Sixty-two days into his presidency, and 40 days before everyone talks about and writes about his First Hundred Days, some thoughts on George W. Bush and how he’s doing.
The great question from those who had not supported him, which is to say from half the country, was: Is he up to the job? The headline on his tenure so far: Yes, and maybe more than you know. Maybe more than he knows, too.
He has shown a certain mastery in his dealings with Congress, approaching them with an attitude of easygoing insistence. He’s demonstrated that he will stick with the issues he campaigned on, and put them forward as legislation. He’s shown an ability to communicate with audiences. He’s shown toughness in terms of some issues he wouldn’t dodge. In international affairs he’s been sharp with Iraq, candid with Korea and strikingly blunt with Russia—throwing out 51 Russian spies in an apparent message-sender after the revelations of Robert Hanssen’s damaging espionage. In the words of the New York Post’s Deborah Orin, “Clinton wanted to be liked around the world—Bush wants to be respected.”
We are getting used to him. At first when he was president, when the television stations would say the president was about to make a statement, Mr. Bush would show up on the screen and you’d be surprised: Oh, Clinton’s not there, Bush is. Now you expect him and have an image of him in your head before he appears. This, obviously, is because as time passes you get used to the new guy. But it’s also true that the new guy is putting his imprint, his mark on things. He has been semiubiquitous, not as all over the place and always in your face as Bill Clinton, but there every day in a speech or at a meeting, pushing for what he wants. And what he wants is clear.
The first to notice that Mr. Bush is making his mark were the Democrats, who watched warily for a few weeks and then concluded the president was, unfortunately, not a fool or a phony. They seem a little lost and a little angry, leaderless and unsure who should lead them. Robert Reich writes an essay saying the Democratic Party is dead, and it’s hot but not controversial; that is, Washington seems either to agree or to not know exactly how to disagree.
What the Democrats need now I think is for someone, some known or unknown leader, to come forward with a stirring and thoughtful and data-filled and nonmanipulative speech that draws a vivid line in the sand by declaring what the modern Democratic Party is, and stands for, and means to be, and exists to achieve. What the vision of a Democratic future is. This has not been done by a Democrat in a very long time. Mr. Clinton never did it, nor did Al Gore. It’s time. You can rev the troops and reinspire weary leaders by reminding yourself what you’re fighting for.
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Mr. Bush’s most telling moments:
William Safire once wrote that he knew Richard Nixon had finally gotten psychologically used to being president about a year into his first term, when he stopped putting a little towel on the hassock before he put his feet up in his Executive Office Building office. Mr. Bush had his moment earlier. You know the story, and I repeat it because it said something important quickly and economically. He arrives at Blair House the day before he is to be inaugurated. The reportedly snooty caretaker asks what he’d like. He says a cheeseburger. She more or less says this is Blair House, we don’t do plebian fare. He looks at her: “Bush. Texas. Cheeseburger.” She gives him what he asks for, and no doubt runs out to stock up on ground chuck. The word spreads: He wants what he wants, and don’t high-hat him.
Second telling moment: Strong inaugural address, good day.
Third: He quickly withdraws U.S. aid for groups that perform or advocate abortion overseas. This is not broadly understood to be a popular thing to do, and is therefore not a good symbol for a new administration. Various opinion-givers say it will be like Mr. Clinton and homosexuals in the military, a window on Mr. Bush’s incompetence. But the abortion decision is not unpopular; the media bang away on it but the people don’t respond with anger or dismay. Which tells you something about what the real feelings are about abortion in America—layered, complicated, not necessarily knee-jerk and not necessarily a point of primary passion. Which Mr. Bush and his people appear to understand fully.
Fourth: He moves forward with his tax cut right away, saying he campaigned on it and he wasn’t going to abandon it as soon as he gets to Washington.
Fifth, he has a solid nationally televised address, telling both houses of Congress that some say his tax cut is too big—applause—and some too small—applause—but he thinks it’s just right—jolly laughter and applause.
The charm offensive took the edge off his critics’ hatred. The nicknames are amusing and seem interesting, and if his habit is only a tic, it’s a colorful one. Mr. Bush maintains good relations with conservatives and the conservative establishment in Washington. He is friendly to the press. He shows himself to be good natured and demanding; it’s a good bet no more cell phones will be ringing during meetings and photo-ops now that he castigated a staffer this week for failing to prevent it.
Good-natured and demanding is a good combination in a president.
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It will be interesting to watch the psychological tensions over who he is play out within him. For Mr. Bush is proving himself every day and quite consciously to be this: not his father. Not someone who can get rolled by the Democrats, not someone who will abandon a primary campaign pledge, not someone who feels a certain ambivalence about the rightness of his beliefs and the meaning of leadership. Mr. Bush is succeeding in proving he is not his father, and has begun to be praised for not being his father.
He knows this is good politics, but it must be complicated for him personally. You can imagine that coming from a family in which competition was part of the air that he would feel some satisfaction at “beating” his father. Young men compete with their fathers even when they love them very much, sometimes especially when they love them very much. George W. Bush and his father couldn’t fish together without bantering about who did better. But it could not be an unalloyed pleasure to vanquish his father, whom he adores. And to make it more complicated, the better George W. Bush does, the more he is compared to Ronald Reagan. Soon that will be one of the clichés about him, that he is really Reagan II or Reagan Jr.—exactly what his father was supposed to be and wasn’t.
