WASHINGTON — Yellow ribbons. Energy crisis. Economic yips. The president shrinking into a tiny little figure in political cartoons.
We're not getting Bush II. We're getting Carter II. All we need is the Killer Rabbit. And that is not where you want to be at the beginning of your presidency.
This is supposed to be a business- friendly, Harvard M.B.A. administration, but every time W. opens his mouth the markets tumble.
The White House had to wait until 4 p.m., when the markets closed, to let the president come out to the Rose Garden and start talking tough to China. Those little red Nasdaq and Dow numbers diving next to W.'s mouth moving would have undermined the image of American strength.
"The only issue now is whether his statements will drive down the Japanese markets," said one member of Bush II.
The only time W. has any luck with numbers is when it comes to counting and recounting the vote in Florida.
An already retro administration became even more vintage yesterday, with our spy plane "detained" in Communist territory. First we get in a tussle with Russia. Now China. Let's get out the yellow paint and start touching up those fallout shelter signs.
During the campaign, W. vowed, "We'll have a foreign policy that is humble." Humble is fine. But humbled is not so fine.
W. was green when he ran. But he promised to surround himself with gray. His inner circle — Cheney, Rummy, Condi and Colin — was supposed to offer a couple of hundred years of combined experience in government.
After the adolescent Clinton era, the grown-ups were back in charge.
So why has this crowd made all of us — including the rest of the world — so nervous?
Because, as a top foreign policy official in Bush I told me, they are too belligerent, too conservative, too blunt, too negative and too improvisational in dealing with the globe on everything from missile defense to Kyoto.
Alluding to the "Grumpy Old Men" foreign policy of Dick & Rummy as they advise the Tyro in Chief on how to handle Russia, China, Taiwan, Korea and the Middle East, an editorial in a leading German paper recently dubbed the new American president "Bully Bush." You know you're in trouble when the Germans complain you are too bellicose.
Even though his administration has been arrogant, W. still seems tentative when he ventures out to draw a line in the sand.
"You're never quite sure," somebody in the administration conceded, "if those papers in front of W. blew away in the wind, if he would know what to say."
If W. has to be supervised by officials who are in loco parentis, I would prefer the real parents. At least George Bush senior is not a wingnut, and at least he was a diplomat in China.
When Bill Clinton was president, he was always plunging into personal chaos.
His management style was a mess. He ran a college-dorm White House. Meetings did not start on time. He pulled all-nighters. There were endless debates and endless greasy pizza deliveries. His private life was always exploding.
But outside his twister, things were palmy in the country and the markets.
W. is in a genial bubble. But outside his inner peace, the world looks more and more like a twister. He's taking naps and knocking off early while the rest of us are getting jittery and losing sleep.
The Bush organization men start every meeting on time and end every meeting on time. They have a ban on beepers and cell phones during press conferences, and a ban on sloppy clothes.
But everything outside the smoothly running White House is not smooth.
Seventy-five days into the Bush regime and I'm a wreck. I'm afraid to drink the water. I'm afraid to breathe the air. I'm afraid glaciers will melt and seas will rise. I'm afraid to visit California in the dark. I'm afraid the Dow will dip below 5,000. I'm afraid Russia will take leave of its senses. I'm afraid China will take leave of its senses. I'm afraid North Korea will lob a missile our way.
At the rate things are reeling backward, soon I'll be fearing fear itself.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company