Bush lacks experience, but the name rings a bell

Campaign: If he didn't have the famous family handle to lean on, George W. might be just another president wannabe.

August 15, 1999|By Richard Shenkman

GEORGE W. BUSH is the Eliza Doolittle of American politics. He isn't ready to be president, but with the coaching of a couple of dozen would-be Professor Higginses, he probably can learn to talk like one.

You have to admire the man's chutzpah. It takes chutzpah to put yourself forward as a candidate for the presidency after serving just a single term as governor of a state in which the lieutenant governor is the real power. (The lieutenant governor in Texas runs the legislature.)

Ah, but this governor has a famous last name. That is said to make up for the thinness of his resume. There is a nice irony to the rise of George W. Although he owes his emergence as a serious contender to his father, the father was strong in precisely the area in which the son is weak. Bush pere was one of the most qualified people ever to run for the office. His chief claim on the office was that he knew everybody, had been everywhere and done everything, having served as chairman of the Republican Party, director of the CIA, ambassador to the United Nations, chief emissary to China and vice president.

The younger Bush, on the other hand, is one of the least qualified seekers of the White House. Although he wishes to be judged by who he is and not who his father is, it is the father's attainment of the presidency that gives the son a claim on the office.

They do this kind of thing in business all the time. Chairman Pop sees to it that Junior succeeds him, though Junior, standing on his own, wouldn't have a shot. In politics, however, it's a little out of the ordinary. You hear from Republicans that we need to make the government more like business. Maybe this is what they mean. But it is not the way things are supposed to be done in the United States, if you believe your civics lessons.

If George W. Bush is elected president, he would be the least politically tested person elected president since Grover Cleveland, who in three short years went from mayor of Buffalo to governor of New York to president of the United States.

Before Cleveland's single year as mayor, he had served in only one office, that of Erie County sheriff. He made a name for himself by hanging two criminals. The country turned to Cleveland as an act of desperation. The rank politicians who had been running things had become so tainted that almost anybody else seemed preferable.

Faced with a choice between Cleveland, a honest candidate who candidly acknowledges that his private life was imperfect (he confessed to siring a child out of wedlock), and an opponent who'd been accused of corruption, the voters sensibly chose Cleveland.

Like Cleveland, Bush seems to be a needed fresh face, with the added advantage that his last name gives voters the assurance of continuity. Elect George W., we are sure to be led to believe, and we can have our cake and eat it, too: change, with none of the uneasiness that usually comes with change. It's like getting the French Revolution without the king's head being chopped off. But can he do the job?

Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, happened to perform admirably, courageously attacking the military pension mess and currency reform, though in the process he split his party, ushering in a generation of Republican presidents.

But what of other presidents relatively new to politics? There have been a half-dozen. Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower are regarded by historians as successes, though perhaps neither should be considered political tyros. Wilson had served briefly as governor of New Jersey and ran Princeton University for nearly a decade. Before that, he had taught politics, becoming one of the first Americans to earn a doctorate in political science.

Ike had served in highly stressful positions in the Army, where he'd had to demonstrate political skills of the highest order.

The others -- William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter -- were largely ineffectual.

As for George W. Bush, his mistakes aren't encouraging. He has called the Greeks "Grecians" and the Kosovars "Kosovarians," and has confused Slovenia with Slovakia. His father never would have made these errors.

In January 1932, in one of the great blunders in the history off punditry, columnist Walter Lippmann sneered that Franklin Roosevelt, then the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."

At the risk of repeating Lippmann's mistake, one could say the same of George W. Bush. But the risk is limited. Not even his friends think George W. is another FDR.

Historian Richard Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power and Got Things Done."

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