This was going to be about the first 100 days of the Bush administration, which will be marked a week from Monday. But I did that column a few weeks ago and haven’t changed my mind.
I said then it seems President Bush is doing well, very well. He still is. There are all sorts of ways to defend this assertion—he’s enjoyed legislative victories, has avoided missteps that are embarrassing or disastrous, has established himself as president, is speaking forcefully if not fluidly, has good ratings, and his opponents continue in a kind of slow-motion disarray.
I do not think the China episode was the triumph it has been painted as by other Bush supporters, and by distinguished columnists such as Charles Krauthammer. But I agree with Michael Kelly that the truly heartening moment was Mr. Bush’s decision not to attend the welcome-back ceremonies for the crew, not to go for a lot of cheap, teary camera time.
He has dignity. This was once a baseline expectation for American presidents. Now, after the past eight years, it comes as a shock. It’s as if the neighborhood egomaniac has left the barbecue and normal conversation and relationships can once again proceed.
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But the biggest reason I think Mr. Bush is doing well is that everything I’ve mentioned is part of the day-to-day of history. It is history but not big history, the little news clumps on which we chew each evening. Big history is the thing you remember, it’s what history bothers to notice. It’s the headline over the paragraphs that contain the data.
What history will remember about Mr. Bush is that his presidency began successfully because he moved forward with sureness and confidence on the two big things he most consistently campaigned on and stood for, an across-the-board tax cut and the inclusion of faith-based initiatives in government efforts to help those who need it. Mr. Bush showed history that he will do what he said he’d do. And in doing what he said he’d do, and boldly, he turned 50% of the vote into 100% of a real presidency. He became the president. He became a leader.
It is my sense that people are starting to recognize him as a person they might want to march behind. It would be very interesting if, in a few months, if a broadly cast poll asked: What percentage of the vote did George W. Bush get in November? Or: Did you vote for George W. Bush? I suspect a surprising number of people will say he won with more than 50%, and I suspect about 58% will claim they voted for him. That’s what people do when they start thinking of a president as someone they want to be associated with, which is to say as a winner.
What a happy relief all this is. One of Mr. Bush’s challenges, it seemed to me, was filling up the big empty space left by Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton filled up the room. You might say that he filled it up with pathology and a teary soullessness, that he was a big walking negative. But he filled up a lot of space, and when he departed I wondered if a normal man, one who lacked a drama queen’s hungers and howls, could fully fill it up.
But Mr. Bush has done it. In his compact, tidy, unsick way he filled the space, and not with his own brand of darkness but so far with an unshowy competence and command.
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People keep wondering aloud if Mr. Bush can become a great president. They did this when Mr. Clinton came in, too. I don’t know the answer but my sense is that he can, if history cooperates in giving him the kind of piercing challenges that make apparent greatness or its lack. What it appears he would bring to such moments is what he seems to bring into the office each day. He is commonsensical, well-balanced; he enjoys idealism in himself and others and knows how to operate. He knows whom to talk to for advice and ideas and insights, but he knows that he ultimately calls the shots and will bear the credit or blame.
Someone told me recently of a conversation he had with a longtime friend of Mr. Bush. The friend said there are two misconceptions about the president, one being that he is stupid and the other being that he is sweet. When I heard this I laughed out loud with delight because I knew I was hearing the truth. Mr. Bush is shrewd, smart and not at all brilliant, which is good as brilliant men have a way of being dicey presidents. All that intellectual action gets in the way of common sense and serenity. But one senses also with Mr. Bush that he’s got this tough little cold streak. I would call it mean, but I don’t think he takes delight in it. I think he takes only cool satisfaction.
I was thinking the other day about JFK, who was a tough talker in private and who would announce that so-and-so was “screwing” him and he was going to “tuck it to him good” and “break it off at the handle.” I was thinking of this because I was wondering how Mr. Bush might be thinking of how to handle someone like Sen. Jim Jeffords, the liberal Republican from Vermont who has taken to announcing that he can always cross the aisle and join the Democrats in the 50-50 Senate. I was thinking that Mr. Bush will be really nice to him until he doesn’t have to anymore, and then he’ll tuck it to him good and break it off at the handle. I don’t think he’ll laugh or clap his hands when he does it, I think he’ll just throw a little smile to Karl Rove and say, “And now on to other things.”
Mr. Bush’s staff strikes me as something new and unusual, maybe the best White House staff since . . . well, I’m not sure. Bill Clinton’s staff ultimately reflected his nature: young, immature, not serious. The elder Bush’s staff was made up of tennis players from the soft courts of Houston country clubs; they had no idea why they were there. Ronald Reagan’s staff was tumultuous and riven, but the intellectual caliber was high, especially at the middle levels. Jimmy Carter’s staffers were talented and unlucky both in terms of what history handed them and in their boss’s ultimate temperamental unsuitability to the presidency. Gerald Ford’s staff wasn’t around long enough to make an impression, Richard Nixon’s staff was jailed. LBJ’s was talent-heavy, sophisticated and serious, but its White House was another victim of history.
The younger Bush’s staff is something new in that its members are not at war with each other. They have a way of operating that speaks of a high comfort level and clearly defined rules. They are knowing, not at all naive, not necessarily nice, hardworking, and they know who’s boss. They are loyal to him, and they are loyal to each other.
One reason: They are working for the only president since JFK who knows how to read the New York Times and the Washington Post, Newsweek and Time. He knows how to decode them. He knows how to figure out who the source of the blind quote is. For eight years, W. watched Mr. Reagan’s staffers kill each other in the press and harm Mr. Reagan’s presidency. He watched his father’s staffers kill each other with leaks and the airing of policy and personal grievances. He watched his father’s staff go to Bob Woodward to give him their own self-protective versions of the real lowdown on the elder Bush’s economic policies and political collapse.
W. knew the men around Mr. Reagan and his father had their own relationships with reporters, and traded information and background information for favorable treatment. And W. learned from these shrewd men and women, was literally taught by Robert Teeter and Lee Atwater and Dick Darman, how to read the papers, how to deconstruct the story, how to plant a story, how to hurt a foe.
W.’s staffers know not to do it, because they know he’d find them out and fire them.
His staff seems to have learned how to get along, how to thrash things through and hash things out and leave it in the room. Mr. Bush wants their insights, ideas, advice and guidance; he wants them to be candid and he wants the right to be candid in return. They’ve learned how to trust each other. It’s interesting to see, and interesting to wonder if it will continue, just as it’s interesting to wonder if some day we’ll find out that Karen seethed with hatred for Karl and Karl couldn’t tolerate Josh and Josh made fun of Dick behind his back. It’s really great not to know those things right now.
But the biggest reason for the staff cohesion is this: The new Bush administration is the first in many years to not be ideologically divided. There was a constant tug of war for the soul of the old Bush and Reagan White Houses, of the LBJ White House, torn to pieces by Vietnam. There were ideological and political tongs too in the Carter White House, and even in the Clinton White House, which didn’t really have a soul to speak of but which had Dick Morris pragmatists here and Stephanopoulos/Carville leftists there.
But W.’s White House is not riven or deeply divided. It is not a White House at war with itself. The staffers don’t have to fight for Mr. Bush’s soul because he takes care of his soul. He’s the captain, they’re the crew; he points and they row. He pointed in a certain direction in the campaign, and continues in that direction in his presidency. It’s impressive. One hopes this seriousness—and literal soulfulness—will continue. If it does it could yield greatness. So far it has yielded a good beginning.