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Some were willing to talk because they said they thought George W. Bush might lose; others, out of fear of what might transpire if he wins. In either case, there seems to be a growing silence fatigue -- public servants, some with vast experience, who feel they have spent years being treated like Victorian-era children, seen but not heard, and are tired of it. But silence still reigns in the highest reaches of the White House. After many requests, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said in a letter that the president and those around him would not be cooperating with this article in any way.

Some officials, elected or otherwise, with whom I have spoken with left meetings in the Oval Office concerned that the president was struggling with the demands of the job. Others focused on Bush's substantial interpersonal gifts as a compensation for his perceived lack of broader capabilities. Still others, like Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, are worried about something other than his native intelligence.

There is one story about Bush's particular brand of certainty I am able to piece together and tell for the record. In the Oval Office in December , the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats.

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In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored "road map" for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

One congressman -- the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -- mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25, The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall. They don't have an army. Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: "Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland.


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They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army. Bush held to his view.

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A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder.


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Lantos, a liberal Democrat, would not comment about it. In general, people who meet with Bush will not discuss their encounters. Lantos, through a spokesman, says it is a longstanding policy of his not to discuss Oval Office meetings. This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith.

It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world's most nagging problems. As Bush himself has said any number of times on the campaign trail, "By remaining resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful. He didn't always talk this way. A precious glimpse of Bush, just as he was ascending to the presidency, comes from Jim Wallis, a man with the added advantage of having deep acuity about the struggles between fact and faith.

Wallis, an evangelical pastor who for 30 years has run the Sojourners -- a progressive organization of advocates for social justice -- was asked during the transition to help pull together a diverse group of members of the clergy to talk about faith and poverty with the new president-elect. The afternoon hours passed. No one wanted to leave. People rose from their chairs and wandered the room, huddling in groups, conversing passionately.

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In one cluster, Bush and Wallis talked of their journeys. I really don't know what they think. I'm a white Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it? Wallis recalls replying, "You need to listen to the poor and those who live and work with poor people. Bush called over his speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and said, "I want you to hear this.

That was an earlier Bush, one rather more open and conversant, matching his impulsiveness with a can-do attitude and seemingly unafraid of engaging with a diverse group. The president has an array of interpersonal gifts that fit well with this fearlessness -- a headlong, unalloyed quality, best suited to ranging among different types of people, searching for the outlines of what will take shape as principles. Yet this strong suit, an improvisational gift, has long been forced to wrestle with its "left brain" opposite -- a struggle, across 30 years, with the critical and analytical skills so prized in America's professional class.

In terms of intellectual faculties, that has been the ongoing battle for this talented man, first visible during the lackluster years at Yale and five years of drift through his 20's -- a time when peers were busy building credentials in law, business or medicine.

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Biden, who early on became disenchanted with Bush's grasp of foreign-policy issues and is among John Kerry's closest Senate friends, has spent a lot of time trying to size up the president. I don't think the president really had to do that, because he always had someone there -- his family or friends -- to bail him out.

I don't think, on balance, that has served him well for the moment he's in now as president. He never seems to have worked on his weaknesses. Bush has been called the C.

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The M. And some who have worked under him in the White House and know about business have spotted a strange business-school time warp. It's as if a graduate from H. One aspect of the H.

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The case studies are static, generally a snapshot of a troubled company, frozen in time; the various "solutions" students proffer, and then defend in class against tough questioning, tend to have very short shelf lives. They promote rigidity, inappropriate surety. This is something H. They discover, often to their surprise, that the world is dynamic, it flows and changes, often for no good reason.

The key is flexibility, rather than sticking to your guns in a debate, and constant reassessment of shifting realities. In short, thoughtful second-guessing. Bush, who went off to Texas to be an oil wildcatter, never had a chance to learn these lessons about the power of nuanced, fact-based analysis. The small oil companies he ran tended to lose money; much of their value was as tax shelters.

The investors were often friends of his father's. Later, with the Texas Rangers baseball team, he would act as an able front man but never really as a boss. Instead of learning the limitations of his Harvard training, what George W. Bush learned instead during these fitful years were lessons about faith and its particular efficacy.

It was in , around the time of his 39th birthday, George W. Bush says, that his life took a sharp turn toward salvation. At that point he was drinking, his marriage was on the rocks, his career was listless. Several accounts have emerged from those close to Bush about a faith "intervention" of sorts at the Kennebunkport family compound that year. Details vary, but here's the gist of what I understand took place. George senior and Barbara blew up.

Words were exchanged along the lines of something having to be done. George senior, then the vice president, dialed up his friend, Billy Graham, who came to the compound and spent several days with George W. He stopped drinking, attended Bible study and wrestled with issues of fervent faith. A man who was lost was saved. His marriage may have been repaired by the power of faith, but faith was clearly having little impact on his broken career. Faith heals the heart and the spirit, but it doesn't do much for analytical skills.

In , a few years after receiving salvation, Bush was still bumping along. Much is apparent from one of the few instances of disinterested testimony to come from this period. It is the voice of David Rubenstein, managing director and cofounder of the Carlyle Group, the Washington-based investment firm that is one of the town's most powerful institutions and a longtime business home for the president's father. In , the catering division of Marriott was taken private and established as Caterair by a group of Carlyle investors.

Several old-guard Republicans, including the former Nixon aide Fred Malek, were involved. Rubenstein described that time to a convention of pension managers in Los Angeles last year, recalling that Malek approached him and said: "There is a guy who would like to be on the board. He's kind of down on his luck a bit. Needs a job.

Needs some board positions. Bush, then in his mid's, "added much value," he put him on the Caterair board. Not that many clean ones. And after a while I kind of said to him, after about three years: 'You know, I'm not sure this is really for you. Maybe you should do something else.

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Because I don't think you're adding that much value to the board. You don't know that much about the company. And I don't really like it that much. So I'm probably going to resign from the board.