For the nation’s Chief Executive, Christmas at Camp David followed by a week at the Texas ranch bring only a brief respite before the Jan. 20 Inauguration. While completing the selection of his new Cabinet, George W. Bush faces the demands of a war abroad and the launching of big-ticket reforms of Social Security, education and health care that he promised voters last November. But during a year-end conversation at the White House Dec. 10, the President, 58, seemed eager for the challenge. “I feel very emboldened and refreshed by the size of the vote I received,” he said as he and First Lady Laura Bush, 58, sipped lattes in their private quarters decorated with both gleaming ornaments and handmade stockings. The couple’s twin daughters, now 23, have, after months of high visibility during the campaign, returned to a life of privacy—Barbara as a staffer on her father’s Inauguration committee and Jenna with a job in a Washington, D.C., school. “They’re not looking for a camera to jump in front of,” says their father. PEOPLE managing editor Martha Nelson and Washington bureau chief Sandra Sobieraj Westfall talked to the couple in the second-floor Yellow Oval Room about plans for the year ahead.
Congratulations are in order since we saw you last. So tell us, how did you celebrate your victory?
Mrs. Bush: I can’t even remember back to election day [laughter].
President Bush: We had Thanksgiving together. It was the first chance we actually had to grab a moment and reflect. And, fortunately, we were there with Mother and Dad and the girls.
Mrs. Bush: And my mother.
We’ve heard so much about red states and blue states. Do you believe that we are truly a nation divided?
President Bush: In recent history we’ve had close elections. On the other hand, in my first term I was able to bring people together to reform education and the tax code, and I intend to bring people together to do big things for the country—Social Security reform, legal reform and [to] continue to work on education reforms. People are really Americans first, rather than being a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. They truly love their country. And that’s the kind of spirit that makes it possible for a President, after a good, tough campaign, to govern.
This was a particularly bitterly fought race, though.
President Bush: Not really. That’s what every reporter says after [every] election.
Mrs. Bush, do you see a role in bringing the country together?
Mrs. Bush: One [goal] that I’m interested in is working with kids. I read a New York Times story about how we have neglected boys. We paid a lot of attention to girls over the last 20 or 30 years, but we thought our boys could take care of themselves—and we’ve come to find out boys need nurturing just like girls do. I think we ought to figure out ways that organizations already doing great work—Boys and Girls Clubs and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters and churches—can pay close attention to boys. We let boys go home after school while their parents are still at work, and, you know, we might protect our girls a little bit better than that. But as we look around, we find that most of the kids who get into trouble are boys.
As Commander-in-Chief, you made the very difficult decision to send America’s sons and daughters into war. How do you feel when you hear soldiers talking about scavenging for scrap metal to protect themselves?
President Bush: Our soldiers deserve the best. Obviously, if soldiers are looking for metal to protect themselves, we’ve got to do a better job and we will.
There are a lot of parents out there worried by Internet rumors about the return of the draft. Can you put that question to rest?
President Bush: When I met with some of the families who lost a loved one, Marine families at Camp Pendleton, a woman was there with her three young boys. She said, “Can you promise me that there won’t be a draft?” I said, “I’m not going to institute the draft. We don’t need a draft, and there will not be one.”
You have said you support letting states choose whether gay couples can enter into civil unions.
President Bush: Right, legal arrangements.
Is a couple joined by that kind of legal arrangement as much of a family as, say, you two are family?
President Bush: Of course. But I do not believe that society is well-served by changing the definition of marriage between a man and a woman.
You’re a big baseball fan. Do you want a tough steroids-testing policy?
President Bush: I do. Tough means there’s no doubt in a fan’s mind that the players are clean. And that’s up to baseball and the players to devise that, and if they don’t devise it, Congress is likely to devise a plan. The game is suffering right now, because people are losing confidence.
Do you still have confidence in Barry Bonds’s 703 homers?
President Bush: I know he’s a great baseball player and baseball needs to clean up its act.
You’re not a vain man, and yet there is talk about every President in office aging. Do you see it when you look at pictures of yourself?
President Bush: Are you suggesting I could use a little hair coloring [laughter]? No, I haven’t thought about it, I really haven’t.
Your religious faith has been widely discussed. Can you tell us the last decision you made that you really thought about in prayer?
President Bush: I pray every day.
Do you ask your staff to join you?
President Bush: No, I don’t. It’s a very personal matter.
Mrs. Bush, during this incredibly busy year, you had to take on the task of cleaning out your family home and moving your mother to an apartment.
