Presidency: Memo to George W.

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

To: George W. Bush

From: Teddy Roosevelt

George, I’m coming out of retirement to give you a little friendly advice, one Republican to another. No, I am not here to berate you for your administration’s dismal environmental record. I’m writing a separate letter to Dick about that. I figure he’s the one to talk to about policy.

The issue I want to raise with you is more important. It’s how you’re conducting yourself as president. George, you need to take command! The presidency is a bully pulpit. And you’re acting like you were elected councilman from the second ward of a third rate city. You haven’t given any memorable speeches. You don’t hold press conferences. And nobody looks to you for leadership. The only line anybody now associates with you is that foolish statement you made about Putin. Do you really believe that because you looked him in the eye you understand his soul?

I find your conduct of the presidency personally offensive. It’s a rebuke to me. And on this the hundredth anniversary of the media presidency! It was in 1901 that I became president and reinvented the office, rescuing it from the colorless and odorless backbenchers like Garfield, Arthur and Hayes, whom Thomas Wolfe aptly called the lost Americans, “whose gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together.” “Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: which was which?” Wolfe asked. And here you are trying to take us back to those boring old days.

Yes, I know, you’re receiving some compliments for downsizing the office from pundits like Hugh Sidey. But you’re tampering with my legacy, son! I haven’t seen anything like this since those three stumblebum Republicans briefly took control in the 1920s, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. You want to be another Coolidge?

Presidents should be setting the national agenda just as I did. Before me no president had dared to take on the trusts. I did. And I made trust busting as popular as baseball. I know the historians always point out that my hand-picked successor Taft actually busted more trusts in four years than I did in seven, but I was the one who focused public attention on the issue.

You have to be an actor in the presidency, have to dramatize things to get people to notice. You seem to think that being a nice guy is enough. Well let me tell you, it’s not!

A perfect example of a missed opportunity was when you got the boys home from China. You should have been there Mr. President to welcome them. Ronnie would have. He understood the significance of grand dramatic gestures. And you could have done some good, too. You could have used the occasion to help clarify our policy toward China. Instead, you let things drift, allowing the opponents of trade with China to gain a foothold in the national conversation. Instead, you could have explained to the people the necessity of engaging China while being constantly vigilant. Now that’s a nuanced policy to be sure, but a president could sell it.

You want the people on your side? You have to appeal to their emotions. I know that Bushes are uncomfortable emoting. But consarnit, that comes with the job! And now you’re paying for your reticence. Your polls are down. Jim Jeffords felt free to leave. And the country seems rudderless.

Use the media, George. The reporters will love you for it. And the people will rally round you as they did round me. Sometimes, just a dramatic gesture will help clarify public opinion. Why do you think I sent the White Fleet around the world? It was to announce that we are now a power to be reckoned with.

Of course, first you have to decide what you want to accomplish as president. I don’t mean what legislation you want passed. Legislation doesn’t define a presidency. Presidents have to stand for something, as James MacGregor Burns says.

What do you stand for, Mr. President? Tax cuts? Balderdash. Presidents stand for principles. And you kept watering down the principle behind the tax cut. By the end people had the idea it was either to help stave off a recession or to help them offset the high price of gas.

You have been trying hard not to repeat your father’s mistakes, becoming the un-Bush-Bush. He had trouble with the right wing; you embraced it. He ignored domestic affairs; you have (mostly) ignored foreign affairs. He fought with Alan Greenspan; you’ve celebrated Greenspan.

But in a way you’re very similar. You are both uncomfortable using the media to establish a presence. Your father couldn’t even dramatize the end of the Cold War. So when Americans think of our victory the image of Ronnie standing in front of the Berlin Wall flashes through their mind.

George, my advice to you is simple. Make yourself memorable! I did. And look at me. I wound up on Mount Rushmore!

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Martin Heldt - 8/17/2001

Mr Shenkman addressed the point that Bush does not use the bully pulpit and that Bush has been a minimal presence, like Coolidge.

These are points that many people -on all sides of the issue- have noticed.

On the one hand you whine about "left-wing bias" and on the other you make crude "rapist" comments.

Now that, unlike Mr Shenkman's piece, sounded biased.

