Politics: Family Feud





Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

The Jeffords switch is teaching a great lesson about Washington politics. It’s not always about who gets what and how much. It’s often about raw human emotions like revenge.

Revenge is a theme more commonly associated with foreigners like the Serbs, who, we learned during the Kosovo war, still can’t get over a humiliating defeat that occurred some seven centuries ago.

But you don’t have to open up musty European histories to find a juicy revenge plot worthy of Shakespeare. Just pick up almost any book on the Bush family. Bushes are the Borgias of American politics. They are always stabbing and getting stabbed. When I was reading Herbert Parmet’s biography of the first President Bush a few years ago I kept track of the number of revenge stories. I stopped counting at twenty-six.

Politics with the Bushes is always personal. They hate Dan Rather for putting Poppy Bush on the spot for Iran-contra. They barred George Will from the White House for calling George I the lapdog of American politics. They despised Pat Buchanan, who backed Rocky over Bush for veep in 1974. They had it in for Pat Robertson for running the ABC (Anybody But Bush) campaign in 1988 (though Bush II was willing to overlook this incident when Pat rode to the rescue in South Carolina in 2000).

Bushes are supposed to be polite. But watch out if you cross them or get in their way. Just ask Michael Dukakis, the mild mannered dogooder who came to be known as the man who polluted Boston Harbor and let Willy Horton out of prison.

Of all the petty and grand plots that figure so prominently in the history of the Bushes the one that stands out the most is Bush v. Perot. The contretemps began in the 1970s when Perot, as Bush I later recalled, “made me an offer of a job running an oil company in Houston, Texas, as I was leaving the CIA.” The move could have made Bush a very rich man. But he had other plans. He wanted to run for president and turned Perot down. Perot never forgot. As Parmet relates in his biography, this “did not make for a happy little Texan.”

The next time Perot and Bush crossed paths was in 1987, when Bush was vice president. A tape had surfaced purportedly featuring living American POW’s from the Vietnam War. Because Perot was publicly identified with the search for POW’s, Bush called to ask for Perot’s help in determining if the tape was real. Trouble began when Bush refused to ask the government to reimburse Perot for his expenses after the Texan had determined that the tape was a phony. Perot was also upset that Bush had supposedly tried to sidetrack the investigation by giving him access to some useless Pentagon files when what was really needed was a little political muscle to cut through the bureaucratic obfuscations.

The little Texan was now really mad. As he told Bush during a stormy meeting, “Well, George, I am looking for prisoners, but I spend all my time discovering the government has been moving drugs around the world and is involved in illegal arms deals….I can’t get at the prisoners because of the corruption among our own covert people.” Perot held the vice president responsible. “This world is full of lions and tigers and rabbits,” Perot observed. “And you’re a rabbit.”

Eager to discredit Bush, Perot had the vice president investigated. Perot people looked for any evidence that could smear Bush, who was then fighting charges he had been secretly involved in the Iran-contra. They even searched for proof that Bush, who was known for his honesty, had been guilty of financial improprieties. (They didn’t find any.)

The denouement in the family feud came in 1992 when Perot decided to launch his independent bid for president. He said he was running to save the country from NAFTA and budget deficits. The Bush family was convinced it was pure revenge. Afterward, W. concluded that the third-party bid cost his father the presidency. (Perot took nineteen percent of the vote.)

Is history repeating itself? Is another Bush administration unraveling because of a feud? Senator Jeffords insists he left the Republican Party because of policy differences. But many pundits are convinced he switched, at least in part, out of pique at rumors the Bush administration clumsily spread that it was going to avenge Jeffords’s early vote against the Bush $1.6 trillion tax-cut bill.

W. exudes friendliness. But he is beset by multiple feuds. The most dangerous one of all is still drawing crowds like a Broadway blockbuster: Bush v. McCain.

So why do Bushes seem to figure in so many revenge plots, more perhaps than any other political family in America? I have a theory. It’s because they don’t really stand for anything. And when you don’t stand for anything politics is mainly about loyalty, us versus them. That’s why Bushes, unlike Ronald Reagan, who did stand for something, are more likely to lose the support of a Jeffords or McCain.


April 23, 2001

EARTH DAY REFLECTIONS

A column should tell readers something they don’t know. So here goes. Did you know that at the first Earth Day, back in April 1970, more Americans turned out to demonstrate than at any other event in our history? Historians say three million people across the country joined in the celebrations.

Every movement has its golden age. The golden age of environmentalism arrived oddly enough during the Nixon administration, which is normally remembered for Vietnam and Watergate. During Nixon’s five years in office Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (1969), established the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), strengthened the Clean Air Act (1970), passed the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).

Question. Which president proposed more environmental initiatives than any other in history? Answer: Nixon. His 1970 State of the Union Address alone included thirty-six environmental initiatives.

