- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

President Bush, derided by Democrats and some Republicans in recent months for becoming too insulated and relying on only a few close aides, suddenly has become Oprah in chief.

In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has taken to the road on campaign-style, town-hall sessions, fielding questions from ordinary Americans ranging from a father of a U.S. soldier to a 7-year-old boy.

“I think the worst thing that can happen for decision makers is to get a filtered point of view,” the president said yesterday in a 40-minute question-and-answer session at JK Moving & Storage in Sterling, Va.

Critics say he did just that throughout his first term as he relied too heavily on a small group of top aides who rarely disagreed with him. That insular governing style, the critics say, led to Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on the basis of reports of weapons of mass destruction.

Newsweek last month ran a cover story titled “Bush in the Bubble,” calling him “the most isolated president in modern history.”

The president yesterday rebutted that charge, saying he welcomes dissenting views and encourages competing opinions at the White House, although he acknowledged that “it’s pretty hard as president, needless to say.”

“But I’ve got a group of people around me that are empowered to walk in. [Secretary of State] Condi Rice, when she walks in, she comes in as a close friend, but as someone who knows that our friendship will be sustained, whether she agrees with me or not.

“[Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld comes in — and he’s a crusty old guy who …,” Mr. Bush said as laughter from the crowd of 500 drowned him out. “And he’s got an opinion, and he tells it. And that’s important. And that’s the way it is throughout the White House.”

Mr. Bush paced the circle-in-the-round arena, which featured a white and green carpet surrounded by a white picket fence.

The president opened up during the 40-minute question-and-answer period with the invited audience, especially when fielding a question from the father of a young man who had just enlisted in the military.

“My son is one of those young men, at 18 years old almost — I hope I don’t cry, but I …,” the man said before breaking off.

“I hope you don’t, too, because I will as well, and then we …,” Mr. Bush said with a smile, prompting laughter from the crowd.

The man continued, asking the president, “How do you remain upbeat when you’re surrounded by the burdens of leadership?”

Mr. Bush grew introspective.

“My faith and my family and my friends, for starters,” he said. “I’m proud to tell you that my friends that I knew before I became in public office are still my friends. One of the coolest things to do in my presidential work, one of the …,” he restarted as he eyed the gaggle of reporters who had just scribbled down that the president just said “coolest.”

“Seeing if you’re paying attention up there,” he said before picking up: “… things I like to do is to welcome my buddies.

“You can imagine what it’s like. It’s a great honor, pretty awe-inspiring deal. They walk in there and, kind of, ‘What are you doing here, Bush?’ You know?” he said, drawing more laughter.

The president offered a similarly jocular answer when he held a town-hall-style event in Louisville, Ky., last week.

“How old are you?” Mr. Bush asked his questioner.

“Seven,” the boy said, then asked: “How can people help on the war on terror?”

“Well, that’s the hardest question I’ve had all day,” the president said to laughter before launching into his answer.

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