Bush's eyes show loss of youth, confidence

December 07, 2005|By THOMAS SIMPSON

Presidents always go through an accelerated aging process.

We remember them as youthful during their first campaigns, but toward the end of their terms, we gradually notice the white hair, lines grooved in their faces, shoulders curving toward the ground. Mostly, it happens in the eyes. The sparkle of promise in the eyes of new presidents turns into something weary and internal, something that makes us uneasy perhaps because it mirrors our own failures and disappointments.

Sure, the sun is slowly setting on all baby boomers, but the aging process of the current president has been abrupt. It began suddenly over the summer and has worsened visibly as autumn now gives way to winter. Since he returned from vacation in Crawford, Texas, President Bush's expression is completely different from the one he wore before.

His head has a different tilt, he carries his shoulders differently and his lips now purse in a pained way. The boyish swagger is still there as he strides across the White House lawn or approaches a podium, but last spring, he still walked like an Easterner showing off what he had picked up on a dude ranch. Now the walk is forced and stiff, as though he's not looking forward to arriving wherever he's headed.

Just the other day, it seems, there was a jaunty march in his step; he held his head high, confident that the best of the nation was behind him. Now he seems anxious to glance back over his shoulder, unsure who he'll find there or whether he'll like what he sees.

The most striking transformation has been in his eyes. They've changed completely since summer began to wane. They are the eyes of a man who doesn't like his job anymore, a man looking for a way out.

Much of Mr. Bush's appeal as a candidate was his simplicity. His opponents called it stupidity, but his supporters saw him as Shakespeare's Prince Hal, with that against-all-odds flame in his eyes, the brow raised, the head cocked, the smile turned up in an "Are you with me or not?" challenge.

That's all changed. What Shakespearean hero does Mr. Bush now evoke? The Roman general Coriolanus, when he senses the crowd has turned on him? Richard II's proud, vulnerable fatalism? Or Macbeth, when he knows he's trapped?

Mr. Bush now carries the gaze of a leader who has been forced to look deep inside himself and his people and is no longer serene about what he found there. He has the stare of a man who would rather avoid his own gaze in the mirror in the morning. The eyes still exude determination, but they no longer exude confidence. The new White House strategy to fight falling polls with heroic rhetoric is being undermined by the president's very appearance.

Why this change took place so suddenly is a question for the pundits. It's clear he lost something in his skirmishes with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who camped out near his ranch last summer. When he chose Harriet Miers to sit on the Supreme Court, he may have been grasping for an anti-Cindy, an accepting, supportive female presence. But then his narrowing circle of guy friends humiliated him for it.

His buddies are letting him down on all sides, with some falling under indictment, such as I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. and Tom DeLay. That makes a man tired. For the first time, our youthful president looks world-weary.

Thomas Simpson is a lecturer in Italian at Northwestern University. His e-mail is ths907@northwestern.edu.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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