Vargas Interview: The Personal Side of President Bush

Before the sit-down portion of her exclusive interview, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas got a glimpse of President Bush as he's rarely seen. Vargas spent some time talking to Bush about life in the White House, how his daughters deal with the pressure of living in the public spotlight, his perspectives on being a parent, and the personal impact of Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident. What follows is a transcript of their conversation.

[In the Oval Office]



VARGAS: Thank you so much.

BUSH: Glad you're here.

VARGAS: Thanks, nice to be here. Are you ready for your trip? (Crosstalk)

BUSH: Welcome to the Oval Office.

VARGAS: Thank you.

BUSH: I'm packed and ready to roll.

VARGAS: It's a big trip. How do you prepare for it?

BUSH: Well, you know you get a lot of briefings, but, uh ... get the right clothes out there to make sure I look stylish. Kind of hard for me to do.

You know, you prepare for a trip like this through, in my case, five years of experience. I'll be seeing people I've seen before. I'll be working on an agenda item that has been in the makings.

Now what is interesting about this trip is that I can go to Pakistan as a friend of India's, and be able to have a good dialogue. And go to India, as a friend of Pakistan's and be able to have a good dialogue.

VARGAS: It's a delicate thing you're doing though, [BUSH: Yeah it is.] with these two countries.

VARGAS: It really is.

BUSH: But the good news is that it's less delicate than ever before, which is positive in terms of helping secure our country, as well as achieving strategic objectives.

And a big objective for example is energy independence from fossil fuels. And that's going to be a big part of the agenda in India, as part of a more comprehensive strategy. Anyway, thanks for asking. I'm looking forward to it.

VARGAS: Your desk is so clean Mr. President.

BUSH: Yeah, well, you know that is what happens when you have desk cleaners everywhere.

VARGAS: Do you spend a lot of time here?

BUSH: I do. This is where my main office. I've got an office here obviously, and I've got one upstairs in the White House on the second floor, right down from our bedroom. It's called the treaty room. I like to work here 'cause I like how open it feels.

VARGAS: It is ... very.

BUSH: You know an interesting story about the rug? Laura designed the rug.

VARGAS: She did?

BUSH: Yeah, she did. Presidents are able to pick their own rugs or design their own rugs.

VARGAS: Did you just change the rug, or did you change some of the furniture as well?

BUSH: Changed the rug, no, the rugs been here since I've been here. Or actually since she designed the rug and then it was woven.

VARGAS: So what happens when you're finished?

BUSH: It goes in a warehouse.

VARGAS: It does?

BUSH: Yeah. (Laughs)

VARGAS: You're not going to take it home and put it in a family room or something?

BUSH: I don't get to. I think this is government property, Elizabeth. And as you know, you got to leave government property where it belongs. But the interesting thing about this rug, and why I like it in here is 'cause I told Laura one thing. I said, "Look, I can't pick the colors and all that. But make it say 'optimistic person.'"


BUSH: And she did a fabulous job.

VARGAS: She did. It's beautiful.

BUSH: Well, thanks, I will tell her you said so. And anyway, this is a very bright and open area and it helps me think and I like it. I like to stay here.

VARGAS: I see your pictures of the girls back there. How are they?

BUSH: They're good. They're great. Thanks for asking.

VARGAS: You and your wife have done such a great job of protecting them and preserving their right to have personal, private lives...

BUSH: Well, actually that would be you. (Laughter) That would be you who's done a good job of helping me protect them. You and the media, and I thank you for that. I think the Clintons first started off very well by saying, 'Look, give Hillary, I mean Chelsea, some space.' And uh, and I respect and appreciate the media respecting our girls. They're good.

It's one of the joys of being a father is to watch your children grow up, and our little girls understand that it's, you can gain a lot of satisfaction in life by helping others. And so Jenna's a teacher, and Barbara has returned recently from South Africa where she was working in a hospital for kids with AIDS, and it's ...

VARGAS: That's really great.

BUSH: Ah, it's good on both of them, I love 'em dearly. And, it's, you know, I put 'em through a lot. If you think about it, you know, can you imagine being a teenager, and your dad's in the public spotlight? Or, you know, you think you head off to college, and I'm running for the president of the United States?

VARGAS: They are part of a rare club of children who have grown up with fathers in the White House.

