At the end of the week in which President-elect Bush finally came to Washington, the reports are: So far, so good. From public cabinet appointments to private meetings, those who see Mr. Bush in action respond with one word: Good.
Colin Powell? Good. Condi Rice? Good. Mel Martinez? Good. When Paul O’Neill was nominated for Treasury, people were burning up the phone lines from Washington to Wall Street asking: “Is this good?” Within a day and after much head scratching the common wisdom was: Good.
As for meetings, a case in point was this Monday’s 9 a.m. gathering in Trent Lott’s office between Mr. Bush and the Senate Republican leadership—Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Larry Craig of Idaho, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, along with some 20 Senate staffers and a handful of Bush aides.
It was the first time Mr. Bush had met with all of them in the Capitol, and the first time as president-elect. In the 40-minute meeting Mr. Bush was “relaxed, gracious, and lighthearted” in the words of one participant.
He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it. He began by telling them that not only is he president-elect but he is absolutely convinced that he won the presidential race. He said that having won the race he means to carry out his program. “It wasn’t rhetoric,” the participant quoted him. Mr. Bush said he wanted to move forward on the issues he’d campaigned on: a real across-the-board tax cut with rate reductions for everyone, Social Security reform, Medicare reform and education reform. Mr. Bush went on to say, again according to the participant, “There are two things that I think we need to deal with right up front—the first, the energy crisis, both short term and long term. And the other is the state of our national defenses.’ ” He said may be time to take another look at nuclear power.
Mr. Bush didn’t go into details; he painted in broad strokes. Another who was there said the president-elect revealed some of what his leadership style will be. “You got a sense of the way he’ll work with Congress—’Here’s what I want, now you tell me how you can get there.’ He didn’t say, for instance, ‘I am going to stand on absolute ground that we have to have all the tax cuts.’ It was more of a ‘That’s what I like, that’s what I want, but if you tell me we have to go incremental, we’ll go that way.’ ”
Mr. Bush invited each senator to speak, said he’d welcome advice. A few spoke about energy, some about taxes. When it was Strom Thurmond’s turn, he said: “Wuhk hahd!”
Everyone laughed, and the 98-year-old Mr. Thurmond looked at them. “He duh that, he be a great prezdint!”
Mr. Bush was engaged. He listened; he quipped. “It was the first day of the honeymoon,” the participant said. The senators left the meeting “feeling the man is wonderfully charming and engaged in small groups like that. I think he is easier just to like than his father or even Reagan was, because his personality is so easygoing. Reagan had a sharper direction, and he had two or three ideas, not six. He would have been simpler, and he would have been more eloquent.” But Mr. Bush “was one of the gang—no pretense, none at all.”
* * *
Privately, senators talk about and worry over the difference between the Bush in the room and the Bush at the podium. In a room, in small meetings, he is sharp, funny, knowing. A senator told me, “When he was with us, the words didn’t trip; the grammar and usage were perfect, no mispronunciations.” But “he stiffens up in front of the TelePrompTer.”
Senate Republicans want the American people to see the Bush they see—the Bush in the room—when he is at the podium. Because the Bush in the room is reassuring—his persona and personality, his Teddy Roosevelt-like brio, his quickness and quick understanding are reassuring. People leave him feeling confident in him, and impressed.
The man at the podium, however—the man who makes the cabinet announcements and who answers the questions from the press on whether he’s damaging the economy by talking it down—is not so reassuring, because he looks nervous. His nervousness is understood by viewers—by the American people—to suggest fear: fear of the job, of the reporters, of the viewers, of the microphones.
The good news: Mr. Bush is not afraid. Those who meet with him can see it. The bad news: He looks afraid when he speaks in public, which is where the vast majority of people see him.
The good news: This is a fixable problem. Eight years ago that old smoothie Bill Clinton walked clumsily, didn’t know how to salute the Marine at the door of the helicopter, jogged around in little shorts, took forever to make his appointments and then spent a month taking them back: Bye, Lani; sorry, Kimba; see ya, Zoë.
Mr. Clinton now is sleek and sure, but that’s not how he started. He had to work at it. So does Mr. Bush. Everyone who supports him wants him to devote time now to working seriously and with commitment at the particular demands of the public presentation of the presidency. Every day he should be taking half an hour to work on the TelePrompTer, and like his father he should work with a speech coach. Why every day? Because it will get rote and boring. And once it begins to feel rote and boring he will begin to lose his self-consciousness.
Bad news: Mr. Bush tends to see public presentation as a phony part of the job, and he doesn’t love it. But it’s not a phony part of the job. It is the job. A presidency is a public thing.
Good news: Karen Hughes and others around Mr. Bush understand all this.
* * *
A second concern Republican officials on Capitol Hill have about Mr. Bush: Does he know how hard the Democrats are going to be on him? All presidents who’ve been governors unconsciously take their statehouse experience with them into the Oval Office and think it will form some kind of paradigm for their White House experience. And they are, as we all know, always wrong, because the presidency is different not only in size but in type. It’s a different animal.
The Democrats of Capitol Hill are not the Democrats of Austin. Texas Democrats are more like Republicans. Congressional Democrats are sui generis. Sometime back a member of Congress told me: “Tom Dashle is like George Mitchell, he’s so nice and sincere and reasonable—on the outside. He has a soft voice and demeanor. You’d go to dinner with him and think what a good guy. But he’s intractable, he looks for the advantage at every point, and he’s mean.” The Democrats of Austin made deals and stuck to them; arm twisting and cajoling and charming and pressuring were part of the game. But the Democrats of Capitol Hill are ideological, and so they are ferocious.
