Privately, Bush has met with about 900 family members of some 270 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The conversations are closed to the press, and Bush does not like to talk about what goes on in these grieving sessions, though there have been hints. An hour after he met with the families at Fort Bragg in June, he gave a hard-line speech on national TV. When he mentioned the sacrifice of military families, his lips visibly quivered.Here's a view from one sister who wanted to express her anger but who got a different reaction from meeting the President.
All war presidents find ways to deal with the strain of sending soldiers off to die. During the Vietnam War, LBJ used to pray after midnight with Roman Catholic monks. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, prayed with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church on the eve of the first gulf war. For George W. Bush, these private audiences with the families of dead soldiers and Marines seem to be an outlet of sorts. (They are perhaps harder for Laura, who sometimes accompanies Bush and looks devastated afterward.) Family members interviewed by NEWSWEEK say they have been taken aback by the president's emotionalism and his sincerity. More complicated is the question of whether Bush's suffering is essentially sympathetic, or whether he is agonizing over the war that he chose to start.
Bush routinely asks to see the families of the fallen when he visits military bases, which he does about 10 times a year. It does not appear that the White House or the military makes any effort to screen out dissenters or embittered families, though some families decline the invitation to meet with Bush. Most families encourage the president to stay the course in Iraq. "To oppose something my husband lost his life for would be a betrayal," says Inge Colton, whose husband, Shane, died in April 2004 when his Apache helicopter was shot down over Baghdad. Bush does, however, hear plenty of complaints. He has been asked about missing medals on the returned uniform of a loved one, about financial assistance for a child going to college and about how soldiers really died when the Pentagon claimed the details were classified.
At her meeting with the president at Fort Hood, Texas, last spring, Colton says she lit into Bush for "stingy" military benefits. Her complaints caught Bush "a little off guard," she recalls. "He tried to argue with me a little bit, but he promised he would have someone look into it." The next day she got a call from White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who said the White House would follow up. "My main goal was to have him look at my son, look him in the eyes and apologize," says Colton. "I wanted him to know, to really understand who he has hurt." She says Bush was "attentive, though not in a fake way," and sometimes at a loss for words. "He didn't try to overcompensate," she says.
The most telling—and moving—picture of Bush grieving with the families of the dead was provided by Rachel Ascione, who met with him last summer. Her older brother, Ron Payne, was a Marine who had been killed in Afghanistan only a few weeks before Ascione was invited to meet with Bush at MacDill Air Force Base, near Tampa, Fla.Lorie Byrd thinks that Newsweek is trying to imply that Bush is perhaps apologizing for the war, but I didn't get that impression from seeing those words, "I am so sorry." I thought, as Lorie does, that he was expressing his sympathy for their terrible losses.
Ascione wasn't sure she could restrain herself with the president. She was feeling "raw." "I wanted him to look me in the eye and tell me why my brother was never coming back, and I wanted him to know it was his fault that my heart was broken," she recalls. The president was coming to Florida, a key swing state, in the middle of his re-election campaign. Ascione was worried that her family would be "exploited" by a "phony effort to make good with people in order to get votes."
Ascione and her family were gathered with 18 other families in a large room on the air base. The president entered with some Secret Service agents, a military entourage and a White House photographer. "I'm here for you, and I will take as much time as you need," Bush said. He began moving from family to family. Ascione watched as mothers confronted him: "How could you let this happen? Why is my son gone?" one asked. Ascione couldn't hear his answer, but soon "she began to sob, and he began crying, too. And then he just hugged her tight, and they cried together for what seemed like forever."
Ascione's family was one of the last Bush approached. Ascione still planned to confront him, but Bush disarmed her in an almost uncanny way. Ascione is just over five feet; her late brother was 6 feet 7. "My whole life, he used to put his hand on the top of my head and just hold it there, and it drove me crazy," she says. When Bush saw that she was crying, he leaned over and put his hand on the top of her head and drew her to him. "It was just like my brother used to do," she says, beginning to cry at the memory.
Before Bush left the meeting, he paused in the middle of the room and said to the families, "I will never feel the same level of pain and loss you do. I didn't lose anyone close to me, a member of my family or someone that I love. But I want you to know that I didn't go into this lightly. This was a decision that I struggle with every day."
As he spoke, Ascione could see the grief rising through the president's body. His shoulder slumped and his face turned ashen. He began to cry and his voice choked. He paused, tried to regain his composure and looked around the room. "I am sorry, I'm so sorry," he said.
This is why being president is such a terribly difficult job. The president has to make decisions that he believes are best for the nation even if it means that good Americans will die. You may disagree strongly about whether this President made the right decision to go into Iraq, but I just think you have to be blinded by dislike for Bush to deny that he doesn't feel deeply about those losses. I think every president does. Just look at before they became president and the later pictures from their presidencies of Lincoln, Truman, or Johnson.
I think it's admirable that Bush has not used these private sessions for public benefit. There are some politicians who would have had photographers putting out pictures of his hugging and grieving with these families, but he hasn't. Remember how Clinton recovered his sagging poll numbers by publicly grieving with the victims of the Oklahoma City bombbing. Even while Bush is being criticized for not doing enough to meet the families, he hasn't used these meetings for a political purpose. It's clear from the Newsweek story that their sources are the people who were in those meetings themselves, not the White House. I criticize Newsweek a lot, but good for them in investigating this story. I know that some of my readers think that Bush is a deeply dishonorable man, but I think this demonstrates a certain level of honor that you would not see in all politicians, particularly last year during a tough reelection fight. The Anchoress and Michelle Malkin have more.