George W. loves and admires his father and does not, one suspects, love Mr. Reagan, who was a relatively distant if wholly affable and admirable presence in the life of the Bushes, including W. The new president showed up and gave a good speech at the christening of the aircraft carrier the USS Reagan two weeks ago, and spoke of Mr. Reagan with warm respect. He also used the boat to make a point: The traditional Republican commitment to enhancing U.S. military strength continues.
But I thought as I watched from the audience: I bet he won’t be doing a lot more of this in the future. Once his success is firmly established he will stop the honoring of Reagan, and start having his dad around, and letting people know how much he has learned from him. There are big Reagan anniversaries coming up: the 20th anniversary of the shooting, a week from today; the first tax cut; Normandy. Mr. Bush can mark them, using Mr. Reagan’s memory to make current points, or not. It will be interesting to see what he does. It was interesting to see a few weeks ago that the Bush administration decided not to rush the memorial to President Reagan some are eager to build on the mall.
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Mr. Bush has improved as a communicator. He had to, of course, and that he has is a relief. His genuineness and earnestness come through when he’s on the stump, and are underscored by his lack of fluidity and smoothness. I’m always interested to hear what he’ll say, not because I think it will be brilliant or lyrical but because he means it. That’s what makes it interesting, as opposed to entertaining. He’s not nervous anymore, or doesn’t seem to be.
Yesterday, he spoke to the North American Newspaper Association, and he had the kind of focus and lack of self consciousness that speaks of engagement in the thought; he wasn’t distracted by wondering what impression he was making. He pushed his tax plan and it was good. “I trust them more than I trust Washington,” he said of the American people. “There’s a fundamental philosophical divide in Washington” about who should be in charge of the peoples’ purse, the people or the politicians. When the speech was over I thought: Those editors and publishers were impressed.
Later he spoke at Catholic University in Washington and lauded the leadership of Pope John Paul II. He congratulated Washington’s new cardinal, Theodore E. McCarrick, noting that while they’re both new to their jobs, Mr. Bush is the one who is term-limited. In a prepared text, he spoke of the day John Paul was elected pope and quoted a journalist who heard his first blessing in St. Peter’s Square. He wired back to his editors, “This is not a pope from Poland, this is a pope from Galilee.” Mr. Bush spoke of “the pope’s first visit to Poland in 1979, when faith turned into resistance and began the swift collapse of imperial communism. The gentle, young priest, once ordered into forced labor by Nazis, became the foe of tyranny and a witness to hope.” He noted “The last leader of the Soviet Union would call him ‘the highest moral authority on earth.’ ”
It was great stuff, and it belies the cliché that Mr. Bush is a clumsy speaker. It is interesting to me that the online magazine Slate’s “Bushism of the Day” series seems tired and thin, more the expression of reflexive hostility than an attempt to have real fun with a buffoon. Comedy Central is about to launch a weekly spoof called “That’s My Bush,” and from the commercials it looks like they’ll portray him as sweet-natured, well meaning and confused, like a WASP Desi Arnaz. This isn’t the worst way you could look on a comedy show, and to me it suggests a certain affection, or at least a diminution of dislike in certain circles. Mr. Clinton was always portrayed on TV as a sly trimmer with an eating disorder and other compulsions. It was not wholly affectionate.
It’s getting easier in New York to say you like Mr. Bush. People up here don’t seem to hate and deride him as they did before he was president.
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The biggest chance the Bush administration has taken so far seems to be with the tax cuts. I speak not of the decision to go forward with them, which wins praise on pretty much all sides, but with their size—that is, whether they are too small to make an impact on the economy. It is possible that when the cuts pass they will have a positive effect by at least seeming to be the right symbolism—a way of signaling to markets that more money in the economy and less for government is a governing intention from here straight through to the end of the Bush administration.
But there’s an interesting and very timely argument from the economist Alan Reynolds in which he says the current market downturn should spur Mr. Bush to move forward more boldly and insist that his cuts be phased in more quickly and deeply.
Mr. Bush could throw the ball over the heads of the media and straight to the American people by announcing that current circumstances demand more dramatic action. If he has the audacity and the will, he could use the events on Wall Street and the depressed mood to his great benefit, and the country’s. My friend Ben Elliott, former head of the Reagan speechwriting department and now on Wall Street, has noted that “with markets being linked ever more closely, and the reverberations spreading ever faster and further, the new challenge to be nimble and flexible but also right applies not only to business leaders but to political leaders.”
This could be another defining moment for Mr. Bush, a time when he seized the new terrain instead of letting it be filled by Tom Daschle, Olympia Snowe and rest of the timorous Senate.
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Mr. Bush and his people are making a million mistakes, and in time we’ll know of some of them. All new crews in the White House make a million mistakes. But these people seem not to be making big ones, not yet. It continues to look as if the adults are in charge, and Mr. Bush is looking like a young man who’s up to it and maybe more than up to it. I continue to wait for him to do something stupid or cynical so I can loudly disapprove of him and prove my ability to be objective within a context of obvious political sympathies and beliefs. But nine weeks in, I’m still waiting.