The Republicans of Capitol Hill are wondering if Mr. Bush understands this. The president-elect keeps saying he knows what to expect and he’s ready. But as a Senate veteran told me, “You never know what to expect and you’re never ready.”
Mr. Bush seems confident when he talks about the Democrats. Which leaves Republicans wondering if he knows more than they do or they know more than he. They’re hoping he knows more.
Republicans in the Senate expect a tough year. The scenario might become brighter if some of the newly elected Democrats who have been Governors, and who have worked with legislatures, become part of a functioning moderate majority. The new members—Thomas Carper of Delaware, Ben Nelson of Nebraska—could find themselves voting with moderates like Louisiana’s John Breaux and senators who are up for re-election in two years like the other Louisianan, Mary Landreau. This could be good news for the Republicans, and for Mr. Bush.
Another potential challenge Republicans speak of quietly on Capitol Hill is John McCain. In the Senate, as every schoolchild knows, one man can stop everything through the power of the filibuster. So watch Mr. McCain, who made his agenda clear last week in a meeting of Republican senators. He told his colleagues that he has a bigger constituency than they: “I’ve made promises to the American people.” His agenda of course is not Mr. Bush’s—not tax relief or Social Security or Medicare reform—but campaign-finance reform. In the words of a colleague, “He’s just gonna do his own thing and it doesn’t matter what impact it has on anyone else.”
So while Mr. Bush is thinking he is going to begin the people’s business with the issues he campaigned on, John McCain means to do the people’s business with those he campaigned on.
* * *
It is a matter of wide and hopeful belief on the left, and among those who ask questions on talk shows, that the right is ready to eat Mr. Bush for breakfast, that “right wingers” will soon make his life impossible with demands, that conservatives will bring him to heel if he makes the wrong move.
This is not true, and is a wonderful example of thinking that what was true in 1989 must be true today.
But the left’s expectation of trouble is good for Mr. Bush. He will be his moderate-conservative, compassionate-conservative self, and will not begin his presidency with a conservative version of gays in the military. And for being himself and not doing something stupid, he will receive credit from the establishment for standing up to pressure that wasn’t there. Plus, since there’s always someone who wants to stand up and scream—since some conservative is going to want to be The First One to Denounce Bush—that person will be given serious and respectful treatment in the press, and Mr. Bush again will receive establishment credit when he ignores him.
The fact is there is not a conservative leader in America who is not acutely conscious of the position Mr. Bush is in. Beyond that, conservatives leaders feel they know Mr. Bush as they didn’t know his father, and they trust him as they didn’t his father. They think they know his heart. And conservative leaders have mellowed. They’re all older and more seasoned than they were 20 years ago when Ronald Reagan came to town and they came to power. They’re mellower in part because they’ve spent the past 10 years observing their country and concluding that the great concern is not which program passes or doesn’t, but who we’ve become as a people and what kind of culture we live in together. That’s the big ballgame now; tax policy and Social Security reform are important, but who we are trumps everything, and is not so answerable and healable in Washington.
How the right means to treat Mr. Bush was made clear Thursday morning in a Washington Times essay by Paul Weyrich, a dean of Washington conservatism and head of the Free Congress Foundation. He outlined the “responsibility” of conservatives in the new era: “We have to realize that Mr. Bush is in a position like no other president has been in more than a century. We have to cut him some slack. . . . We cannot sit here in judgment of his every move waiting to pounce on him.”
That from the man whose fierce torpedoing of John Tower as Defense Secretary in the first days of the first Bush presidency was a blow from which the first President Bush never wholly recovered.
* * *
The president-elect had a good week. His cabinet appointments have been uniformly well received and demonstrated unshowily that Mr. Bush meant it when he presented a party convention last summer of striking ethnic diversity. The president-elect has a tropism toward Republicans who are members of minority groups. He is impressed by them, understands the courage it takes to be them, wants to support them. All to the good.
The staff decisions he has made so far have been unsurprising. The Texas power grid that gave shape to his governorship and presidential candidacy will give shape to his White House. They earned it, they’re talented and discreet, they work hard, and they know their man. They’re Texans and they seem like Texans, and that’s good too.
I remember visiting President Bush’s White House eight and nine years ago and talking to people. It seemed to me as I walked the halls and chatted with people in offices that what I was seeing was a universe of tennis players. The middle level and some of the upper levels of the staff seemed stocked with people who had played on the courts of Houston’s clubs. I’d meet someone and then be taken aside and told with hushed voice, “He was Jebbie’s doubles partner.”
They were good people. They were attractive and courteous and believing and idealistic and dim. They seemed to me decent dullards, and though the cliché about the Bush White House was that it was John Sununu and a thousand interns, I always thought of it as a bunch of guys in whites.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, has the cowboy thing, not the patrician thing. His brio—the swagger, the shorthand, the nicknames, the joshing—seems working-class. I don’t know why he has a Texas accent and Jeb doesn’t, or why something in him seems working-class or middle-class and the rest of the family doesn’t. But it’s good.
I hope he has Midland oil men and businessmen and librarians and roustabouts on his staff, I hope he has born-agains and former delinquents, academics and intellectuals and poets. But no tennis players. No sparkling people in white. Or very few, and only for diversity’s sake.