Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar 5762
Who's sleepwalking now?
A DOZEN years ago, Haynes Johnson published a book entitled
Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years.
It was, as such things go, a useful distillation of Beltway wisdom on the subject. Ronald Reagan was depicted as the "amiable dunce" of Clark Clifford's formulation who had napped through eight calamitous years in the White House. Johnson's book had been written on the heels of
Landslide: The Unmaking of a President
by Doyle McManus and Jane Mayer, which described the implosion and collapse of Reagan's presidency during his second term. You remember that famous event, don't you?
You may be forgiven if you don't, and if you don't remember
Sleepwalking Through History
, either. The surest guide to perceiving reality in Washington is to absorb what the Haynes Johnsons and Jane Mayers of the press are saying at any given moment -- and conclude the opposite.
I was reminded of this primary lesson in the difference between wisdom and journalism by the much-heralded publication of
Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush
by Frank Bruni. Mr. Bruni is a New York Times correspondent who has done for George W. Bush what Haynes Johnson did for Ronald Reagan: Illustrate the president as a clueless, wisecracking right-wing Republican who finds himself, in the White House, slightly out of his depth. That publication of Mr. Bruni's book was delayed by the aftermath of Sept. 11, while evidence mounts that Mr. Bush is not quite the character Mr. Bruni describes, only makes the irony more poignant. A dozen years from now, we are likely to stumble upon
Ambling Into History
in a second-hand bookshop, and ask ourselves who was the clueless one.
At the same time, it is useful to keep that rule about perception in mind. This past week, Gerald F. Seib, of The Wall Street Journal, declared that "George W. Bush is turning out to be a considerably more complex figure than his image suggests." Of course, it is not difficult to imagine that someone who holds degrees from Yale and Harvard, and who catapulted himself from a middling business career into the Texas governorship and the American presidency, is "a considerably more complex figure than his image suggests." But Mr. Seib's evidence for this is not Mr. Bush's subtle rhetoric or legislative prowess but the fact that he "runs the most disciplined White House in recent memory."
Of that, there can be little doubt. Information is tightly held and carefully controlled in the Bush White House: It is just as difficult to learn what the first family ate on Thanksgiving as it is to pry secret documents from the National Security Council. Mr. Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, does not so much provide answers as respond to questions with slumberous homilies. If there are knock down, drag out fights between, say, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, or Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, we don't know about it -- and won't know about it until the memoirs are written.
In many respects, this is a good thing. While Franklin Roosevelt was famous for encouraging his staff to engage in bureaucratic warfare, and then embrace the winner, the atmosphere in modern White Houses has been less creative and more poisonous. The Reagan and Clinton presidencies, in particular, were hobbled by internecine struggles, self-serving leaks and vicious squabbles among subordinates. Whether this yields good or bad results in the long run, it is certainly grist for the media mill and projects an image of incompetence. That is not a problem in George W. Bush's White House.
But once the press seizes on the idea that the Bush presidency is disciplined (and means it as praise), it might serve the Bush presidency to ponder the meaning of such terms. Discipline is evidence of focus, self-control and devotion to duty; but it is emblematic of conformity as well. The internal arguments of any administration are its own business, but is a "disciplined" White House an efficient machine, or a place where dissenting opinions are discouraged? Yes men are seductively dangerous staffers. By the same token, it is all very well to keep the press and Congress at arm's length, but journalists and legislatures are facts of democracy. At some point, every commander-in-chief needs a reservoir of goodwill to sustain a successful presidency.
As with any good politician, George W. Bush's image is a combination of truth and artfulness: He really is a charming, fundamentally decent, likeable fellow who is also a determined and calculating tactician and strategist. He reminds me, in a curious way, of Ulysses S. Grant, another highly intelligent man whose faltering business career and chronic drinking problem were discarded in the crisis of war. Grant was a great general -- unwavering, disciplined, resolutely focused -- but a less-than-perfect
JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal.
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