By skipping fund-raiser, Bush picks up presidential points

October 26, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Some Republican politicos are grumbling because President Bush has gone back on his own word about the need to return to normal amid the war on terrorism.

Their beef is that he reneged on his promise to attend a million-dollar fund-raising dinner in his honor for the benefit of the Republican Governors Association, and told Vice President Dick Cheney to go in his place. Showing up for the swank affair certainly would have been business as usual for the leader of his party.

A White House spokesman, Dan Bartlett, broke the horrific news to expectant fat cats who had been offered a place in the "official presidential arrival party" and four tickets to a private reception, for a mere $100,000 each. He gave as the excuse, "President Bush just returned from China and is focusing on the war effort."

What the spokesman could have added but didn't was that Mr. Bush's attendance at the partisan political money-grabber would have risked sending the wrong message when nervous postal carriers here suddenly find themselves on the war's front lines as much as American troops in Afghanistan.

Not to mention how the Democrats, although they are no slouches themselves in the fund-raising racket, would have crucified him for hobnobbing with the rich in the midst of the scary anthrax crisis that has gripped the capital city.

The president's decision to be a no-show at this particular dinner probably won't embarrass the Democrats into staying off the fund-raising circuit themselves.

After all, the GOP dinner itself wasn't canceled.

But passing it up may help in a small way to elevate Bush's stature with Americans who pay attention to presidential behavior in times of crisis.

The fact is that putting politics on the back burner in such times usually rebounds to a president's political benefit.

In the midst of the American hostage crisis in Iran in late 1979, President Jimmy Carter, facing renomination challenges from Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown, also canceled an appearance at a political dinner in his honor. "At the height of the Civil War," he solemnly intoned in explanation, "Abraham Lincoln said, `I have but one task and that is to save the Union.' Now I must devote my considered efforts to resolving the Iranian crisis."

Mr. Carter also canceled a debate in Iowa with Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Brown and adopted a Rose Garden strategy that did him no harm with the voters.

He went on to win the Iowa caucuses handily on his way to renomination.

It remains to be seen whether President Bush is swearing off all such politically partisan activities for the duration of the war on terrorism, which presumably will continue to hold his focus until it's over. His own forecast that it will last a couple of years or more could deny his party its best money magnet, especially at a time his popularity has climbed through the roof.

If he wanted to, Mr. Bush could trump this little gesture by suddenly throwing his weight behind the pending legislation that seeks in a modest way to clean up money in politics. He and his party seem happy to see the bipartisan campaign finance reform bill languish on grounds that it has to be put on hold while the battle against terrorism grinds on.

But that is probably too much to expect from a politician who showed no real interest in such reform before the disasters of Sept. 11. It is enough for now that he has demonstrated, reportedly against the advice of key political advisers, a sensitivity to the spectacle of peddling his presence to party influence-buyers at this particular time.

It is somewhat comforting at least to know that Mr. Cheney has not gotten so big for his britches as the widely perceived hands-on manager of the war effort, not to say the whole country, that he can't be assigned the occasional mundane task of lesser vice presidents of the past.

Considering the Cheney buildup, and the administration's policy of hiding him for days at a time, it may be that many of the dinner's fat cats don't rate the Cheney-for-Bush substitution that much of a letdown. In any event, the president deserves a few brownie points for acting in this isolated, insignificant episode as -- dare I say it? -- presidential.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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