Swearing-in completes phenomenal Bush ascent

Connections, charm and self-discipline put Texan in White House

January 20, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Today, George W. Bush becomes the most powerful man on the planet. But eight years ago, when his parents handed over the White House to the Clintons, he was living in another world.

Bush was focused like a laser beam on that week's Houston marathon (he ran it in a creditable 3 3/4 hours). The only national office he was rumored to be in line for was baseball commissioner.

At the time, Bush was part-owner and front man for the Texas Rangers baseball team. He had yet to win election at any level.

Propelled by family connections, a winning personality and an underrated capacity for self-discipline, he will complete his phenomenal ascent this afternoon on the west steps of the Capitol, when he is sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States.

But, as the 54-year-old Texan raises his right hand, the biggest questions won't be about how he got there. They'll be about how far he has to go.

"I think he's awed by the job. He's a man who's had enormous respect and love for his father all his life, and here he's getting into the same job," says Ken Khachigian, a veteran of Republican administrations who advised Bush's campaign. "It's an awesome job for anyone. I think it's going to be a while before he settles."

The toughest challenge Bush will confront is unknown. His father's greatest success was winning the Persian Gulf war, which no one foresaw the day he took office.

But the settling-in period will test Bush's ability to bridge the partisan chasm in Washington, a feat he pledged to accomplish in his campaign and a necessity if he is to become an effective president.

Foreign policy novice

Though he worked as an unofficial adviser in his father's administration, Bush has never held a government job in the nation's capital. He is a foreign policy novice.

So, too, were ex-governors Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when they moved into the Oval Office. But none of them had to deal with doubts about the legitimacy of his presidency, which Bush will be reminded of today by demonstrators shouting "Hail to the Thief."

The breathtaking swiftness of his rise to power, plus gnawing suspicions about the depth of his intellect - fanned by the news media's fascination with what Bush calls "my mangled syntax" and exaggerated by TV's politically-minded comics - have only added to the doubts the new president must overcome.

Bush is compensating by projecting an image of upbeat self-confidence. "I'm anxious to start making decisions," he says.

Advisers point to the way Bush wasted no time in dumping Linda Chavez, his first choice for labor secretary, as evidence of his decisiveness. Others, however, wonder how he will do when faced with conflicting advice on one of the many high-level issues with which he is unfamiliar.

But if the sheer force of affable charm can make the difference between a successful presidency and a failed one - and Bush will try to prove that it can - he could wind up surprising the skeptics.

"He has very good personal skills. He's got a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy. He's a very kind, decent, generous person, and people like him," says Reggie Bashur, a Republican strategist who worked for Bush as governor.

More tools at his disposal

A tactile politician in the Lyndon Johnson mold, Bush was adept at stroking state legislators to advance his agenda as governor. He would prowl the Texas Capitol, buttonholing lawmakers in hallways or meeting them individually or in small groups in his office or over breakfast or lunch.

Bush complains his style might become cramped, because "presidents don't move very freely." But he will have at his disposal tools he never had before. Even the most hard-bitten members of Congress have been known to swoon when the incomparable perquisites of the presidency - from a late-afternoon drink at the White House to a weekend at Camp David or a seat in a private box at the Kennedy Center or aboard Air Force One - are brought to bear.

The rookie in the Oval Office has also assembled the strongest government team in decades. He has loaded his administration with all-stars from the past four Republican White Houses, plus a smattering of newcomers from around the country and his cadre of loyal advisers from Texas.

Heading his kitchen Cabinet is his father, whose advice the new president will continue to draw upon. Among the moves the elder Bush urged his son to make was naming Dick Cheney as his running mate.

Cheney is predicted to become the most influential presidential adviser in years and the most powerful vice president ever. But Cheney's success in recruiting several former colleagues for top Cabinet jobs also reinforced doubts about the degree to which Bush will be in charge of his administration.

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