BUSH: Yeah, yeah. The only think you can do is to explain to them, um, why I ran and what I'm trying to accomplish, but more importantly, just tell 'em you love them. And you tell them you love 'em all the time. And ...

VARGAS: Do they ever tell you, "Dad, I wish you weren't president?"

BUSH: Oh yeah, of course.

VARGAS: Probably a lot more than you'd like. (Laughter)

BUSH: Yeah, you know like others in the country, are willing to say that to you. No, they understand now, they do, they can see it. I think they are looking forward to the day now when, uh, there is not the attention on someone they care about, and that they can feel relatively free.

VARGAS: They've had that all their lives, between you and their grandfather.

BUSH: Yeah, they have. (Crosstalk)

VARGAS: I mean, they really have.

BUSH: They are doing good.

VARGAS: Their uncle, I mean talk about a family in the, in the political spotlight.

BUSH: That's true, that's true.

VARGAS: Now I have to ask you because both of them are young women who are very attractive -- any chances of a White House wedding for either of them do you think?

BUSH: All I can tell you is this: If a suitor shows up and asks for their hand, he's going to get to come here to the Oval Office and give me an explanation.

VARGAS: Oh boy, I don't envy that young man. I have to tell you.

BUSH: Yeah, (Laughter). I, uh, I uh, look, they, whoever ...

VARGAS: Do you have compassion for the people that they do date, and probably ...


VARGAS: No, OK -- well that settled it. (Laughter)

BUSH: No, I don't have compassion.


BUSH: I'm uh, I do feel like they're, uh, they will be dealing with beautiful, capable women. Strong women, too, by the way. And they will...

VARGAS: You are surrounded by them.

BUSH: I am surrounded by 'em, and better off for it.

VARGAS: That's very, very evolved of you to say so.

BUSH: I believe that.

VARGAS: I wanted to ask you very quickly how the vice president is doing. A lot of people thought he looked a little shaken when he appeared in public after the hunting accident. (Crosstalk)

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: Is he doing OK now?

BUSH: He is. Yeah, he was shaken.


BUSH: Imagine swinging a gun, and thinking you are shooting a bird and, uh, a person you know is standing there at the end of your sight. And it shook him.

VARGAS: Do you think its changed him?

BUSH: Um, I'm confident it changed him some how, you know. I, I think it shook him, and any time you get shaken like that, it's gotta have some effect on you.

VARGAS: He called it one of the worst days of his life. I don't think you can endure something like that without emerging unscathed, or changed.

BUSH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. He's a strong fellow. He's a steady person, but no question that he was affected by it. He came in the Oval here, just he and I, and I said, 'Dick, this got you, didn't it?' And he said, 'It sure did.' I said, 'Well, if you feel like it, you oughtta share it with the American people.' And he did, he did a good job of talking about the, the pain he felt. And he was greatly relieved when he talked to Harry [Whittington], and found out Harry was going to be alright. You know, because first it looked like he was going to be alright, then he had the medical setback, and of course that, got Dick's attention in a big way. And uh ...

VARGAS: He could relate, I'm sure (Crosstalk)

BUSH: Yeah, he could.

VARGAS: ... to anything related to the heart, I'm sure.

BUSH: But he's doing fine, thanks, he's, he's over it.


BUSH: You know, all of us have got to learn to adjust, and, you know, particularly in this line of work, everything you do is public, everybody knows about it, and, uh, he's a thoughtful, sensitive guy. And I, I know that people may not think that about Dick Cheney, but he is a very decent thoughtful person, and uh, he's from the West, kinda the old school you know, where you don't wear your emotions on your sleeve, but in this instance he did. And a lot of people saw it. And I thought, it was really good of him to get up and explain to people what he felt ...

VARGAS: And just because we are on the topic of the vice president ...


VARGAS: Are you committed to keeping him as your vice president?

BUSH: Absolutely.

VARGAS: Until the end of your term?

BUSH: Sure. He's a friend. He's got good opinions and good advice. Sometimes I accept his advice, sometimes I don't. But when I make up my mind, he's a strong supporter. And, that's what's important about having an administration of people of character and people who are willing to come in here and say, "From my experience," or people say, "My point of view is this." And I need to have different voices and different opinions and different emotions as I sort through some complex problems and make decisions. What I expect is people to give me honest advice, fair appraisal and then when I make up my mind it's, "Yes sir, Mr. President." And that's how our administration works. And Dick Cheney's a valuable part of that administration.