Scott Harwood - 7/20/2001

By calling Bush Al gore in Drag, I was was saying that Bush is doing everything Gore promised to to, only more. Thus implying that one in drag is more powerful, more potent. The comment was degrading to Bush not because he was copared to a drag queen, but because he was cought being a hypocrit.

You seem to have gone to the Clinton School of Spin. But keep in mind that I am not a liberal ass-kissing reporter so I can see through your spin and word twisting. Plus, you are trying to convince me that I really said something else - real smart.

Bill McClure - 7/17/2001

You didn't answer my questions and I don't want another libertarian essay.

I'll leave with this point.

I do find it odd that you condemn Clinton for his treatment of women (I agree it was immoral). However you try to degrade Bush by calling him "Al Gore in drag," thus insinuating that atrributing feminine characteristics to a stereotypical male character makes him weaker or even less worthy of validation. I find misogynistic undertones in that strand of logic. I am all for transvestite rights and would imagine that libertarians, in their pursuit of maximizing individual freedom, would also support drag queens' rights without condescension.

Scott Harwood - 7/16/2001

I hope this puts my views into more perspective. I don't think any President has degraded women worse than Bill Clinton since JFK. Clinton has yet to deny the rape allegations and to be honest, there is just too much smoke with other women for there not to be fire. So, yes, I suppose I throw that word around for dramatice effect.

Anyway, the Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore because the Democrats wanted to socialize health care. So George Bush has offered to put the control of prescription drugs in the hands of people like Teddy Kennedy, Tom Daschle, and other politicians. And most likely he'll sign a "Patient's Bill of Rights" bill – making health care even more expensive and inaccessible than it is now.

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore to restore ethics to the White House. All together now: "No more renting out the Lincoln Bedroom!" So the Republicans have already begun a program of raising money by guaranteeing access to George Bush, Richard Cheney, and other top Republican politicians – reminding us that when you give power to the government, only the rich and powerful will be able to take advantage of it.

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore because the Democrats were one-worlders who wanted to sacrifice American sovereignty to the internationalists. But last week George Bush used your money to bribe the Serbs to turn Slobodan Milosevic over to the World Court for prosecution. Needless to say, the "One Worlders" admire Mr. Bush's passion for international government.

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore because the Democrats were turning American troops into a world police force. But George Bush is continuing the Clinton policy of blocking food and medicines from reaching Iraqi men, women and children in order to enforce a policy that no one seems able to comprehend.

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore because of all the big-government programs Al Gore would inflict on us. So now we have George Bush wanting to use your money to (among other things) reward his favorite charities, impose federal testing requirements on local government schools, impose federal rules on private schools through a voucher program (since those rules have worked so well for government schools) and put price controls on energy.

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore because only George Bush wanted to give you back some of your money. But George Bush hasn't proposed a single reduction in government's cost, power, intrusiveness, or oppression. If government continues to grow, how are we saving money?

The Republicans said we had to defeat Al Gore in order to get rid of people like Janet Reno and restore respect for the Constitution. So now we have an attorney general who promises to escalate the infamous drug war – the worst assault on your constitutional liberties in American history.

Some things have changed
Lest you think nothing has changed since Bill Clinton left the White House, let me point out one major difference. When Democrats had the presidency, conservative columnists bombarded the country with articles criticizing big-government programs, questionable fund-raising techniques, the dangers inherent in international agencies, and the abuse of the Constitution.

But now, with George Bush in the White House, the eight-year vocal opposition to big government seems to have disappeared.

Don't misunderstand me. This article isn't a criticism of George Bush. He has never concealed his love of big government. He hasn't attempted to deceive us in any notable way. My beef is with all those Republicans who told you that you must vote for Bush in order to keep Al Gore out of the White House.

Well, if you voted for George Bush, what did you get?

Al Gore in drag.

Bill McClure - 7/16/2001

Thanks for making your ideas more clear. I still don't know why you are calling Clinton a rapist, though. I assume it is for dramatic affect. If you believe it is wrong for government to interfer with the contractual rights of individuals, why should the U.S. government intefer with the contractual rights of oil-producing countries to reduce production? Shouldn't the free market provide energy to consumers without government interference and regulation? Is the consumption of oil an individual right?

What form of government is a good one?

What do you extol the virtues of the current (therefore responsible) president solely in contrast to the negative actions (as perceived my you) of a previous administration? What has Bush done to make your life better?

