December 29, 2003 12:00 PM

Lately, for George Bush, much of the news has been good: Some indicators suggest the economy is picking up, and unemployment is down slightly. And some of the news has been spectacular: On Dec. 13, in what may prove a decisive moment for the war in Iraq, U.S. Special Operations forces plucked toppled dictator Saddam Hussein from a hole in the ground. Perhaps recalling how Saddam once tried, and failed, to have her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, assassinated, First Lady Laura Bush told PEOPLE, “I felt a sense of closure in knowing that he had finally been captured. It was just great to get the news.”

Despite world events, however, those close to the President describe a sense of normalcy and continuity at the White House as he and Mrs. Bush, both 57, prepare to celebrate Christmas with their twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, now 22. In the country’s top job, “you obviously grow and learn from your experiences,” says presidential adviser and longtime friend Karen Hughes. “But Mrs. Bush and the President are very much the same people they’ve always been.” On Dec. 5 the Bushes sat down in their private living room, the Yellow Oval Room, to talk about the past, the future and their family with PEOPLE managing editor Martha Nelson and Washington bureau chief Sandra Sobieraj Westfall; they later answered questions about the capture of Saddam Hussein.

PEOPLE: For history’s record, could you tell us when you first heard the news of Saddam’s capture?

President Bush: Laura and I were at Camp David. She was out looking at some cabins that had been remodeled for guests when I got a call on the secure line from [Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld. My initial reaction was that something bad must have happened. But he said Gen. John Abizaid [U.S. Central Command chief] thinks we got Saddam. He started to tell me that first reports are not always accurate, and I also expressed some caution. I told Laura when she came back to the cabin, and she said that would be great, let’s hope it is.

Then [National Security Advisor] Condi Rice called me the next morning to let me know it had been confirmed. My dad called when I was making phone calls to our allies about Saddam. He congratulated me and said it was a great day for America. I expressed to him that I felt a lot of joy for the Iraqi people too, particularly when I watched the excited outburst by the Iraqis during the briefing in Baghdad.

Do you feel your own family is safer?

President Bush: I know the world is better off without Saddam in power. That’s the way I look at it.

Mr. President, you made a trip to Baghdad to visit troops over Thanksgiving. That must have been an emotional experience.

President Bush: I haven’t talked about how emotional my trip was yet. You’re the first person I’ve talked to. But it was emotional. I walked around the corner, and there was a moment, a realization among the men that the Commander in Chief had arrived, and then just an overwhelming response. I was very proud to be there, I was proud of our troops, I was very grateful for their enthusiastic response.

What was it about walking into that room that sent that tear rolling down your cheek?

President Bush: I think I probably reacted to tears coming down their cheeks, if the truth be known. Tears can sometimes be contagious. I remember the time when I vowed never to shed a tear. There was a wife of a soldier who had lost his life in the Afghanistan theater, and I remember walking into an event in Florida and saying to myself, “The one thing I am not going to do is, I’m not going to shed a tear.” I wanted the troops who were there to see a strong Commander in Chief. And I walked in and I was doing great, and then I looked over and saw the wife and she was just in total meltdown. She had been crying a lot. And I didn’t make it through.

Mrs. Bush, has there been a time this year when you’ve been moved to tears, maybe some unseen moment that the rest of us would never know about?

Mrs. Bush: Hymns at church, those sort of things make me weep. But I really don’t cry very much.

President Bush: Well, I’ll tell you one. Last night in the receiving line, after the lighting of the national Christmas tree, a mother came through, and her son had died in combat maybe two weeks ago. And the dad came. She was—one—unbelievably strong, and—two—pretty emotional, obviously. I don’t know if I saw a tear drip out of your eye or not, but one came out of mine. Particularly in a time of war, one of our responsibilities is to comfort people who hurt. I have that duty, and Laura does as well.

Now that the holidays are upon us, can you talk about your favorite family traditions and how they started?

President Bush: I would guess the favorite family tradition now is the fact that our family gets together. We were planning to see my mother and dad for Thanksgiving, except I didn’t show up. [Instead, the President went to Baghdad.]

Mrs. Bush: We might have a Thanksgiving turkey this Christmas instead of our usual beef tenderloin. And my husband always does the stockings for the girls, the way his mother did them for them. We wrap all of the little presents for the stockings in tissue paper.

President Bush: Those are the actual stockings [gesturing toward the fire-place mantel].

Mrs. Bush: Our mothers made those for us, and a friend of mine, who I always shared Christmas with, made the girls’ when they were born.

Do you have a standard stocking stuffer that they always count on?

Mrs. Bush: Y’all know we’re pretty standard.

