Printer Friendly

The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals.

It is only fitting that the first book-length assessment of George Bush's tenure in the Oval Office has been propagated by committee. More precisely, a team of 11 political scientists have examined the pieces of a presidency the whole of which barely equals the sum of its parts. In the process they have provided a range of informed and sometimes clashing perspectives for examining the myths that underlie the conventional wisdom about Bush's White House leadership.

These myths reflect the minimalist outlook that in the post-Reagan era has come to dominate evaluations not just of Bush but of our entire political system. Fostered by the antigovernment, antipolitics rhetoric of Reagan and the haplessness of the Democratic opposition, the minimalist creed makes a virtue out of the limitations of political leadership. Its impact is to lower standards, shrink expectations, diminish accountability, and convert the political landscape into a wasteland barren of purpose or belief

It was over this terrain that the last presidential campaign was waged, pitting one candidate who designated himself champion of a competence he could not demonstrate against another whose best-remembered phrase was the ultimately hollow injunction to read his lips. The latter candidate emerged victorious as the prototypical politician of the minimalist era-in the words of coeditor Bert Rockman, "a pastel political personality... in a ... mostly pastel time."

From these pages, three minimalist myths take shape as most important in rationalizing Bush's stewardship.

Myth 1 ...

The bifurcated presidency: Bush's strength in foreign policy, it is alleged, offsets and arguably even transcends his weakness as a domestic leader.

This myth is intended to disguise the absence of any coherent theme or policy framework, foreign or domestic. No one has done more to promote this notion of schizoid leadership than Bush himself, who with artful artlessness, as Colin Campbell points out, "took the words out of many observers' mouths by styling himself as a foreign-as against domestic-policy president." Last October, when he was up to his neck in the budget deficit and losing ground in the polls, Bush remarked on how he reveled in the challenges of foreign policy, adding glumly: "On the domestic side, here I am with Democratic majorities .. having to try to persuade them to do what I think is best. And it's complicated."

In another time a chief executive making such an admission would have risked being jeered out of town. ("A president who doesn't do domestic'? Come on!") But in this minimalist era, Bush's division of presidential labor was accorded the ultimate in solemnization-a Time magazine cover story heralding the president as "Men of the Year." "A Tale of Two Bushes," read the headline. "One finds a vision on the global stage; the other still displays none at home."

One of this book's strongest chapters, The PostCold War World," by foreign policy specialists Larry Berman and Bruce Jentleson, serves to debunk the myth that Bush's diplomatic endeavors are informed by the imagination and purpose so conspicuous by their absence from his domestic policies. The chapter also refutes the more fundamental fallacy that the president's burdensome domestic responsibilities can be neatly severed from his more gratifying role as diplomat-in-chief, as if through some sort of lobotomy.

Despite Bush's rhetoric early in his presidency about the need for American leadership to face the challenges of a changing world, the authors write, no Bush doctrine or grand design existed for meeting the collective security needs of a new world order." Unforeseen events-notably the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the October 1989 coup against Manuel Noriega-offered Bush rich opportunities for leadership. But, they point out, prior to the Gulf war, Bush's responses "tended to be characterized as more reactive than proactive, more adrift than imaginative" [their emphasis].

Much the same point can be made about the abortive midsummer Kremlin coup, which enhanced the president's reputation as some sort of latter-day Metternich. In reality, Bush's half-hearted backing of Mikhail Gorbachev left the Soviet president and his perestroika vulnerable. When the rightist renegades briefly seized power, Bush hedged his opposition by dispatching Ambassador Robert Strauss, the mikado of expediency, to Moscow and by holding back from cutting off grain credits. Only as the putsch collapsed did Bush publicly recognize Boris Yeltsin's importance as a rallying point for the forces of incipient Soviet democracy.

The truth is that in both foreign and domestic policy, Bush has never had a clear sense of direction and never particularly needed one. I remember encountering him on the morning of his first great national political triumph-his upset over Reagan in the 1980 Iowa Republican caucuses. Glowing with confidence, Bush seemed convinced he was all but inaugurated. "You know, you're the front-runner now," I reminded him. "People are going to want to know what you stand for."

Bush looked puzzled. "I'm just going to keep going," he replied. "I've got Big Mo."

As it turned out, the momentum ran out that year, but the same principle of substituting personal energy for ideas did carry him where he wanted to go in 1988.