Scott Harwood - 7/13/2001

He is a man who accomplished a miracle, rising up from humble beginnings in Hope, Ark., to become the most powerful person in the world. And he did it with little help.

Mr. Clinton was raised primarily by his flamboyant mother, and although she adored him, she could offer him little in the way of worldly influence. I admire self-made people, and William Jefferson Clinton is all that. But that is where my admiration stops.

We are all suffering right now because of Bill Clinton's presidency, and it has nothing to do with his moral failings. It has everything to do with his policy failings.

The current earnings recession and economic slowdown has its roots in Mr. Clinton's final year in office. During that time, he turned away from managing the economy and devoted a huge amount of time fund-raising for himself (the Clinton Library), his wife's senatorial campaign and the Democratic Party.

Spurned by Al Gore, Mr. Clinton traveled not to deliver a political message, but to grab your wallet. His wanderings turned into a giant mobile flea market where he sold his time and presence for major dollars.

Mr. Clinton also became obsessed with brokering a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This, of course, led to nothing but more hatred and violence, as we are seeing now on a daily basis.

With the president's attention diverted, Alan Greenspan and his merry band inexplicably kept the U.S. money supply tight, even as manufacturing orders, especially in high-tech, were slowing drastically.

There was no political pressure on the Fed to cut rates as Mr. Clinton was paying scant attention. Thus, in December, when Greenspan still declined to cut interest rates, the economic dam broke, and the waters of declining earnings flooded the stock market.

The bad economic news was compounded by the fact that Mr. Clinton never had an energy policy and allowed the OPEC nations to cut oil production without challenge. Energy prices soared, cutting into corporate profits and gutting the take-home pay of American workers.

Mr. Clinton knew there weren't enough oil refineries in the United States but made no attempt to build any. He also knew that America's dependence on foreign oil was at an all-time high but failed to encourage consumers to conserve energy, because that might annoy his SUV-driving soccer mom base. Bill Clinton fiddled while oil and natural gas burned. And finally, the nation's most powerful state, California, simply ran out of power.

In his last days as president, Mr. Clinton signed a number of environmental orders but never once warned anybody about the growing scarcity of energy. To say he was pandering to the greens is a gross understatement.

Bill Clinton's education policies have also been a disaster. Despite a massive amount of federal spending, 60 percent of the nation's poor fourth-graders still can barely read.

Mr. Clinton was a champion of educational spending but made no attempt to tie the money to performance. This endeared him to the teachers' unions but didn't do much for at-risk kids who desperately need discipline and learning standards.

The second most at-risk group in America are poor seniors. And what did Mr. Clinton do for them? Drug prices are the highest they've ever been. Some seniors are still traveling to Mexico and Canada to get their prescriptions filled.

But prices for illegal drugs are the lowest they've ever been. Street heroin and cocaine are readily available all over the United States with no waiting. That's because narcotics continue to flood into this country while Bill Clinton and his drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, introduced absolutely no effective federal measures designed to cut either supply or demand. Mr. Clinton's NAFTA agreement with Mexico allowed for freer passage through our southern border. The "traffic" that ensued had little do with cars and trucks.

So there's your Clinton legacy, and you can take it over to Barbra Streisand's house and drop it on her lawn. The president wasted one full year lying about his sexcapades and another year asking people for money. The other six years he talked a really good game.

But talk is cheap and gas is not. If our cars and homes and stores ran on hot air, Bill Clinton might be right up there with Abe Lincoln.

Scott Harwood - 7/13/2001

To clarify, when I speak of freedom and the role of government, I hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.

Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the opposite principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, both political parties grant to government the right to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor.

I, on the other hand, hold that where governments exist, they must not violate the rights of any individual: namely, (1) the right to life -- accordingly I support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others; (2) the right to liberty of speech and action -- accordingly I oppose all attempts by government to abridge the freedom of speech and press, as well as government censorship in any form; and (3) the right to property -- accordingly I oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain, and support the prohibition of robbery, trespass, fraud, and misrepresentation.

Since governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights, I oppose all interference by government in the areas of voluntary and contractual relations among individuals. People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others. They should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of individual rights, is the free market.

