Bush the Lesser

Living through a minimalist presidency.


It's hardly surprising that conservatives have been exceptionally quick to claim that a dark cloud of national scandal and shame lifted the very moment George W. Bush stammered through the presidential oath without incident. As The Weekly Standard, doubtless speaking for many on the right, put it on their January 29 cover, "Our Long National Nightmare is Over." "Bill Clinton, the vulgar narcissist, is gone," announced an obviously relieved editor William Kristol. "George W. Bush's inaugural address showed a man plain-spoken, secure in his faith, and confident in his ability to lead the nation." (Just how sure of himself is Bush? According to another Standard bearer, Fred Barnes, Bush "brims with self-confidence" and doesn't take no for an answer. When he was told by a White House cook that he couldn't get a cheeseburger at his new home, reports Barnes, "Bush was insistent. 'Texas,' he said. 'Cheeseburger.' Next time he asks," enthuses Barnes, "you can bet he'll get his cheeseburger—pronto." Saddam Hussein, one assumes, has been put on notice.)

But a similar sense of relief regarding the president, if not necessarily the same sense of exuberance or fellow-feeling, extends well beyond the ranks of obvious Bush partisans. Many of the same reporters who questioned the smarts and bona fides of Candidate Bush are now fully taken with the man's "charm offensive," particularly his penchant for giving everyone he meets an odd, idiosyncratic nickname. (This is, it's worth pointing out, a quirk with real potential for causing trouble. It's one thing to call Rep. George Miller "Big George"; it's another to reportedly dub Sen. Ted Kennedy "Chappy.") One journalist, based in D.C. long enough to recall more than a few changes in administrations and no fan of either the Republicans or Bush, told me recently that he's simply enjoying the idea that an apparently relatively normal person is once again in the White House.

Much, if not all, of the generally positive mood toward Bush should be chalked up to the traditional presidential honeymoon, that vague period after inauguration when the press corps and even the loyal opposition seem to think the president is one swell guy, worthy of the office, and destined to do great (or at least not patently evil) things.

That said, Bush is clearly making the most of the moment, essentially setting the national agenda on his terms and generating mostly respectful media attention. This is most evident with regard to his $1.6 trillion tax cut and budget plan. Though it had been the centerpiece of his campaign, virtually all observers during and after the election assumed that it represented a large sum from which Bush and Congressional Republicans would immediately start bargaining down. Instead (and partly thanks to Alan Greenspan's intervention), it has become almost a minimum bid that even Democrats seem eager to gin up.

Given his odd path to the White House, this is no small accomplishment. How has Bush—who was elected under the most dubious circumstances in American electoral history, who is acknowledged by his own supporters as one of the weakest thinkers to hold the presidency, and who made at least one Cabinet appointment (that of Attorney General John Ashcroft) seemingly designed mostly to provoke controversy—done it so far? Largely by playing the role of the anti-Clinton when it comes to personal style.

Bill Clinton was what could be called a "maximalist president." Early in his tenure, especially after his failed national health care initiative and the GOP's 1994 congressional ascendancy, Clinton's stature was diminished so greatly that the news weeklies started talking about "The Incredible Shrinking President" and "Does Bill Clinton Matter?" After a time, however, he emerged as ubiquitous in American public discourse, running the dreaded "permanent campaign" by daily announcing this or that piece of legislation (however trivial) or otherwise appearing in the news. (To be sure, for the final few years of his presidency, this had more to do with scandal than policy issues.) Though he ceased to propose any serious, major initiatives—by his own lights, the "era of big government was over"—Clinton was everywhere, sucking up whatever oxygen and attention was available.

Indeed, he continued to do so even on the day of Bush's inauguration, making public his controversial pardons at midday and going so far as to review troops after he was technically relieved of his role as commander-in-chief. While the maximalist strategy helped Clinton stave off his enemies (even as his ubiquity made it easier for him to get into trouble), in the end The Man From Hope transmogrified into a version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, a latter-day Sheridan Whiteside, the comically omnipresent and annoying house guest created by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. By the end, Clinton became (and will remain) a chore to be around, even and perhaps especially for his supporters.

Bush, by contrast, is a minimalist in terms of personal style. He is relatively low-key, ostensibly humble and self-deprecating, even retiring ("naps" are in, say D.C. trend spotters); he was surprisingly—perhaps even disturbingly—invisible during the transition period, and his inauguration was, relatively speaking, an anti-spectacle. This tendency is nothing new. I lived in Texas for two years while Bush was governor and cannot remember ever seeing him on TV or hearing his voice during that time.

Part of this personal style is no doubt strategic: There seems to be a palpable fear among Bush's handlers whenever he opens his mouth in a public setting, and it seems highly unlikely we will be seeing him in unscripted situations very often over the next four years. While the president may seem comfortable with his malapropisms and strange locutions, they nonetheless put his backers on edge.

His style is one of the reasons (though not the only one) why many in D.C. talk about the adults coming back to town after a hiatus during which the kids had been running the place. It is also one of the reasons why he has, in surprisingly short order, shaken off questions about his electoral legitimacy. Irrespective of the substance of his policies, Bush's minimalist approach seems perfectly suited to a post-Clinton political age. It helps calm a public whose nerves are frazzled.

There is an understandable, though mistaken, tendency to link personal style with substance: A minimalist style must suggest minimalist policies. But such linkage is not a given. Indeed, while Bush may be given to minimal proceedings, at least two of his early policy proposals—giving federal dollars to charities, and his education plan, which will increase federal spending and control over K-12 education—represent anything but the shrinking of the scope of federal government and its power.

It remains an open question what sort of president Bush will make and what sort of government will emerge from his interaction with Congress. Many observers (more precisely, many observers on the right and in the center) are saying that we're in for a thankfully bland four years, one in which the president is something other than the center of all conversations, whether they are about politics or scandal. That may be. But it remains to be seen whether the gap between Bush's personal style and political substance grows or diminishes over time.