I was a Nixon supporter in the 1970s. (When I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible.) I am glad to give him the credit he is owed. But even his most devoted apologists have to admit that he wasn’t a committed environmentalist. He didn’t actually care about protecting the earth, the water and the sky. He believed that “people don’t give a shit about the environment” and once remarked, “In a flat choice between smoke and jobs, we’re for jobs.” After Congress passed the Clean Water Act, Nixon impounded seventy-five percent of the funds. His administration had to be forced by the courts to ban DDT.

Nixon was the right president for the time in foreign policy. Only he probably could have opened relations with China and established détente with the Soviet Union. But he was obviously the wrong president to preside over the heyday of the environmental movement. What the environmental movement needed then was a guy like Al Gore.

In a simple world presidents would always be in sync with their times. This would make the writing of history books a lot easier. Want to play the game of president swapping? Al “Protect the Earth” Gore should have been president in the early 1970s. LBJ should have been president just long enough to get the civil rights laws passed. Bush I should have been president during the height of the Cold War. Clinton should have been president before the media and prosecutors began investigating presidents’ sex lives.

Which brings me to George W. Is he out of sync with the times? I have the feeling that he is, at least with regard to the environment. He seems reluctant to acknowledge that global warming is a significant concern. He thinks we should drill for oil in prime wilderness areas of Alaska. He thinks that the government should go easy on energy inefficient air conditioning manufacturers.

Polls suggest that the American people don’t share his views. In a recent Gallup Poll Bush got his lowest marks on his handling of environmental issues. Just forty-one percent approve of his administration’s record on the environment.

The administration’s response to the poll and complaints from members of Congress was to launch a public relations campaign. Within the last week he announced that he would sign a treaty banning chemicals worldwide like DDT. EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman indicated that the administration would limit the amount of arsenic in drinking water. He used a White House setting to announce a routine decision to require companies that handle more than a hundred pounds of lead a year to tell the public how the metal is disposed.

Like Nixon, Bush doesn’t really care about the environment. You can almost hear Bush repeating a comment Nixon made to John Ehrlichman, “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.”

But if Bush is out of sync with the country on the environment, the question arises, on what issue is he in sync with the country? A hundred days into his presidency we don’t know. Polls have consistently shown Americans don’t favor his large tax cuts. The Congress doesn’t like his plan for vouchers. Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson don’t approve of his faith-based initiative.

If I had to write a short history of the Bush administration right now, I’d say that Bush is mainly in sync with corporate America. Bush as Calvin Coolidge. Maybe so. Only somebody should remind him, this isn’t the 1920s.

*********

April 13, 2001

MEMO TO GEORGE W. by Richard Shenkman (rshenkman@sprynet.com)

This was a revealing week, wasn’t it? You found out that the presidency is more difficult than it seemed. You also found out that it sure would have helped if you had spent more time at Yale studying foreign policy than playing frat tricks. If you had, you might have felt confident enough to pick up the hotline to China and work your magic on Jiang. No doubt he would have been harder to charm than the voters of Oshkosh, but we’ll never know because you never tried.

More revealing was the reaction of your friends on the Right. Bill Kristol once worked for your father. But when you were on the hot seat and really in need of back up, Bill was all over television condemning you. Dick Cheney got in a good swipe over the weekend, calling Kristol’s motives into question, suggesting that his attack was motivated by a desire to sell more copies of his magazine. I’ll bet that felt good, though Cheney may come to regret it. (I’ll bet Kristol is already figuring out how to get even with Dick.)

Whatever happened to politics stopping at the water’s edge, right? Your critics on the Right didn’t even wait for the crew to return before they started piling on.

To a guy like you who values loyalty above else, this must have been difficult to take. And after all you did for the Right the last few months: Killing standards on arsenic in drinking water. Pushing for oil drilling in Alaska. Even withdrawing the offer of the office of attorney general to your friend Marc Racicot because the Right wanted someone even more conservative.

Ouch!

A long list of Right-wingers is now making trouble. Pat Robertson has blasted the faith-based initiative, but you always had to worry about his loyalty despite his critical support in South Carolina against John McCain. In 1988 it was Robertson who led the Anybody But Bush movement against your dad in Michigan. Pat Buchanan of course dumped on you for your handling of China, but then he could be expected to challenge your leadership. You won, he lost in 2000! Morton Kondracke also condemned your China diplomacy, but he’s a journalist and journalists can’t ever be trusted.

But Kristol’s opposition is what burns. Kristol, who was said to be Dan Quayle’s brain, has been a Bush family supporter for years. And yet there he was on Fox News—your station!—ridiculing your policy as if this were your Munich and you were Chamberlain:"I really think it has been a very bad week for the United States of America," Kristol declared."When we started expressing regrets, we have gone down a path of national humiliation. We expressed regrets. The Chinese respond by slapping us in the face."

This kind of criticism was fun when it was directed at Bill Clinton. But not now.

So what happened? Because this is a history column, let me put the last twelve days in perspective.

