Two presidents, detached

Obama and Bush both seek refuge from modern politics

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Our president and his predecessor are often cast as opposites, not just far apart ideologically but wholly different cats. 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 Mr. Obama in this week’s New Yorker, I was struck by something the two men have in common 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 that seems 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. Mr. Obama can project an icy hauteur, while Mr. Bush often communicated a lazy disengagement. And Mr. Bush’s surface gregariousness — the chuckling, the nicknames, the vestigial brio of the college fraternity president that he once was — masked his essential remove.

But, like Mr. Obama, he was 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 Mr. Bush “doesn’t like people, he never did, he doesn’t now.”

Mr. Hagan used this to build up to the revelation that Mr. 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, author of “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” recalled a particular aspect of the two-hour bike rides Mr. 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,” Mr. Baker told me.

David Remnick writes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama “took a vow of ‘no new friends.’ ” When he goes to fundraisers, “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 and golfs with the usual suspects. Mr. Remnick mentions that since 2009, one aide has golfed with Mr. Obama more than 100 times and John Boehner just once.

Commentators and members of Congress upbraid Mr. Obama for this routinely. And rightly. One senator, telling me about the outsize elation of a fellow lawmaker who had been permitted to putt with the leader of the free world, theorized that Mr. Obama doesn’t fully appreciate the dazzle of presidential proximity and the favor that it can win him.

Maybe. Or maybe he just can’t give up that much of himself and his down time — as a matter of pacing, as a matter of sanity. Maybe the surest way for him to keep his eye on the ball and his spirits out of the sand traps is to compartmentalize the glad-handing, cordon off the hubbub. Maybe insufficient outreach is inextricable from perseverance.

For Presidents 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 sticking to comfort zones.

This description applies to many previous presidents, too. But the snugness of its fit for Mr. Obama and Mr. 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.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.


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