It was one of the coldest days Washington, D.C., had had all year, and a bright winter sun sparkled into the Oval Office. Upbeat and energetic, George Bush was at last, he said, "getting the Christmas spirit." He had just completed his first morning briefing with his new chief of staff, Samuel K. Skinner. Outside on the South Lawn, the presidential helicopter, Marine 1, filled the air with its clatter. Soon it would whisk the President to Montpelier, James Madison's historic Virginia estate, where an 18th-century fife-and-drum corps was waiting to greet him as part of the 200th-anniversary celebration of the Bill of Rights.

Barbara Bush's day would keep her at home—but almost as busy. Gathering in the Diplomatic Reception Room was a gaggle of kindergarteners from St. Stephen's and St. Agnes school. They were classmates of 5-year-old Marshall Bush, daughter of the Bush's youngest son, Marvin, and his wife, Margaret. Mrs. Bush, 68, would guide the cavorting children to the Blue Room to see the White House Christmas tree, an 18-foot fir decorated with 1,370 handmade needlepoint ornaments.

Before the President coptered off, however, the Bushes were together in the Oval Office. With Millie at the First Lady's feet, they sat with PEOPLE managing editor Landon Y. Jones and Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford for a 25-minute interview. The conversation ranged over the year's events, from the Gulf War to Pearl Harbor, and included an update on their recent bedside reading (hers, Ralph Martin's Henry and Clare; his, Dan Jenkins's You Gotta Play Hurt). The President, 67, looked slim and relaxed, though he frequently spoke with strong emotion. Mrs. Bush was typically warm and candid. Excerpts from the conversation:

Mr. President, when we talked to you just before Christmas last year, you told us that the world was a dangerous place. A lot has happened since then. Given the recent events in the Soviet Union, do you feel any differently?

GB: My answer is that we can't let our guard down, but the world is a much safer place. Who would have thought, when you and I last talked, that in 100 days Saddam Hussein would have been driven out of Kuwait? Or that the Middle East parties would be talking to each other? But there are still problems. It is in our interest, and indeed the interest of the world, that this whole Soviet nuclear-weapons question be handled properly and discreetly. So we're in the middle of all of that. But the United States now, as the undisputed leader of the world, must continue to exert leadership to be sure that we can guarantee to generations to come that it is a safe place.

You've talked with Russian President Boris Yeltsin several times. What are your personal impressions of him?

GB: Strong democrat. I think I have a good, personal relationship with him. He's a very hard charger. He's been very good about keeping us informed. There's nothing on the personal side that makes it difficult to deal with Boris Yeltsin.

We've been following Patrick Buchanan's America First campaign, and we know your own father [Sen. Prescott Bush] fought hard against isolationism before World War II. Do his experiences come to mind now?

GB: Hadn't thought about it in terms of my father, but I think about my own commitment to free trade and fair trade. In tough economic times—and we are in tough economic times—it is exports that have helped sustain the American economy. So I'm prepared to stay with our efforts to expand our contacts around the world, to expand free and fair trade. U.S. engagement in the world is critical. We are the leader, and we will not pull back from our responsibility.

You both look wonderful, but you've packed an awful lot in this year. How's your health, and can you update us on your shared Graves disease?

BB: Mine's great! [Looking at her husband] How's your health?

GB: I'm worried more about Millie [who has lupus erythematosus, a degenerative disease]. Mine is under control totally. It's been so certified. Every time you have a hiccup, it shows up on television. Thank heavens it was a thyroid problem I had, so they wouldn't be much more graphic in the pictures displayed. If there is anybody whose health the American people know about, it's mine.

BB: Listen, my weight is a secret, though! Don't ask.

A controversial movie called JFK has come out about the Kennedy assassination. What can you tell the majority of Americans who continue to believe in a conspiracy?

GB: Well, I'll be very honest with you, I have not read the speculation about this new movie. Nobody has come into this office with serious—with any—questions about the findings of the, what was it, the Warren Commission. So I don't spend any time thinking about it. But if there were hard evidence, and it was presented properly through legal channels, we'd take a look at it.

I mean, it's like this guy Gary Sick, who suggested [in the book October Surprise] that I was in Paris [to negotiate a secret release of American hostages held in Iran in 1980]. And, well, he didn't have hard evidence, but he'd talked to three people who'd seen eight others. So we give him a record, minute by minute, as to where we were. And yet he still continues to express doubt. I don't know what it is about conspiracy theories that take hold and drive people.

This job has placed your children and your family under tremendous scrutiny. Do you think the presidency has been a burden on your children?

BB: Oh, absolutely. I do.

Could you explain?

