WASHINGTON George W. Bush is grayer. Laura Bush is trimmer. Both are calmer, more reflective, and more patient with each other and those around them.
After four years of watching the Bushes blossom into a couple of the world, no longer a couple almost reluctantly venturing forth from the world of Texas, I was struck at the chilly inaugural ceremony Thursday by how much they have changed.
Certainly, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had much to do with their new gravitas and maturity. But the American people have changed them, too, as both readily admit. The rigors of the campaign trail and the sacrifices Americans have made since 9/11 have given the Bushes a new appreciation for the goodness of their fellow citizens. This has burnished the Bushes into much more settled people.
Mr. Bush has lost much of his brashness. Before he gave his address Thursday, he took a moment to look at those behind him the senators, the representatives, the members of the diplomatic corps, the justices of the Supreme Court, and three former presidents. His grin was no longer the impish, boyish one he once sported. His expression was one of warmth and friendship and gratitude. He still loves to joke around with friends, but his sense of humor is gentler and less acerbic.
Laura Bush has lost her shyness. Always the epitome of graciousness and the center of the Bush household, she now has an enviable serenity around everyone else, too. Close advisers in the White House say the President consults more frequently not just with them and his father but also with his wife. She has become less hesitant about speaking her mind and more confident about her role. She has found, said one friend, that much of what being First Lady is all about is possessing uncommon common sense and not losing her head when all about her are losing theirs.
Both Bushes have lost some but not all of the disdain they had for the capital when they arrived four years ago. This has bred a new maturity about the give-and-take of politics. The booster in chief talks about having a mandate, but it s tempered with a more thoughtful approach to what he thinks the country s needs are, even if many disagree.
The President wears his sense of responsibility well, friends insist, but he also has a new appreciation for how heavy it is. He is more careful about what he says, cognizant that a misplaced or intemperate word can cause havoc in the markets and around the globe.
At the somewhat tense confirmation hearings last week for Condoleezza Rice, about to become secretary of state, one of the sharpest attacks on foreign policy came from Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. Mr. Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, still harbors presidential ambitions. In the middle of a frustrated speech decrying administration policy in Iraq, Mr. Biden cried out about the President, But I like him!
Being amiable and well-liked makes people happy, and George and Laura Bush are happy. Four years ago, there was distrust and dismay in Washington about his election, and not just among Democrats. He was perceived, said Republican polemicist George Will at the time, as a frat boy, not too bright and not too serious.
For many Americans, Mr. Bush has erased that perception. As much as Democrats disagree with Mr. Bush over the war in Iraq, on how he has conducted foreign policy, and on his plans for Social Security, the environment, energy, and Medicare, they like him personally. In truth, many of them like him more than they like Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, their standard-bearer in last year s presidential election.
Mr. Bush s second inaugural speech was not particularly memorable. It was not a cry from his heart for an end to bitter partisanship. It was no admission of past mistakes and a pledge to do better.
And his passionate insistence that America s freedom depends on spreading liberty into places such as Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Iran seemed strange, at best. It is hoped that America will be a land where freedom prevails no matter what dreadful choices are made by citizens in other lands. If we are to judge his next four years by how well freedom flourishes in Muslim countries, he may be disappointed with his legacy.
But Mr. Bush has a new appreciation for how precious time is and how fast four years can speed past. Mr. Bush is now playing for the history books. His fellow citizens hope he writes his chapter well.