Bush administration, the sequel

Deja vu: The president-elect is assembling a familiar cast of characters.

January 07, 2001|By Doug J. Swanson

THE SCENARIO for an international crisis: Saddam Hussein is threatening war in the Middle East. President Bush, a Yale graduate who nonetheless struggles with his syntax, gathers his advisers in the Oval Office. At his side stand Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card. And on the phone, James Baker.

What year is it? And which President Bush?

With his initial personnel selections, George W. Bush has assembled a cast that played a major role in his father's White House. After two terms of Bill Clinton, the Republicans are partying as if it were 1991.

Baker, who was secretary of state for Bush No. 1, was called in last month by Bush No. 2 to be his front man in the Florida vote imbroglio. Once that was settled, the younger Bush began announcing his administrative team.

His first three choices - Powell for secretary of state, Rice as national security adviser and Card as chief of staff - all had positions in the first Bush administration, as did Vice President-elect Cheney.

In the wings are said to be dozens of second-tier Bush No. 1 advisers ready to appear in the sequel.

That's good, said Chase Untermeyer, who was director of presidential personnel for the first President Bush. "It would be risky not to have skilled hands at this juncture," he said. "George W. Bush is able to go back and get some pretty top talent."

While the son may have his own unique gifts, he does not possess, upon entering office, the equal of his father's resume.

"The people with experience will be very helpful to him," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican.

Democrats, still mourning the election results, are finding humor where they can.

"I never thought Bush was an environmentalist, but he's big on recycling," said Paul Begala, former Clinton adviser. "Powell worked for the first President Bush. Cheney worked for Gerald Ford. I guess they couldn't find anybody who worked for Herbert Hoover."

Begala was quick to add that he deeply admires Powell - " a national treasure" - as well as Rice and Card. "They're all terrific people," he said. But they are, he added, veterans of an administration that was cast out by voters in 1992. "The last Bush presidency, God bless him, was a failed presidency," Begala said.

Newly elected presidents hope their initial appointments set a tone for their terms. Sometimes that means signaling a break with the past.

For example, "Clinton was very cognizant of not simply bringing back Jimmy Carter's people," Begala said.

But introducing fresh faces may have its own problems, as Clinton found out with Zoe Baird, whose nomination for attorney general collapsed with revelations that she had failed to pay Social Security taxes for her nanny.

The appointment of those who previously have been in public life carries an advantage, Untermeyer said. Those individuals already have undergone the government screening and public scrutiny that new Cabinet members face. That's no guarantee of a free pass, however. The first President Bush nominated Sen. John Tower of Texas to be his secretary of defense, but the Senate rejected him after allegations that he chased women and drank too much.

Some analysts have seen Bush's selection of Cheney, Powell and Rice as a way of shoring up his lack of experience in foreign policy. All three were involved in international matters in the first Bush administration.

But capable advisers can only do so much.

"Everyone including George Bush hopes the first international crisis will come in the third year instead of the third month, because he does have a learning curve," said Calvin Jillson, chairman of the Southern Methodist University political science department.

Some opinion-peddlers also have begun wondering in print and on the airwaves whether President-elect Bush will do enough early on to demonstrate that his administration is more than a replica of his father's. Martin Anderson, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, said there should be no such worry.

"My experience is based on literally hundreds of hours with him," said Anderson, who advised the younger Mr. Bush on economic matters during the campaign. "I had spent a lot of time with his father. I didn't see any similarity at all."

While his father took over as the political heir of hugely popular Ronald Reagan, the current president-elect - entering office by the thinnest of electoral margins - has no such advantage. Additionally, he must appease the hard conservatives of his own party, said George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M.

"There will be pressures on him that he's been able to avoid so far," Edwards said. "You've got the right-wing there that you've got to deal with somehow."

Bush's vaunted talents as a "uniter, not a divider" will be tested, he said. "It's going to be a very difficult time to govern. In a highly polarized situation, it doesn't hurt to be inclusive and conciliatory."

George Christian of Austin, former press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, said he expects the president-elect to embrace Republicans and Democrats.

"If Bush does what he did here in Texas, he will start reaching out to members of Congress well before he takes office. I suspect that'll be true for both parties."

Other chief executives have tried to strike a cooperative note from the beginning.

"We need harmony. We've had a chorus of discordant voices," one said. "Our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other. A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again."

That was the first President Bush, speaking at his inauguration almost 12 years ago.

Doug J. Swanson is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, where this article first appeared.

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