You have come face to face with the real Rightwing of the Republican Party, folks who have been driving Republican presidents crazy for half a century. In the 1950s they were led by people like isolationist Senator John Bricker, author of the mindless Bricker Amendment, which was designed to take away the president’s power to negotiate executive agreements. Ike was so furious at Bricker and like-minded isolationists that he seriously considered forming a third party.

Ronald Reagan got along well with the Rightwing his first term, but came under attack in the second term after he befriended Gorbachev. Nobody remembers this anymore because the Soviet Union soon imploded, vindicating Reagan’s diplomacy. But at the time the president caught hell for his supposed softness toward the Soviets. You knew Reagan was in trouble with the Right because they started saying Nancy was to blame for the new direction in his policies.

Your father of course was always in trouble with the Right, even though he made so many compromises he once felt compelled to apologize to his minister for the positions he’d taken:"You know John I took some of the far right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it."

You thought you had inoculated yourself by kowtowing to the conservatives over the last two months. Forget it. No one is ever far right enough to satisfy the Rightwing. Soon they’ll be calling you a liberal.

Because you have systematically alienated the liberals with your conservative agenda, you don’t have much choice but to make peace with the conservatives. But now you know how your Republican predecessors felt. You might even one day come to agree with Richard Nixon, who complained, “There is only one thing as bad as a far left liberal and that’s a damn rightwing conservative.”

*********

April 7, 2001

HIS FIRST TEST

I have a friend, a really smart guy, a Harvard Law School graduate, who has been telling me since December that it doesn’t matter that George W. is wet behind the ears because he is surrounded by a lot of experienced advisors.

The question on my mind this week has been who, when the advisors gather, makes the decision about what to do. Is it the guy at the table who is the least well informed? That it probably is isn’t reassuring.

This was always the flaw in the argument Bush supporters put forward in defense of their I-Don’t-Know-Much Commander-in-Chief. At the moment of decision it would be Bush who would have to make the final call.

Bush this week has refused to say if he’s consulted his father. We can only hope he has. But it’s fascinating that #43 would think it’s unbecoming to publicly acknowledge that #41 may be supplying needed advice. Isn’t that what Americans expected would happen when they elected #43 to the presidency?

I am not really worried that W.’s inexperience will plunge us into a real crisis over the spy plane incident. Officials on both sides would really have to bungle matters for this diplomatic tempest to turn into a tornado.

But the crisis is useful in teaching us a lesson about the presidency. Even in a post Cold War world it’s not for amateurs. It actually matters who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. A democracy that reaches the conclusion that it doesn’t is a democracy that is bound to get into trouble.

In the Persian Gulf War, to pick a non-random example, President George Herbert Walker Bush was advised by James Baker, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney that the United States should tell Saddam not even to think about crossing the Saudi Arabian border. That was good sound advice. But what about Kuwait? About Kuwait they weren’t sure. Powell in particular was aghast at the thought of sending American boys (and girls) to fight and die in a foreign war to rescue a sand kingdom run by rich oil sheiks.

So why did we finally decide to fight to expel Saddam from Kuwait? Because President Bush, acting alone, decided we should. Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned about the decision from television. “This will not stand, this aggression of Kuwait” Bush told the public on August 5, 1990. It was his finest hour and the only public statement he made while in office that is worth remembering.

If you don’t think it made a difference this week that our current commander in chief is inexperienced, ask yourself why he didn’t pick up the hot line and speak to President Jiang Zemin personally? The only explanation that makes sense is that he didn’t know what to say.

This incident may have sobered up the American public. Maybe the next time the voters have to decide whom to nominate for the presidency they won’t think of turning to a tyro. We can all hope that at least the Republican Party elders who backed W. will learn that lesson.

The 1990s party is over. It’s time to remember that the world is a dangerous place.

This seems plain common sense to me. But I am not sure W. has figured this out yet. That’s scary. We need a president who is a little bit afraid of the world. Unfortunately, W. gives the impression that he isn’t. At the least he should understand he’s not really in control of events. Events will often control him.

When he figures that out we’ll know he can be trusted to make the crisis decisions he alone has the responsibility of making from time to time.

Meanwhile, if he wants to call up his dad for advice, we should encourage him to do so. George, go ahead and make that call. We’ll all sleep better.

While W. is on the phone, the rest of us can ponder an old saying of Richard Nixon’s. “I’ve always thought this country could run itself domestically without a President,” Nixon commented the year before he ran for president the second time. “All you need is a competent Cabinet to run the country at home. You need a President for foreign policy; no Secretary of State is really important; the President makes foreign policy.”

*********

March 27, 2001

W IS PROUD TO BE THE UN-BUSH BUSH

Our president is demonstrating a new-found love for history. According to a report in the NYT, he has been studying his father’s mistakes and is determined not to repeat them. He will be the un-Bush Bush. He won’t alienate Alan Greenspan. He won’t freeze out the Christian right. And he won’t, out of excessive loyalty, keep on ineffective aides like White House Chief of Staff John Sununu or Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady. His father bragged about kicking ass. This President Bush actually does it, as Linda Chavez learned. No surprise. Remember it was W. who gave Sununu his marching orders.

There’s more. The NYT says W. won’t focus exclusively on governing for three years as his father did; like Bill Clinton he plans on keeping the campaign going .. and going ... and going. Our second Energizer Bunny President. Indeed, W.’s out-Clintoning Clinton. In Bush’s first two months in office he’s spent a third of his time on the road, more than any other president in history (including Traveler-in-Chief Bill Clinton) for the corresponding period.

Deciding to avoid the mistakes of his father is undoubtedly a good move. But there are forty-one other presidents from whom W. could learn a thing or two. Their mistakes may be just as relevant.

From LBJ Bush could learn to stop garbling the truth as badly as he does the English language. As LBJ discovered, the truth eventually catches up with presidents. Bush, barely two months in office, has already told three whoppers. 1. He says that his tax cut will cost $1.6 trillion; actually, it’s closer to $2.6 trillion. Bush is off by a mere trillion dollars or so. 2. He says his tax cuts will help stave off a recession. This is laughable. His proposal includes just $5.6 billion in tax relief this year; in a $10 trillion economy. 3. He insists he’s a uniter not a divider. Tell that to the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who were rolled over by the Republican majority in a party line vote on tax cuts orchestrated by the White House.

From JFK Bush could learn the danger of trusting government experts. As JFK figured out after the Bay of Pigs crisis, presidents have to ask hard questions to be sure crackpot schemes don’t get approved. This year’s crackpot scheme is missile defense, which could cost us $60 billion. The experts are telling him its doable. He should make sure it really is before he risks a clash with both China and Russia over a system that has yet to shoot down a clay pigeon. After all it was experts just like the ones Bush is trusting now who told JFK we could topple Castro with a couple of thousand badly-trained Cuban refugees.

JFK also could teach Bush a little about the irony of toughness in foreign policy. Bush seems determined to show his toughness everywhere, from North Korea to Russia to China. We’ve been here before. JFK was so intent on proving he was a tough character that he needlessly alienated and humiliated Nikita Khrushchev, which led directly to the Cuban missile crisis. The year before the crisis Kennedy leaked to the media top-secret information that showed the United States held a dramatic edge over the Soviet Union in military weaponry. Khrushchev retaliated by slipping missiles into Cuba.

From Presidents Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis Bush could learn the dangers of pandering. They pandered to the leftwing of the Democratic Party. Bush panders to the rightwing of the Republican Party. He apparently thinks this will protect him from the kind of rightwing attacks that undermined his father’s presidency. But it also makes him look weak. What lesson does he think Washington politicians learned when he dropped Montana Governor Marc Racicot for attorney general at the insistence of rightwing Christians eager to ensconce one of their own?

The chief lesson Jimmy Carter taught it’s too late for W. to learn. Like Carter, Bush ran before he was ready for national politics. But nothing can be done about that now. Jr.’s there and that’s it.

It’s funny that W. seems to want to become known as the un-Bush. Americans would be happier with W. if he was more like his father, not less. I admit to being puzzled by W.’s stance. He must think his father was a failure. I think most Americans think his father was actually an ok president.

Compared with his son, Bush Sr. is looking better and better. While W. seems determined to become known as the Pollution President, for example, his father signed a major overhaul of the Clean Air Act and was proud to be known as the Environmental President. EPA head Christie Todd Whitman said the other day that we’ll be surprised at what this administration will accomplish for the environment. Somehow I don’t think so. Breaking his campaign promise to restrict carbon dioxide wasn’t exactly a good omen after all.

W. should take a second look at the biographies that have been written about his father. What is Bush Sr. remembered for? It’s not just for being a one-term president. He’s also known for bucking industry and signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which took courage for a Republican. And though the rightwing hated him for agreeing to the budget deal of 1990 that raised taxes, that was one of the key turning points that led to the bountiful surpluses his son seems so eager now to squander on tax cuts for the rich.

Bushes have always had trouble figuring out how to dance with Christian right-wingers. Jr. has chosen to dance real close. Sr. left a little bit of room. I don’t know about you, but I wish Jr. followed more closely in his father’s footsteps.

********

March 19, 2001.

CLINTON’S LEGACY

Pity Bill Clinton. Even his legacy of prosperity may now be in doubt. Should Wall Street tank everybody will be blaming Bill. They already are. Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” suggested this week that Clinton covered-up evidence that the markets were weakening a year ago in order to help Al Gore win the presidency. To clinch their case the Factor producers brought on Dean Baker, a pro-Nader economist, who a year ago had correctly predicted that stocks were highly overvalued and bound to fall steeply once the bubble economy had burst.

Unfortunately for the Fox producers, Dr. Baker did not agree that Clinton had been guilty of a cover-up. Another television moment ruined! But Fox was onto something. Shouldn’t the president have drawn attention to the bubble and denounced it (as Fed chairman Greenspan had in 1996)? Isn’t that what we pay presidents for? They get the big bucks to help save us from ourselves.

There are two possibilities here and neither of them reflects favorably on Bill Clinton. Either he knew this was a classic bubble and did nothing or he didn’t know and he should have. I think in formal logic classes this is known as “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Unfair? Sure. But, to paraphrase John Kennedy, whoever said history is fair?

If you are one of those who always liked Bill Clinton and stuck with him during the Monicathing and are still inclined to defend him you may object that a president shouldn’t be held accountable for events that come after his term and over which he probably had little control.

Tell that to Calvin Coolidge. During Silent Cal’s years in office the economy churned along at the most rapid clip it ever had. Just like the 1990s, the 1920s was a period of unprecedented prosperity. Instead of the Internet, it was the automobile that was changing the American economy (with a hefty assist from an innovation in financing known as “buying on credit”). And just like in the 1990s, in the 1920s the stock market went crazy. Even people who didn’t have a dime in the market were aware which stocks were up and which down. Following the stock market had become America’s second national pastime.

Cal left the White House in March1929. Nine months later came the crash. Guess what happened to Coolidge’s reputation? Suddenly he didn’t look so good.

If Bill Clinton’s lucky the current cycle of doom and gloom will be brief and relatively painless. We’ll get on with our lives and he’ll get on with the building of his library. But if Wall Street crashes, Bill’s reputation as Money-Leader-in-chief, will plummet like Coolidge’s.

No, it’s not fair. But as the old farmer’s saying goes, If you take credit for the rain, you have to be willing to take the blame for the drought.

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April 23, 2001

EARTH DAY REFLECTIONS

A column should tell readers something they don't know. So here goes. Did you know that at the first Earth Day, back in April 1970, more Americans turned out to demonstrate than at any other event in our history? Historians say three million people across the country joined in the celebrations.

Every movement has its golden age. The golden age of environmentalism arrived oddly enough during the Nixon administration, which is normally remembered for Vietnam and Watergate. During Nixon's five years in office Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (1969), established the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), strengthened the Clean Air Act (1970), passed the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).

Question. Which president proposed more environmental initiatives than any other in history? Answer: Nixon. His 1970 State of the Union Address alone included thirty-six environmental initiatives.

I was a Nixon supporter in the 1970s. (When I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible.) I am glad to give him the credit he is owed. But even his most devoted apologists have to admit that he wasn't a committed environmentalist. He didn't actually care about protecting the earth, the water and the sky. He believed that"people don't give a shit about the environment" and once remarked,"In a flat choice between smoke and jobs, we're for jobs." After Congress passed the Clean Water Act, Nixon impounded seventy-five percent of the funds. His administration had to be forced by the courts to ban DDT.

Nixon was the right president for the time in foreign policy. Only he probably could have opened relations with China and established détente with the Soviet Union. But he was obviously the wrong president to preside over the heyday of the environmental movement. What the environmental movement needed then was a guy like Al Gore.

In a simple world presidents would always be in sync with their times. This would make the writing of history books a lot easier. Want to play the game of president swapping? Al"Protect the Earth" Gore should have been president in the early 1970s. LBJ should have been president just long enough to get the civil rights laws passed. Bush I should have been president during the height of the Cold War. Clinton should have been president before the media and prosecutors began investigating presidents' sex lives.

Which brings me to George W. Is he out of sync with the times? I have the feeling that he is, at least with regard to the environment. He seems reluctant to acknowledge that global warming is a significant concern. He thinks we should drill for oil in prime wilderness areas of Alaska. He thinks that the government should go easy on energy inefficient air conditioning manufacturers.

Polls suggest that the American people don't share his views. In a recent Gallup Poll Bush got his lowest marks on his handling of environmental issues. Just forty-one percent approve of his administration's record on the environment.

The administration's response to the poll and complaints from members of Congress was to launch a public relations campaign. Within the last week he announced that he would sign a treaty banning chemicals worldwide like DDT. EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman indicated that the administration would limit the amount of arsenic in drinking water. He used a White House setting to announce a routine decision to require companies that handle more than a hundred pounds of lead a year to tell the public how the metal is disposed.

Like Nixon, Bush doesn't really care about the environment. You can almost hear Bush repeating a comment Nixon made to John Ehrlichman,"Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues."

But if Bush is out of sync with the country on the environment, the question arises, on what issue is he in sync with the country? A hundred days into his presidency we don't know. Polls have consistently shown Americans don't favor his large tax cuts. The Congress doesn't like his plan for vouchers. Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson don't approve of his faith-based initiative.

If I had to write a short history of the Bush administration right now, I'd say that Bush is mainly in sync with corporate America. Bush as Calvin Coolidge. Maybe so. Only somebody should remind him, this isn't the 1920s.


April 13, 2001

MEMO TO GEORGE W.

This was a revealing week, wasn't it? You found out that the presidency is more difficult than it seemed. You also found out that it sure would have helped if you had spent more time at Yale studying foreign policy than playing frat tricks. If you had, you might have felt confident enough to pick up the hotline to China and work your magic on Jiang. No doubt he would have been harder to charm than the voters of Oshkosh, but we'll never know because you never tried.

More revealing was the reaction of your friends on the Right. Bill Kristol once worked for your father. But when you were on the hot seat and really in need of back up, Bill was all over television condemning you. Dick Cheney got in a good swipe over the weekend, calling Kristol's motives into question, suggesting that his attack was motivated by a desire to sell more copies of his magazine. I'll bet that felt good, though Cheney may come to regret it. (I'll bet Kristol is already figuring out how to get even with Dick.)

Whatever happened to politics stopping at the water's edge, right? Your critics on the Right didn't even wait for the crew to return before they started piling on.

To a guy like you who values loyalty above else, this must have been difficult to take. And after all you did for the Right the last few months: Killing standards on arsenic in drinking water. Pushing for oil drilling in Alaska. Even withdrawing the offer of the office of attorney general to your friend Marc Racicot because the Right wanted someone even more conservative.

Ouch!

A long list of Right-wingers is now making trouble. Pat Robertson has blasted the faith-based initiative, but you always had to worry about his loyalty despite his critical support in South Carolina against John McCain. In 1988 it was Robertson who led the Anybody But Bush movement against your dad in Michigan. Pat Buchanan of course dumped on you for your handling of China, but then he could be expected to challenge your leadership. You won, he lost in 2000! Morton Kondracke also condemned your China diplomacy, but he's a journalist and journalists can't ever be trusted.

But Kristol's opposition is what burns. Kristol, who was said to be Dan Quayle's brain, has been a Bush family supporter for years. And yet there he was on Fox News-your station!-ridiculing your policy as if this were your Munich and you were Chamberlain:"I really think it has been a very bad week for the United States of America," Kristol declared."When we started expressing regrets, we have gone down a path of national humiliation. We expressed regrets. The Chinese respond by slapping us in the face."

This kind of criticism was fun when it was directed at Bill Clinton. But not now.

So what happened? Because this is a history column, let me put the last twelve days in perspective.

You have come face to face with the real Rightwing of the Republican Party, folks who have been driving Republican presidents crazy for half a century. In the 1950s they were led by people like isolationist Senator John Bricker, author of the mindless Bricker Amendment, which was designed to take away the president's power to negotiate executive agreements. Ike was so furious at Bricker and like-minded isolationists that he seriously considered forming a third party.

Ronald Reagan got along well with the Rightwing his first term, but came under attack in the second term after he befriended Gorbachev. Nobody remembers this anymore because the Soviet Union soon imploded, vindicating Reagan's diplomacy. But at the time the president caught hell for his supposed softness toward the Soviets. You knew Reagan was in trouble with the Right because they started saying Nancy was to blame for the new direction in his policies.

Your father of course was always in trouble with the Right, even though he made so many compromises he once felt compelled to apologize to his minister for the positions he'd taken:"You know John I took some of the far right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it."

You thought you had inoculated yourself by kowtowing to the conservatives over the last two months. Forget it. No one is ever far right enough to satisfy the Rightwing. Soon they'll be calling you a liberal.

Because you have systematically alienated the liberals with your conservative agenda, you don't have much choice but to make peace with the conservatives. But now you know how your Republican predecessors felt. You might even one day come to agree with Richard Nixon, who complained,"There is only one thing as bad as a far left liberal and that's a damn rightwing conservative."


April 7, 2001

HIS FIRST TEST

I have a friend, a really smart guy, a Harvard Law School graduate, who has been telling me since December that it doesn't matter that George W. is wet behind the ears because he is surrounded by a lot of experienced advisors.

The question on my mind this week has been who, when the advisors gather, makes the decision about what to do. Is it the guy at the table who is the least well informed? That it probably is isn't reassuring.

This was always the flaw in the argument Bush supporters put forward in defense of their I-Don't-Know-Much Commander-in-Chief. At the moment of decision it would be Bush who would have to make the final call.

Bush this week has refused to say if he's consulted his father. We can only hope he has. But it's fascinating that #43 would think it's unbecoming to publicly acknowledge that #41 may be supplying needed advice. Isn't that what Americans expected would happen when they elected #43 to the presidency?

I am not really worried that W.'s inexperience will plunge us into a real crisis over the spy plane incident. Officials on both sides would really have to bungle matters for this diplomatic tempest to turn into a tornado.

But the crisis is useful in teaching us a lesson about the presidency. Even in a post Cold War world it's not for amateurs. It actually matters who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. A democracy that reaches the conclusion that it doesn't is a democracy that is bound to get into trouble.

In the Persian Gulf War, to pick a non-random example, President George Herbert Walker Bush was advised by James Baker, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney that the United States should tell Saddam not even to think about crossing the Saudi Arabian border. That was good sound advice. But what about Kuwait? About Kuwait they weren't sure. Powell in particular was aghast at the thought of sending American boys (and girls) to fight and die in a foreign war to rescue a sand kingdom run by rich oil sheiks.

So why did we finally decide to fight to expel Saddam from Kuwait? Because President Bush, acting alone, decided we should. Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned about the decision from television."This will not stand, this aggression of Kuwait" Bush told the public on August 5, 1990. It was his finest hour and the only public statement he made while in office that is worth remembering.

If you don't think it made a difference this week that our current commander in chief is inexperienced, ask yourself why he didn't pick up the hot line and speak to President Jiang Zemin personally? The only explanation that makes sense is that he didn't know what to say.

This incident may have sobered up the American public. Maybe the next time the voters have to decide whom to nominate for the presidency they won't think of turning to a tyro. We can all hope that at least the Republican Party elders who backed W. will learn that lesson.

The 1990s party is over. It's time to remember that the world is a dangerous place.

This seems plain common sense to me. But I am not sure W. has figured this out yet. That's scary. We need a president who is a little bit afraid of the world. Unfortunately, W. gives the impression that he isn't. At the least he should understand he's not really in control of events. Events will often control him.

When he figures that out we'll know he can be trusted to make the crisis decisions he alone has the responsibility of making from time to time.

Meanwhile, if he wants to call up his dad for advice, we should encourage him to do so. George, go ahead and make that call. We'll all sleep better.

While W. is on the phone, the rest of us can ponder an old saying of Richard Nixon's."I've always thought this country could run itself domestically without a President," Nixon commented the year before he ran for president the second time."All you need is a competent Cabinet to run the country at home. You need a President for foreign policy; no Secretary of State is really important; the President makes foreign policy."


March 27, 2001

W IS PROUD TO BE THE UN-BUSH BUSH

Our president is demonstrating a new-found love for history. According to a report in the NYT, he has been studying his father's mistakes and is determined not to repeat them. He will be the un-Bush Bush. He won't alienate Alan Greenspan. He won't freeze out the Christian right. And he won't, out of excessive loyalty, keep on ineffective aides like White House Chief of Staff John Sununu or Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady. His father bragged about kicking ass. This President Bush actually does it, as Linda Chavez learned. No surprise. Remember it was W. who gave Sununu his marching orders.

There's more. The NYT says W. won't focus exclusively on governing for three years as his father did; like Bill Clinton he plans on keeping the campaign going .. and going ... and going. Our second Energizer Bunny President. Indeed, W.'s out-Clintoning Clinton. In Bush's first two months in office he's spent a third of his time on the road, more than any other president in history (including Traveler-in-Chief Bill Clinton) for the corresponding period.

Deciding to avoid the mistakes of his father is undoubtedly a good move. But there are forty-one other presidents from whom W. could learn a thing or two. Their mistakes may be just as relevant.

From LBJ Bush could learn to stop garbling the truth as badly as he does the English language. As LBJ discovered, the truth eventually catches up with presidents. Bush, barely two months in office, has already told three whoppers. 1. He says that his tax cut will cost $1.6 trillion; actually, it's closer to $2.6 trillion. Bush is off by a mere trillion dollars or so. 2. He says his tax cuts will help stave off a recession. This is laughable. His proposal includes just $5.6 billion in tax relief this year; in a $10 trillion economy. 3. He insists he's a uniter not a divider. Tell that to the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who were rolled over by the Republican majority in a party line vote on tax cuts orchestrated by the White House.

From JFK Bush could learn the danger of trusting government experts. As JFK figured out after the Bay of Pigs crisis, presidents have to ask hard questions to be sure crackpot schemes don't get approved. This year's crackpot scheme is missile defense, which could cost us $60 billion. The experts are telling him its doable. He should make sure it really is before he risks a clash with both China and Russia over a system that has yet to shoot down a clay pigeon. After all it was experts just like the ones Bush is trusting now who told JFK we could topple Castro with a couple of thousand badly-trained Cuban refugees.

JFK also could teach Bush a little about the irony of toughness in foreign policy. Bush seems determined to show his toughness everywhere, from North Korea to Russia to China. We've been here before. JFK was so intent on proving he was a tough character that he needlessly alienated and humiliated Nikita Khrushchev, which led directly to the Cuban missile crisis. The year before the crisis Kennedy leaked to the media top-secret information that showed the United States held a dramatic edge over the Soviet Union in military weaponry. Khrushchev retaliated by slipping missiles into Cuba.

From Presidents Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis Bush could learn the dangers of pandering. They pandered to the leftwing of the Democratic Party. Bush panders to the rightwing of the Republican Party. He apparently thinks this will protect him from the kind of rightwing attacks that undermined his father's presidency. But it also makes him look weak. What lesson does he think Washington politicians learned when he dropped Montana Governor Marc Racicot for attorney general at the insistence of rightwing Christians eager to ensconce one of their own?

The chief lesson Jimmy Carter taught it's too late for W. to learn. Like Carter, Bush ran before he was ready for national politics. But nothing can be done about that now. Jr.'s there and that's it.

It's funny that W. seems to want to become known as the un-Bush. Americans would be happier with W. if he was more like his father, not less. I admit to being puzzled by W.'s stance. He must think his father was a failure. I think most Americans think his father was actually an ok president.

Compared with his son, Bush Sr. is looking better and better. While W. seems determined to become known as the Pollution President, for example, his father signed a major overhaul of the Clean Air Act and was proud to be known as the Environmental President. EPA head Christie Todd Whitman said the other day that we'll be surprised at what this administration will accomplish for the environment. Somehow I don't think so. Breaking his campaign promise to restrict carbon dioxide wasn't exactly a good omen after all.

W. should take a second look at the biographies that have been written about his father. What is Bush Sr. remembered for? It's not just for being a one-term president. He's also known for bucking industry and signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which took courage for a Republican. And though the rightwing hated him for agreeing to the budget deal of 1990 that raised taxes, that was one of the key turning points that led to the bountiful surpluses his son seems so eager now to squander on tax cuts for the rich.

Bushes have always had trouble figuring out how to dance with Christian right-wingers. Jr. has chosen to dance real close. Sr. left a little bit of room. I don't know about you, but I wish Jr. followed more closely in his father's footsteps.


March 19, 2001

CLINTON'S LEGACY

Pity Bill Clinton. Even his legacy of prosperity may now be in doubt. Should Wall Street tank everybody will be blaming Bill. Some already are. Fox's"The O'Reilly Factor" suggested this week that Clinton covered-up evidence that the markets were weakening a year ago in order to help Al Gore win the presidency. To clinch their case the Factor producers brought on Dean Baker, a pro-Nader economist, who a year ago had correctly predicted that stocks were highly overvalued and bound to fall steeply once the bubble economy had burst.

Unfortunately for the Fox producers, Dr. Baker did not agree that Clinton had been guilty of a cover-up. Another television moment ruined! But Fox was onto something. Shouldn't the president have drawn attention to the bubble and denounced it (as Fed chairman Greenspan had in 1996)? Isn't that what we pay presidents for? They get the big bucks to help save us from ourselves.

There are two possibilities here and neither of them reflects favorably on Bill Clinton. Either he knew this was a classic bubble and did nothing or he didn't know and he should have. I think in formal logic classes this is known as"Heads I win, tails you lose."

Unfair? Sure. But, to paraphrase John Kennedy, whoever said history is fair?

If you are one of those who always liked Bill Clinton and stuck with him during the Monicathing and are still inclined to defend him you may object that a president shouldn't be held accountable for events that come after his term and over which he probably had little control.

Tell that to Calvin Coolidge. During Silent Cal's years in office the economy churned along at the most rapid clip it ever had. Just like the 1990s, the 1920s was a period of unprecedented prosperity. Instead of the Internet, it was the automobile that was changing the American economy (with a hefty assist from an innovation in financing known as"buying on credit"). And just like in the 1990s, in the 1920s the stock market went crazy. Even people who didn't have a dime in the market were aware which stocks were up and which down. Following the stock market had become America's second national pastime.

Cal left the White House in March 1929. Nine months later came the crash. Guess what happened to Coolidge's reputation? Suddenly he didn't look so good.

If Bill Clinton's lucky the current cycle of doom and gloom will be brief and relatively painless. We'll get on with our lives and he'll get on with the building of his library. But if Wall Street crashes, Bill's reputation as Money-Leader-in-chief, will plummet like Coolidge's.

No, it's not fair. But as the old farmer's saying goes, If you take credit for the rain, you have to be willing to take the blame for the drought.



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Lenny Steinhorn - 6/8/2001

With all due respect to my colleague Rick Shenkman and his usually keen historical insights, he's off-base saying that "Nixon was the right president for the time in foreign policy." First, Nixon unnecessarily prolonged the Vietnam War, leaving more Americans and Southeast Asians dead than Lyndon Johnson. Second, he illegally bombed Cambodia, setting off a destabilizing chain reaction in that country that led to the Khmer Rouge takeover. Third, he overthrew a democratically elected government in Chile, apparently to soothe the concerns of ITT. And fourth, perhaps most damaging, he propped up the Shah of Iran and staked much of our Middle East and global strategy on his regime. To give Nixon his due, yes, he opened the door to China and sought detente with the Soviet Union, and as Rick Shenkman writes, "Only he probably could have" accomplished these goals. But that's probably because he didn't have Richard Nixon outside the White House red-baiting him for being soft on communism.

Professor Leonard Steinhorn
School of Communication
American University
History News Network Advisory Board Member

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