As for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which are commonly regarded as the central achievements not just of Bush's foreign policy but also of his presidency, the authors fail to critically examine the assumptions on which the policies that led to the war were based. The question of whether Saddam Hussein's threat to U.S. security really required the massive onslaught unleashed against his country is never addressed.

Furthermore, the authors seem to suggest that Bush's adventures in the Gulf represent something of a turning point in his thinking, a step towards formulating a coherent global vision. But they offer no evidence to show that the president's talk of "a new world order" amounted to anything more than an attempt to rationalize his swinging a big stick in the Mideast. To their credit, Berman and Jentleson give the president low marks first for coddling Saddam and then for failing to warn him off before he invaded Kuwait, concluding: "This is a crisis that could have been avoided." They document his inability to offer one clear reason for the war, ticking off no fewer than eight different justifications he put forward at one time or another. And they scold him for the callous disregard that characterized his muddled handling of the rebellious Kurds in the aftermath of the war. Finally, and most importantly, the authors remind us of the reality that foreign and domestic policy are inextricably linked, a reality that Bush and his admirers prefer not to recognize. "A nation that allows its social problems to mount," they write, "may find its claim to moral leadership and the attractiveness of its ideals to be increasingly questioned by other people around the world." Myth 2 ...

Bush is a nice guy who finished first in 1988-a conservative, yes, but one with a caring conscience and a commitment to noblesse oblige.

Some contributors buy into this idea heavily. "George Bush has a congenial personality," writes George Edwards in his chapter on "The Public Presidency." "He is warm, sincere, relaxed, and secure ... he is a person most people like." It is true that Bush has worked hard to create just that impression, and he has succeeded to a remarkable degree, judging by the poll results Edwards cites. Indeed, though he will never be The Great Communicator, Bush can certainly be hailed as The Great Ingratiator.

But the reader has a right to expect more from such a scholarly study than judgments taken from polls. Polls, after all, are based on fleeting impressions derived from mass media all too easily manipulated by the president and his advisors.

Coeditor Campbell adds a measure of balance by pointing out that Bush's conduct in the 1988 campaign ("one of the ugliest in memory") showed the significant dark side of the president's character. In his chapter on "The White House and the Cabinet" Campbell adds, "Well aware that the campaign had tarnished his image, the 'spin doctors' went to work in an attempt to show that it had not reflected the true George Bush." They succeeded in generating "a spate of articles" that argued, as one journalist wrote, that Bush had converted himself from "pit bull" to statesman far removed from the fray of the campaign."

Other contributors not only accept Bush as an upstanding personality, they endow him with a set of ideological beliefs to match. Thus Rockman, in his chapter on Bush's leadership style, describes him as an old fashioned Tory" whose style of operation is fundamentally boardroom politics and brokerage among proper gentlemen."' Similarly, another contributor defines Bush as "an American Tory, looking for harmony, social and otherwise."

Surely this is how Bush would like others to see him. But the gentlemanly Tory image is contravened by the behavior of the politician and his chief subordinates. That was no gentleman Bush hired to run his campaign against Michael Dukakis-that was the late Lee Atwater, who, when the campaign was in trouble, turned it against blacks. Nor is that any gentleman whom Bush put in charge of his White House. That is John Sununu, who, when he was in what his boss might have described as deep doo-doo, turned on the Jews. As for Bush himself, it is hard to square the classic Tory's reverence for social harmony with his willingness to manipulate racial tensions-during the campaign by his use of the infamous Willie Horton commercial and now during his presidency by his drumbeat reiteration of the so-called quota issue.

Unfortunately, Bush's exploitation of racial politics is scarcely addressed in this book. Race crops up only briefly, in references to the ugliness of the 1988 campaign and, rather benignly, in the discussion of the ill-fated 1990 civil rights legislation. Bush "certainly did not want to be the third president in history .. to veto a civil fights bill," writes Barbara Sinclair in her chapter on Bush and Congress. But judging from Bush's post-veto statements and his harangues against the 1991 legislation, which have outraged Democrats and embarrassed some in his own party, it seems clear that a veto-and the chance to inflame the quota issue-is exactly what Bush did want.