VARGAS: Excellent. I think we're supposed to walk outside now.

<>[Walk out door together into Rose Garden]

VARGAS: You've lived here now five years.

BUSH: I have.

VARGAS: Does it feel like home, the White House?

BUSH: You know Texas is home for me. And it's ... here, come on over here, I'll show you some of the beautiful sights. But Texas is home. You know, look, home is where you're comfortable as well. And you know in our case, home is where you find, at least in my case, home, is where I find love. And I find love where my family is. And we live up there on the second floor. And ah, I can remember visiting mother and dad here and it felt like I was spending the night in a museum.

VARGAS: Does it still feel like that?

BUSH: It feels different, it does feel different. So I want to share that with you.

VARGAS: So you have made it somehow --

BUSH: Well, you know you walk in and you got the dogs and the cat and the girls are in and out. It's uh...

VARGAS: Do either one of them live here now that they're out of college?

BUSH: Barbara spends a lot of time here. She's sort of searching around now that she's off of her South African venture.

VARGAS: Do you like having -- I imagine you must like having them near.

BUSH: Yeah, I really do. You know, they're independent, little -- I call them little -- but independent women.

VARGAS: They will always be your little girls, however!

BUSH: ... be my 'little girls.' I almost stumbled! But I love them dearly and I tell them that and because of that they have this I hope a sense of independence and daring and willingness to use their talents and you know their strong opinions. And they don't mind telling me.

VARGAS: That's good!

BUSH: ... which is good.

VARGAS: Actually I think that's a great thing to encourage and inculcate in your children. I think that sense of curiosity and that sense of confidence to stand up for yourself.

BUSH: Well, I'll tell you something that people accuse me of not being very introspective and maybe they're right at times, because I'm a guy who likes to get things done and focus on results and the future. But one of the reasons I'm standing here is I'm convinced is because my dad gave me a great gift which is unconditional love. And when you get unconditional love from somebody you care about and you love, it gives you a confidence to take risks. To dare to fail.

VARGAS: Because, you know, that they will be in your corner no matter what.

BUSH: That's it because it's and it's really an important part of parenthood I think. And I've tried to do that for our girls. I've tried to be as loving a dad to them as my dad was to me. And knowing the effect it has had on me throughout my life and, it's, and this is an interesting place to practice. And to do it right here in the White House.

VARGAS: It's interesting you hold the most powerful position in the world, truly, but what do you think you were put on this Earth to do?

BUSH: That's a really interesting question. I think first is to honor my family. Family is a really important part of civilization and honor my mother and dad and honor my role as a dad. History will prove whether or not my presidency has been an agent for peace. And that's what I want it to be. I want it to be said that George W. Bush defended America and at the same time laid what I've called the foundations for peace.

BUSH: Anyway this is the Rose Garden.

VARGAS: It's beautiful.

BUSH: By the way, this tree was planted by Andrew Jackson.

VARGAS: Really!

BUSH: The magnolia, it's the oldest tree here.

BUSH: The rose garden is obviously barren now.

VARGAS: But in the spring it must be ...

BUSH: It is spectacular. It is fantastic. Unbelievable.

VARGAS: And how long does that last?

BUSH: They're kind of constantly replanting, so it's a lush and vibrant environment starting in the spring throughout the summer.

VARGAS: And do you come this way often between the Oval Office and the residence?

BUSH: I do, I do. Unless I'm walking the dogs out here in their playground, which is the South Lawn.

VARGAS: How are the dogs?

BUSH: The dogs are comfortable.

VARGAS: As they always seem to be.

BUSH: Not only comfortable but quite independent.

VARGAS: Every time we've been here, we have chronicled some mischief that one or the other has been up to.

BUSH: They're handy in Washington. They don't talk back, they don't argue with you. They're good.

VARGAS: They also just treat you like anybody else. I mean, that must be nice, I mean I'm sure your family does that too.

BUSH: You know, it's interesting, you said that one of the things that we love doing is to invite our buddies up from Texas. And I think about the time we had Jones, Procter and Selee [sic]. These are guys we grew up with in Midland, Texas. They are down to earth, you know, they have no agenda, except being with their friends Laura and George.

