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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2001 / 22 Shevat 5761

Philip Terzian

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Under new management -- IT WAS, of course, only coincidence that Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday was observed in the first few weeks of George W. Bush's presidency. But it was certainly appropriate. For among the near-unanimous assessments that Reagan's presidency was the most successful in the postwar era, it was often forgotten how Reagan was welcomed to Washington 20 years ago.

In fact, if you sail back in time to 1980-81, you would be hard pressed to find differences between the ways in which the two new presidents were perceived. According to the wisdom of the day, Reagan was a washed-up, grade B actor who had served as the mouthpiece for General Electric and a group of malevolent California millionaires -- that was historian Garry Wills' particular insight -- and had hypnotized the electorate into granting him their blessing. Reagan was without experience in foreign affairs, possessed cowboy instincts that (as Jimmy Carter often emphasized) were sure to lead to war, and clung to a dangerously outdated Cold War concept of the Soviet Union. "You're in the big leagues now," House Speaker Tip O'Neill told him.

To be sure, Tip O'Neill is now largely remembered as the onetime employer of cable TV pundit Chris Matthews, while Reagan's historic reputation goes from strength to strength. And George W. Bush? When a Boston TV reporter asked him last year to name the prime ministers of four marginal republics -- and Bush tried to answer, with mixed success -- the image was fixed in concrete: Bush was regarded as an overage frat boy with a sense of entitlement and few qualifications for the office he was seeking. The fact that his Ivy League academic career was significantly more distinguished than Al Gore's, or that he had served successfully as governor of the nation's secon largest state, became irrelevant. And the circumstances by which he scraped into office merely accentuated the theme: Bush was a president of dubious legitimacy, destined to fall on his face within minutes.

It's a little early to offer an assessment of the Bush presidency, but it is sufficient to say that, so far as the media is concerned, things are not quite working out according to plan. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that the President has had assistance from his predecessor: By merely standing in place, George W. Bush brings a lustre to the office so badly tarnished these past eight years. It is striking how the loss of power has transformed Bill Clinton's luck. Where once he slipped effortlessly in an out of accusations of perjury, rape, obstruction of justice, sexual harassment and financial sleight-of-hand, his latest transgressions -- so petty, really, by comparison -- seem to stick to him like tar. And President Bush has been wise to decline comment on the spectacle. Every day seems to bring new revelations of the Clintons' mendacity, and the fabled Clinton-haters are now largely embarrassed Democrats.

But George W. Bush is more than just the anti-Clinton. His inaugural address was refreshingly brief, eloquent, and to the point. He assembled a cabinet composed not only of people of singular range and competence, but symbolic of a self-assured managerial style: He does not seem to care who gets the credit, but whether the job gets done. He set in motion those policies he promised to implement -- on taxes, education and defense -- and wasted little time cleaning up minor messes. Despite a truncated period of transition, there has been no gays-in-the-military debacle, no humiliating search for jobs based on sex, no secret decision to socialize medicine, no Lani Guinier or $200 haircut on the runway.

Above all, Bush has demonstrated a deft political touch that has left Washington largely speechless. While a lesser politician would have hunkered down in the White House, angry at he spiteful post-election rhetoric, Bush's "charm offensive" has confused and flustered the Democrats. His tax cut and education reforms have already gained enough support across the aisle to qualify for bipartisan status. The Kennedy family could scarcely refuse his invitation to watch the Kevin Costner clunker, Thirteen Days, in the White House. And nobody expected Bush to show up at the Democratic legislative retreat in Pennsylvania, without handlers or advisers, to talk and answer questions. Indeed, the remarks of one member (Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York) were so gratuitously offensive that members apologized to Bush the following day.

All of this, needless to say, is still early: Success is measured in years, not weeks, congressional Democrats will score points along the way, and the GOP majority in the Senate hangs on the beat of one 98-year-old heart. Still, George W. Bush has proved to be smarter, wiser and more talented than his opponents. And the style and philosophy that served him well in Austin seems destined to translate successfully to Washington.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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02/05/01: Their brother's keeper
01/25/01: The quantity of mercy
01/22/01: Run, Jesse, run
01/18/01: Clinton knows history's verdict
01/16/01: Take this job and ...
01/09/01: Washed in the blood
01/04/01: Up for the count
12/26/00: Remembering Comet Lindsay
12/20/00: Cooling down
12/18/00: Presidential legacies are not so obvious to contemporaries
12/13/00: Cops and soccer moms
12/11/00: The 'Net horrifies Stephen King
12/04/00: Downey behind bars
11/29/00: By any means necessary
11/16/00: Government sanctioned historical revisionism?
11/10/00: Breaking news: They don't know
11/09/00: Steve Allen: Smart TV
11/07/00: The November surprise
11/01/00: Take the Lieberman test
10/30/00: P.S. Don't tell Congress!
10/25/00: The election is close, but ...
10/23/00: King or jester?
10/19/00: The Million T-Shirt March
10/16/00: I like (fill in the blank)
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08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2001, The Providence Journal