BB: Well, they're private people who are giving, caring, sensitive, whose every move is under scrutiny. Yes, I think it's been very difficult. They have had a lot of things said about them that aren't true.

GB: It's tough on kids.

What do you tell them?

BB: They tell us. They say don't worry about it, we can cope.

GB: They realize that if they spell their name B-U-S-H, somebody's gonna write some ugly piece. I mean, it just goes with the turf.

Speaking of children, millions of American children are moving hack home—and some are asking us for money. Have any of your children hit you up financially?

GB: They haven't had to hit us up. But when Neil went through the wringer out there—very unfairly, says this father—we volunteered to help him but in a modest way. I wish I could do more for him, but you can't look like you're interfering—which killed me, because this boy is honest and totally fine in every way. To think what he went through for pure politics is just too much as far as I'm concerned. To feel as a father that you're letting down your son—and I will always feel that way—I hate it. But that's the way it is.

We're wondering if you followed the recent Palm Beach trial on television, and if you did, whether you thought that TV was going too far in the way that kind of material was handled.

GB: My answer is that there ought to be a way to take some of this graphic sex and do it without the gaze of television. The American people have a right to know, but young daughters have a right to be protected against sexually explicit material. Whether it's in a Clarence Thomas hearing or whether it's in a courtroom, it's gone too far. I think the American people, those of us who value family, are concerned about it. I've got a 14-year-old granddaughter, and I hate it that she sits listening to the news program and then picks up these graphic sexual discussions. It doesn't hurt for these things to be done without the glare of every single detail being drilled into every living room. I am not for censorship, but I am for taste, decency and family. There ought to be some standards of decency that people can voluntarily accept.

BB: I don't like television in the courtroom because I don't think it's fair to either the accused or the accuser.

GB: Don't you like Judge Wapner or whatever his name is?

BB: I don't watch Judge Wapner, nor do you [laughter].

GB: Used to [laughter].

Mrs. Bush, you have never encountered sexual harassment in the workplace, but haven't you seen it in social and political settings? How do you handle it?

BB: I'm formidable. I mean, I would say, knock it off.

And that's the advice you would give other women?

BB: Immediately. I mean, I think we're out of those dark ages where your boss or your fellow worker can do that. I think you can say, 'Stop it.' Loud, I hope.

Mr. President, they say that when polls go down and your back's against the wall, you're at your best.

GB: I've been tested by adversity in my life in several ways. All these polls are relative. Thank God I said that when they were 80 percent. I don't live by polls [laughter]. Last year at this time, people were saying to me, "You haven't made your case to the American people about what we're doing there in Kuwait. Why are you moving forces? Why haven't you gotten Congress to do this? What about the protesters?"

I said we're going to get the people's support. We did it. That's what we're going to be doing with this economy—express the concern about people that are hurting and out of work, just as I did about those Kuwaiti kids that were being tortured over there. Having had experience in the pressure cooker that is the presidency, you're inclined to keep things in better perspective.

Mrs. Bush always has wonderful polls. We wondered, Mr. President, how do you think that history books ought to remember her?

GB: I think they will remember her as a person who came in with no pretensions, with a conviction about helping others, as a true point of light. As someone who can identify with the American people, who is down-to-earth and caring. And who eschews what the image makers would have one believe are necessary to be a First Lady. She's doing her job and doing it well.

How do you think of George Rush? Is he, in Governor Sununu's words, "a pit bull or a pussycat"?

BB: Hmm [laughter]. I think of him as someone who is mature enough not to worry about polls and to take advice from people all around and do what's right. But you're asking the wrong person. He has not slipped from his pedestal in my eyes. I think he's great.

The victory in the gulf and the anniversary of Pearl Harbor seem almost to be bookends on a rather emotional year. And then the hostages came back. Is there one moment that just comes to mind?

GB: I think knowing that the fighting was about to start, just before the air war was about to begin, and wondering how many airmen would lose their lives was, for me, a very emotional moment.

We now think back that everything went great and smoothly and there were no problems, no pressures. That wasn't the case. We were taking on Congress. We were taking on the press. We were taking on people who were demonstrating here and in other countries. My own bishop in my own church wanted to do it so differently. And I had on my shoulders the lives of these people. I remember sitting up at Camp David at our chapel service with the thought just kind of coming to me very clearly. It was a very emotional moment.

[Pauses] I mean, you're right. The year began with the tension of wanting to do the right thing to beat aggression. It ended with the return of the hostages—an upbeat emotional moment—and Pearl Harbor itself. [Those events] sent a very clear message: Hey, this isn't any time for isolation. It's no time to pull back. We don't need any more surprises and days of infamy. We will continue to exert leadership around the world for peace.