Well, that was an interesting first week from Mr. Bush. He became president, established himself as the new top dog. It’s always surprising how quickly new presidents seem to look comfortable signing orders and holding meetings with the congressional leadership.
An important Democratic senator (Georgia’s Zell Miller, who took the late great Paul Coverdell’s place and seems to be showing Coverdellian courage) surprised everyone by deciding to join Texas’ Phil Gramm in sponsoring Mr. Bush’s tax cut. The new president put forth comprehensive, moderate and apparently fully thought-through legislation on education, and rescinded a presidential order on abortion. By doing so seemed to put a big fat headline on week one: Extremism Is Over, Normality Is Back.
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Rescinding the abortion order—a Clinton order that used U.S. tax dollars to support groups that provided abortions and abortion counseling for Third World women and even lobbied governments for changes in abortion laws—seemed tough but was in fact moderate, a happy combination for a new president. Mr. Bush was returning to U.S. policy before the Clinton era.
Bill Clinton, in breaking with that policy, had taken a radical step that severed policy from prudence in a stark and showy way. It was strange to decide to fund groups that give foreign women abortions.
When there is an issue that is so charged, so divisive that for more than a quarter century it has disturbed the peace of your huge and passionate nation, does it make sense to export that issue so it can roil other nations? Is that wise, or even friendly? Or is it conceited and aggressive: I’m sick, and if you had any understanding of how superior I am you’d share my sickness. It is as if America, roiling from the slavery question in 1855, decided the most helpful thing it could do to settle the issue is make sure the Ottoman Empire is able to maintain slavery too.
The Clinton decision to export and disturb reflected the way abortion in the past eight years became an issue dominated by radical thinking, by extremist views. If we like abortion then you must like abortion; if we like abortion then any restriction on it whatsoever, any limit, even in the eighth month, is bad, and must be stopped. If abortion is a legitimate act then it is legitimate at all times and in all ways. And if you have qualms or questions about this then you are the enemy, you are insufficiently supportive of women’s rights, you must be defeated at all costs.
It was all so radical. And it may ultimately prove the undoing of abortion proponents. They have ceded all claim to reasonableness. They look radical. Because they are.
Mr. Bush’s decision seems to reflect a mindset he revealed in one of his election debates with Al Gore, when he said he favored a stance of humility toward the world. He’s so modest he won’t tell other people they should have abortions just because we do, and just because we’ve made abortion into an ideology. This is refreshing, and rather a humble thing. About time.
Mr. Bush’s decision has been compared to Mr. Clinton’s attempt to rescind the ban on active and public homosexuals in the military. But the rescinding of that ban, apart from all issues of rightness or wrongness, practicality or helpfulness, did not have half the country behind it, or a quarter of the country behind it. Nor did it have the American military behind it. It had organized homosexual-rights groups that had funded and supported Mr. Clinton in the just-ended election behind it.
If you ask the American people if they want to spend money to promote abortion overseas, the majority would say: Um, no, we don’t.
The decision is not extreme but mainstream. But Bush gets credit for guts from the press, which cannot believe any scaling back of abortomania could be anything but radical and which played the story as startling and dramatic. Fine. Let the president take ironic bows.
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It seems to me the abortion announcement plus the elements of the education bill—concern for poor students, concern for failing schools, a slow run up to the possibility of vouchers—are a one-two punch that may suggest much about the new president’s style. One seemingly tough move, and one soft and compassionate one. More soft shrewdness, although perhaps it is shrewd softness—tough guy/soft guy. Not bad. And inherently antiextreme.
Mr. Bush may prove tough for the Democrats to negotiate around. They seemed rather flat-footed this week, no doubt in part because, as Rush Limbaugh has noted, they don’t have the White House war room to tell them what to say and how to fight anymore. But Mr. Bush seems to be obscuring their voices by smothering them in a blanket of sweetness and moderation. This will probably be a good combination as long as the sweet part doesn’t turn out to be softness and naiveté.
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A fashionable New York woman told me Laura Bush looked good on Inauguration Day but a little too Texan, to which I thought: Well, the whole country is probably a little too Texan, which is good. Mrs. Bush, in her interview last week on “Today,” in her inaugural appearances and remarks, in her meeting with authors, with her handsome and not too beautiful or too dorky blue coat and dress, is very quietly making a good impression.
What is most interesting about her to me is that she seems as natural and happy as someone who always wanted to be first lady, when of course she never did, and somehow you sense she’d still just as soon not be. This is in sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton, who had always wanted the power of the White House, and who in her first days seemed a whirlwind of unhappiness, dressing her husband down and swearing at him in front of the Secret Service on inaugural morning, castigating her husband and a White House steward the next day, during the Clintons’ first open house. (It was captured on tape and was a humdinger.) I wonder what it tells us that the happy one who didn’t want it is happy and the unhappy one who wanted it and got it was unhappy. Perhaps it just illustrates what Lincoln said. He observed once that he figured most people are just about as happy as they want to be.
Anyway, watching her, one gets the sense of a quiet power being born. They called Barbara Bush the Silver Fox, they called Rosalyn Carter the Velvet Hammer. I wonder what they’ll call Laura Bush.
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Ari Fleischer’s press briefings seem competent and professional. I liked what he said when a reporter pressed him on why the new president chose as one of his first moves the abortion order. “Because he believes in it. Next question.” Already Mr. Fleischer seems to know a lot. He seems amiable and open-featured, not like a furrow-browed mouthpiece for the mob, or a furtive ironist.
The new speechwriting staff looks to be the most weighty and highly regarded in many years. Chief of speechwriting Michael Gerson comes in as a former journalist and respected policy wonk who has been an integral part of the Bush operation since the presidential campaign began. He will be a deputy assistant to the president, the first speechwriter in many years, perhaps a generation, to have an office in the West Wing.
Moreover he has opened his staff not to talented and obscure young people but to the gifted and established—serious talents already proven in their fields. This suggests several important things. That this White House and president will take the written word seriously, and approach it, and writers, with due respect. That speechwriters will be in on the creation of policy, which is very important and has been true in most successful administrations. (Speechwriters, as the elegant writer Landon Parvin has observed, are always the first to know when a policy is shallow or ill thought out, because they’re the first who have to explain it.)
The high place held by Mr. Gerson and the stature of those who will be in the shop suggests President Bush is thinking not of the Carter or Reagan models for his speechwriting staff, but the old FDR-JFK-LBJ-Nixon models: get first-rate talent and integrate it fully in the workings of the machine. This is good and bodes well. It is not how Mr. Bush’s father did it—the speechwriters of his White House weren’t even allowed to dine in the White House mess, and so missed out on the daily information flow by which assistants learn and affect what’s happening.
And it’s not how Ronald Reagan did it, either. Mr. Reagan’s White House was split down the middle between Baker-Deaver-Darman and the famous pragmatists on one hand, and Ed Meese and a dozen conservative intellectuals on the other hand. The speechwriting shop was considered the home of The True Right Wing Nuts, as indeed, God bless us, we were. Every time a speechwriter got near Mr. Reagan, he ended up saying something like “the evil empire” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” which the pragmatists (who were not actually very pragmatic) didn’t like at all. They kept us as far from the president as possible. We sometimes called ourselves the mushrooms, after the Beirut hostages—”kept the in the dark and covered daily with manure.”
Mr. Bush the younger may be going back to the days when Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger had the run of the joint, and went on to write fine (and flattering) histories of the presidents they knew so well.
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Everyone I know is talking about the “pranks” of the departing Clinton-Gore crew on the incoming White House staff—the W’s pried off the keyboards, the garbage left in the vice president’s offices. You just know when you read about it that it’s worse than anyone is saying—the Bush people being discreet because they don’t want to start out with complaints and finger pointing, the Clinton-Gore people because it is in their obvious interests to play it down.
I would like to say the stories did not surprise me, but they did. White House vandalism is actually something new. Some of it—the purloined letters from the computers—was no doubt just silly. But some of it seems proof, yet again, that leaders consciously and unconsciously summon to their side, and work closely with, people who are like them. The Clintons were at heart vandals, tearers-down in many ways and on many levels. As George Stephanopoulos recently told Ted Koppel, the Clinton staff entered the White House without feeling enough respect. They were immature. They left as immature people would, upending trash cans, like rock stars without talent.
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I think the most interesting thing Mr. Bush said this week was not in his announcements of policy or the swearing-in of staff but in the interview with Fox News’s Britt Hume. (Idiotic disclaimer: Like many in the Western world, I am a contributor there.) The president told Mr. Hume that he didn’t think the American people had elected him. “I wish I could, you know, say it was my charming personality or the ability to string a few sentences together,” Mr. Bush said. “The truth of the matter is I am sitting here because I took firm positions on important issues and didn’t back off. And I’m not backing off the minute I arrive in Washington.”
This offered more than the usual insight into his thinking. His father campaigned as a Reaganite in 1988; he ran as Reagan III. He was elected because the people thought he would govern like Mr. Reagan. But he became confused by his landslide, and thought the people had elected him. And so he acted Bushlike, not Reaganesque, got taken to the cleaners by the Democrats in Congress, and lost his presidency.
I wondered if the new president was saying: I learned my father’s lesson, and won’t be making his mistake.
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A note recently from a White House reporting hand, telling me the first Bush week is distressingly peaceful. The Clinton people were full of drama and stories, never a dull moment. The Bush people so far: polite, courteous, dignified, dull. It reminded me of a conversation with a reporter friend years ago. I had asked her how she liked covering the new Bush White House of 1989, and she said it was awful. The Carter people were vicious about each other, the place was full of gossip and back stabbing. And the Reagan White House had been a nonstop war—tongs with full daggers drawn, blood on the floor. But Bush’s White House was so—buttoned down and polite!
I laughed. It started that way, but it didn’t end that way. It ended with Dick Darman being fooled by his friend Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who decided he would have to publish the Bush team’s finger-pointing recollections of the creation of their recession and budget deals, just in time for election day, ‘92.
Reporters will get a story. Reporters always do. People in White Houses always provide them. Or at least it has always been so.