VARGAS: They call you George?

BUSH: No, they call me Mr. President.

VARGAS: I was going to say...

BUSH: They probably don't want to call me Mr. President, but they do call me Mr. President. And we sit up there in the White House. First of all, it's a great joy to see their joy about being here. It's a fantastic experience for people to be able to come here.

VARGAS: To come and visit.

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: That's great

BUSH: They're not jaded. The other thing is that they remind us of what's important in life. And that we're not here in this office -- really pretty brief period of time. And yet your friendships which became the foundation of your life last forever. And I'm real pleased that our buddies who were friends before government will be friends after government. No matter what their status is in life. And it's really one of the neat things to do, to welcome people here. Have them come up from West Texas and kind of walk around in their accents and go, "Man, this is something else!"

VARGAS: [With twang] This is great!

BUSH: "This is unbelievable Bush! We can't believe we're here nor can we believe you're here."

VARGAS: Do you alter the White House cuisine when they come? Do you serve BBQ more?

BUSH: No, pretty much, we pretty much keep it the way it is, you know.

VARGAS: One of the great perks living here.

BUSH: That and having a gym above your bedroom.

VARGAS: Now that's a perk! Do you work out everyday?

BUSH: I do. Six days a week.

BUSH: You have to get outdoors.

VARGAS: Single track.

BUSH: You do some of that?


BUSH: We've got three trails close by here that are secure enough for me to ride in, and of course you know I like to be around people so we've got a fairly good size peleton [sic] that rides, and ah, then they're agents and cars and vehicles but none of them get ahead of me so the only thing I see is open spaces, going on a mountain bike.

VARGAS: Just don't look back!

BUSH: Yeah, don't look back.

VARGAS: Posse following you.

BUSH: Then you realize, then, you're still in the bubble, but I really enjoy it and I encourage our fellow citizens to exercise.

VARGAS: It's important.

BUSH: It is.

VARGAS: For so many reasons in this country.

BUSH: You know what your job's like, your job's got big hours. It's intense, you've got to be on cue when the thing comes on, you've got to deliver and it's and exercise helps you keep your mind clear and helps you get over the stress of the day.

VARGAS: Absolutely. You're a morning exerciser right?

BUSH: No, evening.

VARGAS: Evening, great.

BUSH: As a matter of fact, on Air Force One from I think probably from Shannon to ...

VARGAS: Is it odd to exercise on an airplane?

BUSH: When you hit air bumps it is!

VARGAS: Yeah, you go flying!


VARGAS: It must get you landing feeling better too.

BUSH: Much better.

VARGAS: Flying you just feel awful. No matter how great and disciplined you are in the flight, it's really hard.


[Walk around Rose Garden to Libary]


VARGAS: It's very pretty here Mr. President. Very nice.

BUSH: Yeah, it is nice.

VARGAS: Very, very nice.

VARGAS: You were talking about the importance of keeping your friendships. I think something many people have been struck by particularly with your staff is the enormous loyalty that you seem to inspire in them.

BUSH: Well, thank you.

VARGAS: Why do you think that is? Many of them have stayed with you the entire time.

Even though a lot of people say, you know, they look tired. First of all, do you think any of them look tired?

BUSH: I don't, I better not accuse them of looking tired before I look myself in the mirror, you know! I, look, I pay attention to that a lot. To make sure that there's emotional balance and that people are still energized and ...

VARGAS: And there's not burn out.

BUSH: Excited about the job. Yeah, no, this is a tough job for these folks. Long hours, there's a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, a lot of criticism. You know they've got families that they've got to worry about and I pay attention to it. Part of my job is to make sure that the White House is at a place where people are able to feel satisfied.

BUSH: And a part of a team and so one of the things that's really important for the president is to make sure that people have access. That they don't have to check in through a chief of staff and say, can I seek permission to see the president. I'm talking about senior level people, particularly people that that have known me for a long period of time. I'm very aware of the fact that somebody needs to be able to come into me and say, "You need to do it this way, I want you to think about this."

VARGAS: If people feel like they're not being heard ...

BUSH: If they feel like they're not being heard is right. That's a problem, or being herded, you know that you can only go see him if I decide you can go see him.

BUSH: Part of job satisfaction is access. A second part is to make sure that their opinions are heard.