7 Myths About George W. Bush

The president has managed to refute many of the assumptions made about him before and after he entered the Oval Office.

April 21, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

THE Democratic presidential hopefuls are already scrapping for a chance to take on George W. Bush in 2004. They all are operating on the assumption that Bush, like his father, is destined to be a one-term president.

Yes, Bush's poll numbers are slowly drifting down from last fall's meteoric levels. But his vulnerability might be a mirage.

If so, it will join at least six other assumptions about him that proved to be myths. It turns out that the politician who burst into the American consciousness in the last presidential campaign is not the person many people made him out to be.

Myth One, perhaps the most durable, is that Bush lacks smarts. In certain circles, he will always be regarded with condescension. Bush obviously bears more than a little responsibility for the persistent questions about his intelligence. His tendency to mangle his syntax when he speaks doesn't help. Nor have his efforts at self-deprecating humor, such as advertising himself as living proof that a C stud- ent could grow up to be president.

Those who have known him or engaged him for extended periods attest to his intelligence and praise his instinctive judgment. He's no genius, but not a dunce, either.

Besides, as historian Fred Greenstein has pointed out, a review of presidents during the past 75 years suggests the limits of intelligence. A highly intelligent chief executive with character flaws or other failings is likely to end up with a diminished presidency, as did Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Myth Two is Bush's accidental presidency. Legal scholars will debate for years the Supreme Court's actions in resolving the 2000 election, and for good reason. But subsequent recounts of disputed Florida ballots by a consortium of news organizations have failed to provide conclusive proof that Al Gore won Florida. To the contrary, Bush still would have won if the recount ordered by the Florida court had not been stopped by the Supreme Court, the consortium found.

Myth Three is that Bush came to Washington determined to do away with gridlock. In the campaign, Bush seized on the public's desire to end the raw partisanship of the Clinton era (much of which came from the Republican side). Since taking office, however, he has done little to reach out. Any cooperation with Democrats has been largely symbolic, other than his mutually beneficial dealings with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on education.

For a brief time after Sept. 11, true bipartisanship existed, as both parties helped pull the nation through a period of enormous shock. But those good feelings were the exception that proved the rule. Except for the war on terrorism, bipartisanship won't be back.

Myth Four is one reason why. Bush's aides have promoted the idea that he is focused like a laser on fighting terror. Like the other myths, this one has more than a grain of truth. The campaign against terrorism has redefined Bush from a tax-cutter to a wartime chief executive. Who would have predicted that the man who didn't know the name of the president of Pakistan during the campaign would be transformed into a foreign-policy president?

But Bush is also a fierce partisan and is devoting considerable time and energy to politics. There is growing evidence that he is the most political president of recent times. He has never really stopped campaigning, except for a relatively brief stretch after Sept. 11. And, according to one recent calculation, he is surpassing Clinton as a political fund-raiser and in the number of political events he has attended at this stage in his presidency. Not incidentally, many of the states he is visiting to help other Republican candidates are also essential to his re-election. Any president elected by the skin of his teeth would be foolish to ignore the electoral map, and when it comes to politics, George W. is nobody's fool.

Compared with Reagan

Myth Five is that Bush is another Ronald Reagan. This idea, quietly but aggressively pushed by Bush's advisers to mollify the conservative base, largely revolves around superficial similarities between the two. Like Reagan, Bush seems to find solitude and strength at the ranch. There, aides say, he enjoys clearing brush, which just happened to be Reagan's favorite chore.

Like Reagan, Bush is hooked on Camp David as an escape from the pressures of Washington. As in the Reagan era, the presidential work week often ends early, at around 3:30 on Friday afternoons, when Bush's helicopter lifts off from the White House lawn bound for Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.

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