President George W. Bush will be judged on what he did. He will also be remembered for what he’s like: a fast-moving, phrase-mangling Texan who stays upbeat even though his country is not.
For eight years, the nation has been led by a guy who relaxes by clearing brush in scorching heat and taking breakneck bike rides through the woods. He dishes out nicknames to world leaders, and even gave the German chancellor an impromptu, perhaps unwelcome, neck rub. He’s annoyed when kept waiting and sticks relentlessly to routine. He stays optimistic in even the most dire circumstances, but readily tears up in public. He has little use for looking within himself, and only lately has done much looking back.
Bush’s style and temperament are as much his legacy as his decisions. Policy shapes lives, but personality creates indelible memories — positive and negative.
Call it distinctly Bush.
Don’t be late.
Bush demands punctuality and disdains inefficiency. Every meeting better have a clear purpose. And it better not repeat what he already knows.
He is up early and in the Oval Office by 6:45 a.m. By 9:30 to 10 at night, it’s lights out. He likes to be fresh and won’t get cheated on his sleep.
In sessions with policy experts, Bush tends to ask questions that get right to the nub of a sticky issue. His top aides speak regretfully about how the country never got to see that side of him, even after all this time. They describe a man who is deeply inquisitive, not blithely incurious as much of the world thinks.
When Bush wants answers, guessing isn’t advised.
"He can sniff it out a mile away if you don’t have the goods," said White House communications director Kevin Sullivan.
Other people write Bush’s speeches, but he’ll kick out phrases that he thinks stray from a logical progression. It’s about discipline.
You can tell the issues that really get Bush going, because he talks about them differently, more passionately: education, AIDS relief, freedom. They happen to be ones that can be viewed more clearly through a moral lens. That’s how he sees the world.
Bush reads the Bible regularly. Another devotion: exercise. He makes time for a workout at least six days a week, wherever he is. And he goes at it hard, especially on his mountain bike on the weekends, when he pushes Secret Service agents to keep up with him. He is competitive and likes to stay in command.
Even eating is approached with sheer purpose.
Bush wants his lunch ready when he is, and wolfs it down. His tastes are clear: maybe a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a BLT, or a burger. Former White House executive chef Walter Scheib learned from Bush never to serve a grilled cheese sandwich unless it came with a side of French’s yellow mustard.
The man from a land of cowboy boots orders proper dress in the White House. No jeans allowed in the West Wing. Coat and tie in the Oval Office.
"Orderliness in the process gave him confidence," said Peter Wehner, a former top Bush aide and now a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.
And if you’re in Bush’s presence, turn off your cell phone. Pity the person who gets the Bush stare when a Blackberry rings at the wrong time.
Then there are his stories. He repeats his favorites. Like the one about the cheery rug in the Oval Office. Or the spectacular rainbow that day in Romania.
Who’s going to stop him?
Bush’s words betray him sometimes.
"They misunderestimated the compassion of our country," Bush said of the Sept. 11 terrorists. "I talk to families who die," he said, meaning the loved ones of those who perish in war. "Childrens do learn when standards are high," he said in promoting his education plan.
Ivy League educated, Bush is good-natured about his verbal trip-ups. Yet he appears to have grown a bit more methodical in public, as if searching carefully for the right words.
His tangled moments have undoubtedly helped shape an unflattering public perception; there are entire books of his "Bushisms." Invariably, though, people who talk to him privately — historians, journalists, dissidents — come away with a very different impression of a meticulous thinker.
It is a paradox of his presidency.
Some of Bush’s sillier times are of his own choosing. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Like his herky-jerky dance moves in Liberia, or his odd little tap dance while waiting for John McCain to show up one day. He likes to back-slap people. And when he’s ready to move on, there are telltale signs. To end an event with visitors, he’ll say, "Let’s get a picture," and that’s that.
Bush generally calls people by the labels of his choosing, too. Reporters, Cabinet members, heads of state — anyone is fair game for a nickname. The practice tends to add a touch of familiarity between people and the president, and Bush likes that.
As for fun, Bush is far from the first president with a love for sports, but he may have advanced the cause.
In baseball season, he often has a game on TV, even for soothing background noise while he works. He quietly welcomes ball players to the executive mansion for tours or dinnertime conversation. And regardless of the sport, he loves it every time any championship team comes to the White House.
Their moment is his moment.
Bush can flash a temper and impatience. But if he takes criticism personally — and he gets lots of criticism — he tries not to show it.
When former press secretary Scott McClellan wrote a scathing book about Bush’s leadership, the president told his senior aides to let it go.
"Find a way to forgive, because that’s the way to lead your life," White House press secretary Dana Perino remembers Bush advising her.
Bush is insistently — some say unforgivably — optimistic, no matter how low his poll numbers get.
"Every day has been pretty joyous," he said recently, summing up one of the hardest presidencies ever known.
The toughest moments for him come when he meets the grieving families of the troops he sent to war. Or when he meets severely wounded troops in recovery. Many of the hurting tell Bush they want to get back out in active duty. He is moved by the sacrifice.
"I do a lot of crying in this job," Bush once acknowledged.
He shows consideration to people close to him in little ways. He sends birthday notes to staff members. He remembers little details about their families. When he visits an Army post to thank the troops, he’s been known to wander into the kitchen, too, to praise whoever cooked him the french fries.
The president is a proud dad of two grown daughters, Jenna and Barbara. The public got a tiny glimpse of his softer side when Jenna married Henry Hager in May. Bush said afterward that his little girl married a really good guy. First lady Laura Bush says her husband now has a son.
Bush is not much for the social scene. He and his wife will go to friends’ homes but stay away from restaurants and Washington’s other delights. His aides say he doesn’t like to cause a security hassle for the public.
That’s also why they say he speeds through his foreign travel. Even in the world’s more magnificent sites, Bush often skips touristy stuff to stick to business, contributing to that incurious reputation.
"I’m a nester," Bush said.
Nowhere is that more true than at his beloved, secluded ranch in Crawford, Texas. He has spent more than a year of his presidency there.
Bush chops cedar, clears brush and builds mountain bike trails there. The summer heat doesn’t bother him so much as enthrall him. He even set up a little competition, true Bush: People who work for him get a coveted T-shirt and bragging rights if they run for three straight miles on days hitting 100 degrees.
He relaxes by reading quite a bit, mostly U.S. and world history. He likes the spy-spoofing "Austin Powers" movies. He chills out with his wife.
His time will soon be his own.
"I will leave the presidency with my head held high," Bush says.
And he will leave behind a lot to remember.
Ben Feller covers the White House for The Associated Press.