Mrs. Bush: Every time I had a couple of days available, I went to Midland to help my mom pack up. It was really a wonderful opportunity to have her there as we decided which things to move to her apartment or to our ranch, or which ones we got rid of. One of the things I boxed were letters—millions of letters she had written to her mother, and her mother’s letters, and my letters from college. So since my mother has been at the White House for the Christmas holidays, she’s been going through those boxes. It’s been really fun. I am aware how important that time [together] is, even though I am really, really busy.
President Bush: You are never too busy to love somebody.
Mrs. Bush, what is it like to become caretaker to your parent?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I’m an only child. I know that if I don’t take care of my mother—not take care of her, I mean, she’s perfectly able to take care of herself—but if I’m not there to support her emotionally, that there won’t be anybody else. And I’ll tell you what you also think about at this stage, it’s what your kids will do when it’s you, when you’re the one that needs the help. You hope they’ll be there for you…. You know, it’s a wonderful time, at the holiday season, to go through your life like that. We had a tradition on Christmas Eve. We would have our dinner, and then get out the old movies.
President Bush: We may resurrect the tradition.
This is the season of charity. What is your philosophy on giving?
President Bush: We give to our churches. We give to groups that are effective at providing help, a diverse group of people, organizations.
Do you try to make a conscious effort to tithe?
President Bush: It’s certainly a good goal to strive for.
What would your dream jobs be, if you weren’t doing this right now?
Mrs. Bush: Lying on the couch [laughter].
President Bush: This is the kind of job where you don’t have time to dream. You just do your job.
Well, we’ll see if you can imagine this: You get to be the U.S. ambassador someplace in the world. Which country would you choose?
President Bush: I’m not going to answer that question. When I pick one country, imagine all the headlines across the world: “Bush Didn’t Choose Us” [laughter].
Mrs. Bush: I don’t know about choosing a job for us to be an ambassador, but I will say that I do look forward to a time when we can travel. [As President and First Lady], our trips are always fabulous. But, you know, it’s not sitting at the sidewalk cafe watching the crowds walk by.
President Bush: She’s going to invent some disguise [laughter].
Mrs. Bush: He’s not going to be going with me. I’ll be with the girls.
Speaking of the girls, you’ve spent a lot of time with them in this past year. What did you learn about them?
Mrs. Bush: How much they have grown up and how much confidence they have, each of them, and how delightful
they are. We knew that, but there’s a difference between being 15 and 23, in how they get along with their parents, and that’s fun for us.
President Bush: I learned they can stand in front of 25,000 people and introduce their dad, which says a lot about their maturity.
Is it true they decided to get involved in your campaign after Jenna had a dream that you lost?
Mrs. Bush: I said that.
President Bush: You did? My take on all this is that the girls realized that this would be the last campaign, and that they love their dad, and that they want to participate and give it their all to help me get reelected. And I’m glad they did. It would have been horrible, frankly, for them to look back and try to explain to their kids, well, the ’04 campaign was interesting, and I watched it on TV.
President Bush: You know what I think? I think endorsements are great to generate publicity, but no one really listens to anybody else’s endorsements. Probably the one that matters most is who your parents are going to vote for, or who your spouse is going to vote for.
Do you have a favorite movie this year?
President Bush: Friday Night Lights. West Texas football. We lived in west Texas during those years when Odessa Permian High and Midland Lee, where Laura went to high school, had an intense rivalry. And it was really unbelievable. A good movie.
Mrs. Bush: I saw Vanity Fair on a weekend when George was campaigning during the high anxiety of the campaign. One of my best friends came over, and we worked out and had lunch and then watched it here in the theater, and it was a chick flick, but we both loved it.
What book are you reading right now?
Mrs. Bush: I’m reading The Kite Runner [by Afghani author Khaled Hosseini]. It’s really great.
President Bush: Max Frankel’s book on the Cuban Missile crisis [High Noon in the Cold War].
Do you own an iPod?
President Bush: I do. I use it mainly for when I go out and ride my mountain bike. I crank it up. Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis are on there [You Win Again]. It’s a great album, by the way.
We’ve certainly seen an increase on TV of foul language and sexual titillation. Where do we draw the line?
President Bush: They put the on/off button on TVs for a reason. We’re in a free society and creative people come up with all kinds of ideas to try to lure listeners. I would hope there would be a time when studios take a step back and look at what they’re producing and realize the consequences. But the consumers of America can control the content by not paying attention to it.
In closing, if we meet again next year, what would you like the biggest headline to be at that time?
President Bush: “His Hair Is No Longer Gray” [laughter]. Good one, huh? [No], the world is more free, and democracy is taking hold in parts of the world that have been condemned to tyranny. And freedom is more than just democracy. Freedom is freedom from disease and from hunger, and we’ll continue to lead and other nations will come. I’m looking forward to it.