Current US president and his predecessor in the Oval Office are typically cast as opposites, antonyms, not just far apart on an ideological spectrum but cats of wholly different stripes. Barack Obama: lyrical, professorial. George Bush: allergic to any glimmer of intellectualism. Obama: head. Bush: gut. Obama: city. Bush: country.
But as I read David Remnick's widely discussed profile of Obama in this week's New Yorker, I was struck by something that the two men have in common, an overlooked overlap that perhaps suggests what it now takes to get to the White House and why we wind up with the leaders we do.
I'm talking about their talent for separation, their tendency to retreat, a fundamental detachment and insularity that seem, in one sense, antithetical to politics but may in fact be an answer to surviving the frenzy that it's become.
This quality plays out differently in each man, or at least in his affect. Obama can project an icy hauteur, while Bush often communicated a lazy disengagement. And Bush's surface gregariousness — the chuckling, the nicknames, the vestigial brio of the prep school cheerleader and college fraternity president that he once was — masked his essential remove.
But like Obama, he was constantly pulling back, less fond of crowds than of solitude, less inclined to meet new people than to huddle with a tight circle of trusted intimates. He's a homebody who grew homesick on the campaign trail and couldn't hide it, circling back as often as possible to his own bed, to familiar turf.
A quote from an unnamed acquaintance of his in a 2012 story in New York magazine by Joe Hagan went too far but hinted at something real. "He's become increasingly agoraphobic," the acquaintance said, adding that Bush "doesn't like people, he never did, he doesn't now."
Hagan used this comment as a build up to the revelation that Bush had acquired an asocial avocation: He was spending hours alone at canvases, painting. The hobby was new, but some underlying affinity for it must have always been there.
My colleague Peter Baker, the author of Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House recalled a particular aspect of the two-hour bike rides that Bush took during his years in office. "He would tell people that he was happy to have them bike along with him but that he didn't want anyone biking in front of him, because he wanted the illusion of being alone," Baker told me.
Remnick writes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama "took a vow of 'no new friends.' " When he now goes to fund-raisers, "he would rather eat privately with a couple of aides before going out to perform."
He watches sports in privacy; tries not to miss his nightly dinner with Michelle and the girls; shoots hoops with an established crew; golfs with the usual suspects.
Remnick mentions that since 2009, one aide has golfed with Obama more than 100 times, while John Boehner has done so just once. For Obama and Bush, poise and detachment go hand in hand. Their campaigns succeeded in large measure because of steadiness — the trumpeted "message discipline" of the Bush troops, the famed "no drama" of Obama's operation — and this approach required candidates who could tune out and float above the ever-changing highs, lows, mock outrages and invented scandals of the modern news cycle, with its amplified noise, its extra distractions, its exhausting velocity.
This required candidates good at building walls around themselves, and at constructing and sticking to comfort zones in which they could recharge.
"Stylistically, the two presidents had much more in common than I expected," writes Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, in his new memoir, "Duty." He reports that neither had much zest for wooing Congress or cultivated all that many friends. "Both presidents, in short, seemed to me to be very aloof."
That description applied to many previous presidents, too. But the snugness of its fit for Obama and Bush makes me wonder if, when we talk about how isolating the presidency is, we neglect to consider how deft at isolation some of the people who attain it already are — and, going forward, may have to be.
The New York Times News Service