Bill McClure - 7/13/2001

You’re breaking my heart. Hey Scott, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t having fun with this. However, you’re attempt at psych 101 is pathetic and transparent. You assume a lot of facts not present which is my whole point of contention. I don’t care with which party you are affiliated or for whom you voted. I believe Bush is a moron. Plain and simple. I believe you like to throw out phrases that have no definitions. I don’t have a problem with “freedom and the role of government.” Would you like to explain exactly what you meant when you first wrote those words? Or can we start talking about something equally vague like “liberty and principles of righteousness?” And you are smoking crack if you think George W Bush would have achieved his level of success without his familial connections. Albeit the man did go to Yale (yes, b/c of daddy) but he received mediocre grades and admittedly doesn’t remember much due to youthful indiscretions. Does that make him a bad man? No. Should it attest to his presidential ability? Yes. Lastly, get of your high horse. Your writing is about as a intimidating as swimming in a kiddie pool. For someone so offended by “rhetoric”, one would think you wouldn’t start a comment chain using slander and lofty, undefined principles. Breathe deep and relax. I’m not attacking you; I’m attacking the stupid things you wrote.

Scott Harwood - 7/13/2001

1) No, I am not offended; just disappointed that the only reply you could offer was a personal attack.
2) I don't understand your issue with freedom and limited government. I can better reply if you would elaborate. If you need help, I suppose my views are closely in line with those of the Libertarian Party (www.lp.org).
3) Perhaps the President is vague about his position on ebryonic cells because he has not learned enough about the issue to form a valid opinion. At least he is not automatically drawn to whichever side to which the Dems are opposed.
4) You seem to have a lot of anger (insecurity?) aimed at any opinion that might be different from yours. If you are a liberal, where is your tolerance? If my writing intimidates you so much, then simply quit replying. It's not difficult.
5) I don't think it is possible for GWB to be as dumb as you assert and still earn two Ivy League degrees, a Yale MBA, earn millions in private business (yes, without daddy's help -you can't just read the headlines, you must also read the articles), become governor of Texas and then President. Think about it. You only reply is that his father did it all for him, which maked no sense at all.
Finally, I voted for Clinton, I never voted for Reagan or either Bush, so don't try to paint me as some sort of partisan Republican defender.

Bill McClure - 7/12/2001

Are you an ad exec? I am so sorry if I offended you, princess, but you don’t get to define the rules of debate after initiating the process with idiotic, unsubstantiated comments (e.g., rapist) and blanket statements of no value (e.g., rhetoric). Furthermore, how is one to engage in debate about the leadership qualities of President Bush when the only thing you’ve stated is that you care about “freedom and the role of government.” That’s pretty heavy and defined. It reminds me of the same way Bush constantly declines to comment on specific issues (embryonic cells) because he needs someone smarter in his administration to break it down for him. Or maybe you’re similarly clairvoyant like Bush and can see peoples’ souls (Putin) thus negating the need for articulation. Or maybe I should spend my time going to conservative websites making inane, generalized comments because I am not really interested in dialogue but rather I desperately want that feeling that I am smarter and know more than anybody else. Your comments are pregnant. Don’t play dumb and then self-righteous.

Scott Harwood - 7/12/2001

Ad hom attacks and sarcasm? That is your reply? Someone steps in to question the Bush stereotype and you immediately attack the presenter? I thought this was website was supposed to be a non-partisan objective forum for the exchange of ideas on historical perspective, but I now see that it simply facilitates personal attacks upon anyone who dares question left-wing rhetoric.

I will not be drawn into your game of insults, sir. But if you would like to address specific examples of President Bush's alleged lack of leadership skills, I will certainly reply.

Bill McClure - 7/11/2001

You're real smart Scott Harwood. Who could argue with such brilliance? I salute your rebuke of rhetoric and demand for concise, articulated principles. It's good to know that you share an affinity with a dim-witted president who also cares about the "role of government." Wow, what a power statement. Shame on HNN for not recognizing their obvious liberal agenda and not keeping focus on a ex-president "rapist." You, Scott Harwood, are a beacon for unbiased, non-judgmental truth.

Scott Harwood - 7/11/2001

Is it me? Or is every single article published on this site devoted less to history and more to advancing left-wing rhetoric?

I did not vote for Bush, but I have actually been surprised by his leadership. After eight years of the rapist waiting to read the polls before making a decision, it is nice to have someone who actually cares about freedom and the role of government.