Jewish World Review August 16, 2004 /29 Menachem-Av, 5764

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Up-close and personal with the president | In Jon Meacham's indispensable biography 'Franklin and Winston,' journalistic giant Walter Lippmann is quoted explaining the difference between his personal encounters with FDR and Churchill.

"Roosevelt close was always disappointing," Lippman said. "Churchill was just as good when you got close to him as when you saw him at a distance."

Last week, I got another chance to observe President Bush up-close. The occasion was an event I was asked to host for the President in my home town of Pensacola. After initially refusing because I decided at the beginning of the campaign season to refrain from all political activities, I reconsidered for a number of reasons. I'm glad I did.

Unlike many political leaders, George W. Bush is much better in unscripted personal encounters than when reading a teleprompter in front of 10,000 screaming fans. In fact, Bush is so impressive when viewed up-close that one is left wondering who that bumbling bumpkin is who shows up at some of his press conferences.

After first meeting then Governor Bush in 1999 at the Texas Governor's mansion, I told friends and associates that if Bush ran against Al Gore, he would win going away.

Then I heard "W" deliver his first campaign speech in Indianapolis three months later.

"Never mind," I said to my snickering friends retracting my prediction.

I spent a few hours alone with Bush on Air Force One soon after his election. As I explain in my upcoming book, George W. Bush was part-President, part-frat rush chairman. All in all, a humble, humorous man.

So why the dichotomy? Why was Reagan electric on stage but distant even around family members? One biographer called my political hero a cold slab of stone. Like FDR, Reagan let few inside his world. Bob Dole on the other hand was awkward behind a microphone but entertaining as hell in person. While Bill Clinton was charming when first met but diminished with each encounter.

Still, this past week reminded me again how big the gulf is between "Bush the President" and "Bush the person." If he is to be re-elected, the White House must find opportunities for their man to roll up his sleeves and let the voters see the George W. Bush that those close to him know.

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