The president's cram session

August 19, 2002|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- President Bush tried to fix the economy before lunch last Tuesday.

He managed to last for 20 minutes each in four economic seminars at Baylor University. He dutifully scribbled some notes as participants talked, looking as happy as a high school kid in trig class, and bounded out of his chair when Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill told him he could be excused.

"Yes, well," a visibly relieved Mr. Bush said, jumping up after an exhausting 18 minutes in Economic Recovery and Job Creation, "that's the life of the president. Always has to go."

Or as the radical economist Groucho Marx once observed: "Hello, I must be going."

The seminars lasted only an hour and a half. But Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney divided the eight so as not to overly tax themselves.

By the final session, Mr. Bush was staring into space, finding the talk of stimulus unstimulating. As the president told one group: "I can assure that even though I won't be sitting through every single moment of the seminars -- nor will the vice president -- we will look at the summaries." The Cliffs Notes presidency.

Before wrapping up with chicken salad, key lime pie and "The Stars and Stripes Forever," he did some cheerleading.

"Even though times are kind of tough right now," Mr. Bush drawled, "we're America." As usual when he talks up the economy, the Dow dived under the bed, dropping 206 points.

He thanked all the "good folks" for "putting on a great show." Like his Dad, W. reads his stage directions. It was a "Message, I care" PR pageant, so why not just say so?

His father, accused of being out of touch on the economy, got in trouble for checking his watch twice during a debate with Bill Clinton. That's why W. didn't even wear a watch while debating Al Gore. But, perhaps because of his short attention span, the younger Mr. Bush always gives the impression of checking his watch.

Although it seemed that Mr. Bush wanted to go deeper into his job after Sept. 11, he's still riding the surface, treating photo ops like real events and passing off fortune-cookie comments as policy pronouncements.

This president's speed-dial economic summit was an interesting contrast with the last president's preening cult-of-personality economic summit a decade ago.

Mr. Bush, as always, seemed to be trying to get through the morning without saying anything that would expose him as empty-headed. He has a pathological fear of talking.

Bill Clinton has a pathological fear of not talking. He held a talkathon in Little Rock before he started his presidency -- also for self-serving PR reasons.

While Mr. Clinton wanted to convey concern about the economy he inherited from Bush pM-hre, he mostly wanted to show off his wonkishness. Putting on the glasses he had rarely worn during the campaign, the smartest kid in the class dominated the room for two long days without yawning once. (The vice president, dragged back from fishing in Wyoming to scurry around the Waco sessions with Mr. Bush, was caught on camera stifling yawns twice.)

While Mr. Clinton designed his summit to show that Democrats could be cozy with Big Business, Mr. Bush designed his summit to show that he is not too cozy with Big Business.

The Bush family used to sit outside the Clinton White House, stewing that Bill had besmirched the honor of the Oval Office that they held dear. Now the Clinton family sits outside the Bush White House, stewing that W. has besmirched the spectacular (but somewhat artificial) boom they held dear.

The Clintons would love to see Mr. Bush, lately of Harken Energy, endure his own equivalent of Kenneth Starr.

The scandalous condition of American capitalism has even provided Hillary Clinton with the political opening she needed. By insisting that the average American's financial well-being was better in Clinton times than Bush times, she is breaking ground for her presidential campaign in 2008. If she can wait that long.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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