President Bush: That’s right. It would be your lip gloss, stockings, gum, socks, books. And Laura always finds some interesting knickknacks from overseas.

On another subject, Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote recently in PEOPLE about her father’s Alzheimer’s. Mrs. Bush, when your own father was suffering from this disease, how did you cope?

Mrs. Bush: What I really saw was how my mother coped. And because she could, I could. Because she was such an extraordinary caregiver, my father was able to stay at home until he died. My mother was fortunate to be able to afford to have people come in and stay around the clock at the end. The devotion she showed him, their devotion to each other during their whole marriage, is an unbelievable example for both of us.

Mrs. Bush, you have certainly been vocal on the issue of women and heart disease and encouraging women to get more exercise.

Mrs. Bush: I was so shocked when I read that heart disease was the No. 1 killer of women. In fact, when I made a speech at a Kansas City hospital about heart disease, a woman who watched it on television that night had symptoms of heart disease, and she realized that’s what they were, and she went to the hospital. And that makes you feel really good that you got the message out.

As a former smoker, do you have the secret to quitting?

Mrs. Bush: The secret is not to start.

President Bush: I smoked once. I’ll tell you how I was able to quit: I exercised. This country needs to pay more attention to our health. We need to exercise more. Twenty minutes of walking a day is a pretty good preventative. Laura is a great exerciser, by the way. Since we’ve been to Washington, she’s become quite…

Mrs. Bush: The weight-lifter [lifts her arm and flexes her biceps].

Your girls face some choices this spring when they graduate from college.

President Bush: I’m not going to talk about ’em [laughter].

Can you see one of them becoming the third President Bush?

President Bush: Nahhh.

Or would you encourage them to go into public life?

President Bush: They just need to get out of college first [laughter]. I hope we’ve instilled enough confidence in them that they’re willing to chase their dreams.

Is there any reason, in this day and age, that a foreign-born citizen shouldn’t be able to grow up and be President?

President Bush: You’re not referring to Governor Schwarzenegger, are you? [laughter] That’s an interesting question. We ought to look at it and examine it as a country.

Mrs. Bush: I mean, even Karen Hughes was born in Paris. Karen Hughes for President.

Your brother recently had to make a very difficult decision to reinsert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

President Bush: I supported him on that.

Do you have living wills?

President Bush: Yeah, we do.

Mrs. Bush: We also have our parents’ living wills on file with us. When you have a father who had Alzheimer’s, you look at those issues.

A lot of Americans get their idea of life in the White House from The West Wing. What about life in the real White House would surprise them?

Mrs. Bush: People would be surprised how real life in the White House is, and how normal. I mean, it’s magnificent, and we live with furniture and art that’s literally museum quality, and a wonderful staff and a chef, and all those things that are true luxuries. But we talk to our children on the phone every day, to our parents once a week. We have friends over right now for holiday parties. Nearly every bedroom is filled with friends.

Mr. President, your father was a great letter writer. Are you a letter writer or a phone caller or an e-mailer?

Mrs. Bush: I’m a phone caller.

President Bush: Phone caller. I used to e-mail a lot. I just didn’t want people who were writing me to have their privacy violated, if an issue were to come up, and somebody would say, “Show us all the correspondence from such-and-such a time.” The best way to do that is just not have correspondence.

Now, I know you don’t watch TV much.

President Bush: I don’t. Or the news.

But has there been a TV show or movie that made you laugh out loud recently?

Mrs. Bush: Zoolander [laughter].

President Bush: She loved it, watching it with the girls.

Mrs. Bush: I loved it. The girls, they memorized about a million lines.

President Bush: Pirates of the Caribbean I think is the last thing I saw that I made it through without storming out.

Oh, you walk out of a lot of movies?

President Bush: If I think the movie is no good, I’m walking out. The great thing about Camp David is it doesn’t offend any of the guests. They can stay.

What’s something you walked out of?

President Bush: You’ve seen a lousy movie. It’s shallow, and they use foul language to try to carry it. If I just don’t like it, I’m out of there, reading a book.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

Mrs. Bush: We both have stacks. Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. I’m literally afraid the antique tables are going to collapse.

President Bush: Benjamin Franklin. I’ve got Walter Isaacson’s book.

I have a question about voter apathy. In the last presidential race, only half of 18- to 24-year-olds were registered, and two-thirds of them didn’t bother to vote. What do we, as a nation, do about this?

President Bush: It starts with parents telling their kids that democracy is only as strong as the willingness of people to participate. Votes do matter.

Mrs. Bush: Obviously—in the last presidential race [laughter].

President Bush: And I think the media can help to articulate that people can participate and change can take place based upon the will of the people.

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