On a personal level, it is easy to see how the Mr. Nice Guy myth got started. I shared that view myself when I first met Bush nearly 20 years ago, when he was Richard Nixon's handpicked choice to run the Republican National Committee. The Bush who dealt with reporters exuded charm and civility, never failing to grant an interview request or return a phone call. Yet it was this same Bush who, at the onset of Watergate, launched a smear campaign against a longtime Democratic operative on Capitol Hill, whom he accused on the flimsiest of evidence of having conducted electronic snooping on Republicans years before. Bush's objective was to exculpate Nixon's criminality on the grounds that Democrats did it too-not the sort of behavior one would expect from a high-minded Tory.

As I got to know Bush better I came to realize that beneath that well-bred veneer lurked a broad streak of arrogance. Soon after the 1980 election, as I went through the reception line at a party at the vice-presidential residence, I noticed Bush was wearing a striking suede blazer.

"That's a handsome coat," I said. "What poor animal was sacrificed to make it?"

Bush never blinked an eye. "We don't bother with animals anymore," he said. "We use humans."

Since he came to the White House we have all heard Bush display the same cavalierness in more serious contexts. The most widely noted example was his "Read my hips" rejoinder to questions about his broken promise to oppose tax increases. Another instance, in its way just as brash, was his response after the 1989 state and local elections to the widely heard contention that the negativism marring that campaign was a product of the nastiness that had been the hallmark of his own drive for the presidency in 1988.

"I don't have to stand here and defend the campaign of 1988," Bush replied. "I'd be perfectly prepared to do it, but I was elected."

So he was. And thanks to the minimalists, he has so far not had to defend his presidency very vigorously either. Myth 3 ...

Bush is doing as well as could be expected, given the conditions he has had to face.

This myth, which is at the heart of the minimalist case, seems to have been accepted by several contributors. Their reasoning goes something like this: Because of the huge federal budget deficit and the division of power and responsibility between the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress, the 1988 campaign, Rockman writes, was "devoid of policy ideas" and dominated by "symbols and innuendoes." The outcome left Bush in the White house, without a mandate, facing a Congress still firmly controlled by Democrats. "If ever there was a moment when little initiative-taking was exactly the right position to take, that moment was when Bush came into office," Rockman writes. "When nothing was called for it was done well."

This analysis has at least two basic defects. First, it ignores the real promises Bush made during the 1988 campaign. For all the heavy-handed symbolism about the flag and Willie Horton, Bush said enough about improving education, protecting the environment, and fostering social betterment to persuade voters that he saw a bigger need for government to play a role in their lives than Reagan did. As a result, he obligated himself to propose more in the way of domestic programs than he has chosen to offer. Those unfilled promises helped him carry 40 states.

The second flaw in the "Bush is doing as well as could be expected" argument is that it overstates the political obstacles confronting him. Thus, Rockman writes, Bush's leadership style "tends to blend into a set of political circumstances that offer him slim pickings." Similarly, Sinclair, in analyzing Bush's frustrations with Capitol Hill, seeks to rebut Bush's critics by emphasizing what she calls "contextual factors," chiefly the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. "The fault is not one of personal frailties, ineptitude, and disreputable motives, as the media often suggests," she argues, "but of structures, incentives, and conflicting policy goals."

Not all her colleagues agree. Paul Quirk, whose chapter on domestic policy is understandably the shortest in the book, concludes that Bush "arguably had the least domestic policy achievement in his first two years in office of any president since the twenties." Though Quirk concedes that part of the problem rests with divided government, he argues that Bush's record reflects as well "his own limitations of style and strategy, his failure to establish a legislative agenda, his willingness to promote least-commondenominator arguments, and above all, his penchant for rigidity and rhetorical excess, especially on taxes." He adds that "it is not difficult to suppose that another president ... could have accomplished more than Bush did."

Just so. To argue otherwise, to offer "contextual factors" and the absence of a mandate as excuses for nonfeasance in office, is to give up on evaluating Bush's performance and grant him a free ride for the rest of his presidency. "To those looking for social programs as a cure for some of the maladies affecting American society, I suggest they devote their energies to electing Democratic presidents," Rockman advises. But the fact is, many people who voted for George Bush in 1988 did so in part because he gave them reason to believe he would strive to cure those ills and so improve their lives. They are entitled to expect greater value from his leadership than they have so far received.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Shogan, Robert
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America.
Next Article:The Media Show: The Changing Face of the News, 1985-1990.

Related Articles
On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency.
George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee.
FIRST SON: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty.
Ambling Into History: the Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. (Political booknotes: flirting with W.).
Historical regression: why Bush makes even Arthur Schlesinger sound like Michael Moore.
The Imperial Presidency.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters