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Presidency: Memo to George W.

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!