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Jewish World Review April 26, 2001 / 4 Iyar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Our "President-select" -- A FEW YEARS ago an English journalist asked me why some Americans seemed to loathe Bill Clinton so much. I replied that the disdain for then-President Clinton felt in certain quarters seemed no more potent than the hatred once expressed for Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Different people were involved, of course, but the sentiments were comparable, and probably reflected the fact that partisan rancor has an old and imaginative history in America, and shows no signs of abatement.

Still, the question deserved an answer, and my stab went something like this. I thought then, and still believe, that Clinton's status as a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, combined with his clumsy efforts to disguise the truth, put him beyond the pale for, perhaps, a quarter of the electorate. They found it deeply shocking that such a person would presume to be President of the United States, or that such a history would not disqualify that person from the White House. The fact that Clinton had carried on at least one extramarital affair with someone like Gennifer Flowers, and sought equally clumsily to obscure this as well, didn't help his cause. From the day he was elected by 43 percent of American voters, about 25 percent regarded Bill Clinton as, somehow, illegitimate.

Now, of course, Bill Clinton is history, and we have a new president. George W. Bush is a very different pot of spinach from Bill Clinton, but the two have something in common. Given the dramatic circumstances surrounding Bush's victory, another 25 percent of the electorate is estranged, probably permanently, from that man in the White House. You still hear the phrase "President-select" bandied about, and plenty of letters to the editor still complain that the man who ought to be laboring in the Oval Office is Al Gore. There is very little that George W. Bush can do about such people, whose hatred and contempt for Mr. Bush -- and bitterness at his narrow electoral victory in Florida -- will only intensify.

For them it is going to be a long eight years, for while Bill Clinton's political skills were impressive, I am beginning to suspect that George W. Bush's are superior. Bill Clinton won the presidency with a mandate from the media, and he took office in tandem with a Democratic Congress. But it took very little time for him to slip on some banana peels -- the hunt for a token female attorney general, gays in the military, the Waco immolation, his wife's attempt to rebuild American medicine on the Cuban model -- and within two years Congress was in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years. Clinton never really recovered from those early pratfalls. He was adept at co-opting certain Republican issues -- balanced budget, welfare reform -- And he won re-election by frightening voters with the imminent loss of their old-age pensions. But his skills were applied to survival, not achievement.

At this early stage in his presidency, George W. Bush has not only chosen to emphasize a select handful of issues that enjoy widespread appeal -- ensuring success, and the semblance of strength -- but has lowered the fever pitch of the presidency. None of us is privy to the melodrama of the Bush marriage (if there is one) and there are no breathless revelations about crisis management, or the burden of office, or burning the midnight oil in the White House. The image is smooth and the atmosphere is one of understated confidence -- so much, indeed, that journalists wonder who's in charge. The Bush precursors who last inspired such thoughts were Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. And Bush has the wit, and serene self-confidence, to poke fun at this palpably fictional public image.

The President was criticized for failing to travel to Alaska to greet the Navy fliers who had been held hostage in China. I confess my reaction was very different. It was not difficult to imagine Mr. Bush's predecessor seizing the opportunity to park Air Force One beside the military transport that brought the fliers home, and striding to the head of the receiving line for a handshake, hug and photo op. Bill Clinton would have used every day of the crisis to televise his concern, advertise his labors, and cast the US-China dynamic in personal terms. George W. Bush, by contrast, kept his comments to a minimum and let events, rather than emotion, take their course.

It's not as much fun for journalists, to be sure, but it is certainly less exhausting to the bulk of Americans, and clearly more effective in the realm of public policy. His habit of laughing at his foibles, and anointing friends and enemies with nicknames, has left detractors speechless and the disaffected 25 percent in helpless rage. Mr. Bush prefers to govern, not intrude or dominate, and give credit where it's due. He has reconverted modesty into a virtue, and reminded Americans that dignity and politics are not mutually exclusive. In a hundred days in office, that's no small achievement.

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


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© 2001, The Providence Journal