Mr Bush's second term. Even on relatively safe ground, the odd verbal slip is never too far away. He refers to the fact he can speak only one language, despite being fluent in English and Spanish.

Sport, too, is another common thread, as he peppers his statements with anecdotes of riding on the mainland with the Chinese mountain biking team, or his desire to watch basketball and track and field at the Olympics. Despite domestic pressure over China's pre-Games clampdowns, he insists he doesn't want to introduce politics into the Olympics and will save his diplomacy for the backrooms.

He finishes, unprompted, with a reverie about the rise of South Korean female golfers. While talking about his ninth trip to Asia, he suddenly asks: 'You know the thing that amazes me? The South Korean women golfers.'

As his audience scratch their heads, he adds: 'Look at the women's ... [pregnant pause] ... have you ever looked at the scoreboard? It is unbelievable.'


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