People who know Bush report that his most outstanding feature is his easy way with people. He often teases visitors and mugs for the cameras. He was a prankster on the 2000 campaign plane and sometimes (literally) turned the cameras back on reporters. Engaged in arguments over policy issues in the hallways of the Texas legislatures, legislators sometimes were surprised when Bush snuck up behind them and put them in a bear hug. Bush’s ability to connect with people in a warm and likable way has been one of his greatest strengths since his college fraternity days.
In the spring of 2002, however, the easygoing, fraternity manner landed with a thud in Europe. One British journalist dourly reported, “Like certain distinctive wines, President George W. Bush does not travel well.” In fact, “those aspects of his personality that play best in Peoria play worst in Paris.” The journalist noted that, in the three years he had covered French president Jacques Chirac, he never heard anything remotely like a joke. Bush, in contrast, thrived on them.
When Bush and Chirac appeared together, Chirac was visibly annoyed when Bush called him “Jacques,” and their public uneasiness carried over to their private meetings. Bush’s session with German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder went little better. Russian president Vladimir Putin was reported to have been none too pleased when he found out that Bush had nicknamed him “Pootie Poot,” though the two did exchange friendly barbs on stage.
Overall, Bush struggled during his trip to Europe. His Washington social schedule, which typically ended at 7:30 (so he could get to bed at his usual time), didn’t sync with the European dinners that usually went until midnight. He was visibly tired—and noticeably grumpy. He did run on the treadmill that was especially installed on Air Force One for the trip, but that didn’t help much. His Texas way and early-to-bed/early-to-rise routine didn’t match European sensibilities. He had a hard time adjusting to Europe—and Europeans had a hard time adjusting to him.
Personal tensions between Bush and European leaders remained high over the next few months. During the German parliamentary elections, Chancellor Schroeder found himself in a tough election battle. Bush’s plans for an invasion of Iraq were hugely unpopular in Germany, and when Schroeder opposed Bush’s policy, his lead increased. The administration’s anger grew when reporters wrote that Schroeder’s justice minister had compared Bush with Hitler. The minister was alleged to have said that the United States “has a lousy legal system” and that “Bush would be sitting in prison today” for insider trading had current laws been on the books while he worked in the Texas oil industry. The minister rejected suggestions that Bush’s war agenda against Iraq was over oil. A German newspaper quoted her as saying, “The Americans have enough oil.” Rather, “Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. This is a popular method. Hitler also used it.” The minister later denied having uttered the words, and Schroeder refused to reappoint her to her post after the election. But the tensions had boiled over into a major crisis between longtime allies. The stress took months to ease.
The tensions between Bush and French president Chirac weighed heavily over the two-month-long Security Council debate over the resolution authorizing tough new weapons inspections in Iraq. In early November 2002, Chirac’s government quietly suggested that it might circulate its own alternative to the American resolution, and its diplomats explored strategies for gathering support. The differences hung principally on issues of strategy—how strongly to push Hussein—not on issues of personality. But the frosty personal relationship between Bush and Chirac unquestionably complicated the already difficult job American diplomats faced in winning Security Council approval.
In November, in a unanimous vote, the Security Council finally approved the resolution. American negotiators convinced the French and Russians that the United States did not see the resolution as a license for invasion and that the country was committed to working with the UN to disarm Hussein. Bush’s blunt, firm position in the end won the day. But the aw-shucks, fraternity-like informality that worked so well with so many Americans—Democrats and Republicans alike—served him poorly in Europe, straining several key relationships with key allies and undermining support for several key diplomatic initiatives.