Flirting with W.

No reporter is better equipped to write such an account. Bruni, the most influential Bush correspondent by virtue of his employer, was so assiduously courted by the Republican nominee that his book should have been called The Seduction of Frank Bruni. It is a case study of Bush’s vaunted charm offensive. Bush constantly flirted with Bruni. He would playfully grab the reporter by the neck or pinch his cheeks or put his fingers in Bruni’s ears. During press conferences he would wink and nod Bruni’s way. And when Bruni mentions that he’s taking a break from the campaign trail to celebrate his dad’s birthday, Bush whips out a card and signs it for him. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that Bruni becomes smitten, dishing to readers that Bush was far more charming in off-the-record gab sessions than his guarded public persona would suggest. When Bruni suspected the campaign was angry with him, Bush defused tensions by turning to him during a political event and announcing, “I love you, man.” He may not have been kidding.

Bruni’s account of the 2000 campaign and the first months of the Bush presidency is no Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s raucous send-up of the hard-partying press pack that covered the 1972 election. And it has none of the piercing detail of Richard Ben Cramer’s classic tome, What it Takes, about the 1988 race. Most of the material will be familiar to anyone who followed the election. And the behind-the-scenes anecdotes reveal only that the boys on the bus have given way to thirtysomething yuppies who obsess about Palm Pilots and tricked-out cell phones, and long for a “luxury hotel that promised a valet service.” Instead of smoking pot and hooking up, Bruni and his fellow scribes sneak cigarettes and watch “Sex and the City.” They are Ivy League ironists who shop for funny underwear at K-Mart (an NBC producer) and self-mockingly collect moist towelettes for a “wet, citrusy burst of facial refreshment” (Bruni himself). This inane and sometimes tedious account of the Bush press corps’ “self-conscious schtick” offers a sociological snapshot of life on today’s campaign trail.

Bruni’s ironic detachment does not limit itself to hosiery and Wet-Naps; he appears wholly uninterested in policy, too. If he recognized significant differences between Bush and Gore—how they would spend the surplus or respond to the terrorist attacks—he doesn’t share them. Instead, he winks at the reader about how his own tendency to succumb to the pressures of pack journalism contributed to the “stunning superficiality of American politics.” What remains is only the most rudimentary explanation of what Bush actually stood for: a tax cut plan for economic conservatives, a faith-based initiative for religious conservatives, and an education plan for moderates. Policies, Bruni implies, tell us nothing about Bush as a person, which is his real interest here. But of course, a candidate’s policies tell us quite a bit about how he is likely to govern. Many Americans were honestly shocked when Bush, as president, steered sharply to the right on taxes, energy, environmental policy, and foreign affairs. One reason for their surprise may be that reporters like Bruni became unwitting accomplices to Bush’s strategy of blurring ideological differences with Gore to force a contest of personalities.

Bruni and Bush clearly became friends during the course of the campaign and Bush’s first months in the White House. In its best passages, the book reads like a tell-all written by a candid yet sympathetic friend. Bruni singes but never burns. He finds Bush “humorously bumbling” and “tenuously engaged”—“a college freshman bound for a keg party.” He jabs politely at the president over his response to the anthrax attacks, finding his “demeanor yet again at odds with the gravity of the circumstances.” Yet, by the end of the book, Bruni paints Bush as a “vibrant, probing leader” who “was turning into one of the most interesting presidents in decades.” His thesis seems to be that by November, Bush had matured into a true president (hence the “odyssey” of the book’s subtitle).

It’s not the most convincing case. Bush’s present popularity aside, Bruni’s evidence largely consists of an observation that Bush took the general election debates more seriously than those in the primaries, and another observation that the president’s journey from frat brother to world leader was cemented when, hilariously, Bush encountered a woman who yanked down her pants to reveal the words “Raise Min. Wage” on her backside. Bush managed to behave more maturely than she did.

Despite his close ties, Bruni was given no access to Bush during the two most crucial episodes of his early presidency. He confesses that during the Florida recount, with Bush sequestered at his Texas ranch, “I was in the middle of the biggest story imaginable and had almost nothing to do.” And by September 11, Bruni was no longer covering the White House. In a hasty post-attack rewrite, Bruni book-ended his memoir with September 11 material and sprinkled references to the attacks throughout the text. But most of Ambling Into History was written before Bush’s life changed forever, and readers hoping for an intimate portrait of an untested leader in the midst of crises won’t find it here.

None of this is to say that Bruni was as soft on Bush and his aides as Gore partisans and certain envious scribes alleged. (My own magazine, The New Republic, ran a semi-regular item called the “Frank Bruni Presidential Suck-up Watch” that documented his purportedly pro-Bush slant.) His assessment of how Bush aides packaged their candidate is clear-eyed and revealing. He understands how shrewdly they peddled a conventional conservative as “a different kind of Republican” and used blacks and Hispanics as campaign props. Bruni doesn’t hesitate to pass on unflattering anecdotes, such as the time Bush awkwardly joked to a black reporter that he should return to the back of the plane where he belonged, or the time that Bush aide Karen Hughes told the press a flat lie. (Immediately after Bush’s “Oprah” appearance, Hughes gushed to reporters about the nationwide feedback. “Home run’ is the phrase most frequently being used,” she claimed. In fact, the show had only aired in Chicago.) What’s most interesting is that President Bush probably won’t like this book—and not just because of Bruni’s fondness for what he’d consider psychobabble. Despite Bruni’s feelings toward Bush, this tortuously fair assessment of him is hard to dismiss.

In the end, Bruni cannot decide what he thinks of Bush. Unlike many pundits and partisans who profess certainty about Bush’s intelligence or capacity for the job, Bruni concedes that, even given his high level of access, much about Bush was “unknowable.” He cannot tell if the flashes of wit and intelligence he witnessed in private were more revealing than the president’s bumbling and ignorant moments in public. Bruni’s final summary of the president underscores this ambivalent assessment: “Evasive, mundane, stuttering, sincere, sweet and, in the end, both a bit platitudinous and a bit profound—it was all there and it was all Bush.”