Published on Monday, July 9, 2001 in the Independent / UK
Weekend in Kennebunkport
Another Bush Presidency Gets Lost in the Rough
'Here he was living up to the image he tried so hard to banish: a devil-may-care ignoramus from the privilegentsia '
by Mary Dejevsky
What good, healthy fun they were having at the Bush family estate in Maine this weekend! Boating and golf and fishing and hiking were followed by more golf and more fishing, and a cracking good time was had by all. And on Friday evening, a small dinner party only close friends and family was held to celebrate George's 55th birthday.
Just an ordinary American family enjoying a well-deserved holiday was the calculated message conveyed by the television pictures. All right, the Bushes are not quite so ordinary: George Jr sported a baseball cap with the number 43 on it 43rd president, get it? given to him by his dad and George Sr had one with 41 on it, and they all wore the rumpled khaki and polo-shirt uniform of the northeastern aristocracy at play. But you had to give them marks for populist effort. Of all these happy family scenes, though, one lingered in the mind.
There was the President of the United States, the man who declared that he would "restore honor and dignity" to the White House after the Clinton scandals, lounging back in an electric golf cart in his preppy "casual wear", with a shadow of a smirk back on his face, and answering questions about a telephone conversation he had had that morning with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
Now maybe the camera angle was not kind, but here was Mr Bush living up to the image he tried so hard to banish during the election campaign and the first two months of his presidency: a devil-may-care ignoramus from the privilegentsia. That video-clip of the President, less than six months into his term, summed up much that has gone wrong for him in that short time. There is often a vacancy about his expression, an unseemly casualness about his demeanor, a complacency about his judgment that seems unwarranted even in a man who has attained the pinnacle of US power and the maturity of his 56th year.
In contrast to Bill Clinton, he does not even look as though he is enjoying the experience much. He has aged by the day, but without acquiring either the personal gravitas or national let alone international stature, that would merit the description "presidential". Of all the complaints heard in the country at large, rather than from Washington pundits, this is the most telling. Bush the younger seems a nice enough guy, people say but a president? That has yet to be proved.
This was the first time that Mr Bush had visited the senior Bushes at Kennebunkport since his slender, court-effected victory last December. And one of the reasons it took so long, it was whispered in Washington, was the contrast that would inevitably be drawn between the two president Bushes. Bush Sr was a liability to his son at joint appearances on the campaign trail because he seemed to diminish him, and he soon kept a low-to-vanishing profile. There was a brief family reunion in Florida shortly before Mr Bush took office, and an emotional father-son tour of the Oval office on inauguration day, but contacts between them since the inauguration have been kept ultra-discreet.
George Bush Sr advised his son indirectly during the stand-off with China over the spy plane in April, yanking him back from the uncompromising line he had taken at the outset. His hand is also seen in his son's succession of foreign policy U-turns: his decision to deal with North Korea, despite professing skepticism about its good faith; his decision to meet President Putin and revive relations with Russia as a priority, and the recent brief attempt at re-engagement in the Middle East. In each case, a characteristically George Bush Sr type of pragmatism prevailed over the more ideological stance taken by his son. But in none of these examples was George Bush Sr's involvement ever even hinted at in official accounts.
Now, with George Jr's presidency suddenly besieged from all sides, it is hard to believe that the presidents Bush present and past did not find time during their golfing and fishing for a heart-to-heart about the complexities of executive office.
Consider George Jr's plight. For almost three months, he seemed to lead a charmed life. He or rather, his vice-president, Dick Cheney oversaw one of the smoothest transitions ever; his cabinet nominations, with one swiftly abandoned exception, gained Senate approval. His tax cuts swept through both houses of Congress in record time trimmed, but still recognizable. He, or Mr Cheney, played a Republican-majority Congress like a master.
Even as the tax cuts were passed, however, the Republicans lost their bare majority in the Senate, thanks to the defection of a New England Republican, James Jeffords, who became an independent. With control of the Senate went control of the legislative agenda and timetable, control of the committees and the iron discipline that the White House had exerted on Congressional Republicans. From then on, nothing seemed to go right.
Mr Bush's legislative agenda, including his diluted education bill, is now stalled. Even some promised tax cuts may be delayed because of new budgetary concerns; the once-booming stock market is flat, or falling. He also risks alienating public opinion if he carries out his threat to veto a popular bill that allows aggrieved patients to sue health organizations for denial of treatment.
Worse, perhaps, some of his hugely experienced and trusted lieutenants seem, if not out of their depth, then out of date and poorly attuned to current public concerns, whether on the environment, energy policy, military reform or missile defense. The defense. and treasury secretaries millionaire former chief executives both are testy with Congress and evince scarcely disguised frustration at the constraints on their power.
The strength of opinion on the environment, including among Republicans, has taken the White House by surprise, and forced another retreat: this time on oil-drilling off Florida. "Where have these environmental Republicans sprung from?" one senior official asked in an unguarded moment.
Mr Bush has faced other unwelcome distractions. First, his twin daughters, visibly chafing at the diminution of their privacy, were fined for underage drinking. Then his Vice-President went into hospital for the third time since the election to have a pacemaker fitted for his suspect heart. Every subsequent public appearance by Mr Cheney who was back at his desk less than two days after his operation is a reminder of the administration's fragility.
At present, Mr Bush finds himself in much the same predicament as his father once was: needing both the right and the center to govern, but unable to please both at once. The father had the experience and the breadth the job called for, but lacked the popular touch that could have garnered him votes from both: he seemed arrogant and remote. The son has some of the personal charm that his father lacked, but, at least so far, has shown little of his father's substance. And even his charm is not always of the accessible kind, though his staged contacts with "ordinary people" have multiplied strikingly in the past week.
This coming weekend, Mr Bush will again be at a country estate, this time with Tony Blair at Chequers on the eve of the G8 summit in Genoa. As with his previous European visit a training trip around safe, second-tier countries, as his aides all but admitted when it was over all potential gaffes will have been drummed out of him. But that will not prevent his critics at home from poring over every word and nuance for signs of the political shift to his father's center ground that some hope, and others fear, will relaunch his presidency.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd