Washington is still aghast at how a presumed Bush team player can, by one dramatic action, expose the sham of an administration's supposedly invincible people skills and the unfairness of its policies. But such indeed has been the coup — a "coup of one," as Trent Lott might say — pulled off by Jenna Bush.
Had George W. Bush conducted a charm offensive when his daughter was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy at Christmas — rather than fleeing for golf in Boca Grande, Fla. — would she be in open revolt now? By engaging in two underage-drinking ruses in one month — a "crime" likely committed by more college students than not — Jenna Bush has made herself into the No. 1 poster child for the lack of compassion in her father's conservatism. It's Mr. Bush who signed the 1997 three-strikes, "zero tolerance" Texas law that now puts her a margarita away from serving 180 days in jail.
The press has spent a ton of time debating whether the travails of the Bush daughters are news. Surely they're as worthy of the cover of People magazine as James Jeffords is of Newsweek. If anything, the Jenna story is a confirmation of the Jeffords. A White House that has been relentlessly marketed as a model of Fortune 500 efficiency and backslapping bonhomie turns out to have minimal intelligence about the whereabouts of its own party members, let alone the first children.
Shouldn't Mr. Jeffords have been kept in tow by all those goofy, loyalty-inducing presidential nicknames we kept hearing about? Guess he didn't have one — unless it was "Quirky," the word invoked by the Bush handlers Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes to belittle the senator once he was out the door. On TV, Ms. Hughes has tried to argue that the Jeffords defection was utterly anomalous because President Bush has "met with record numbers of members of Congress, more than any modern president." But besides being both unlikely (according to historians) and unverifiable (according to the statistics available at the J.F.K. and F.D.R. presidential libraries), her claim is also irrelevant. Quality matters, not quantity. However many meetings there were, the ones that might matter most — with Mr. Jeffords, John McCain, Tom Daschle and Lincoln Chafee — were hastily moved to the top of the president's dance card only in the past two weeks, after it became clear the Senate was already lost.
The political incompetence that led to Mr. Jeffords's defection hardly squares with the prevailing Beltway view of the Bush White House during its first 100 days. That view, as usual, is best articulated by Washington's Dean, the pundit David Broder, who in February gave the new administration high grades for having "a cabinet of C.E.O.'s, made up mainly of men and women who have run large enterprises." But of course it's exactly the C.E.O.-itis exemplified by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul O'Neill that led the administration to be blindsided, taking the Jeffords rebellion seriously only days after it had been reported by such obscure news outlets as CNN. As one veteran of past administrations and the corporate world puts it: "C.E.O.'s are used to flying their own planes, seeing only their own subordinates and being accountable to no one. They are profoundly certain of their own value system. They have contempt for the public and the press. They have none of the accountability required of a president of the United States."
Such arrogance is the real story of this White House thus far. The administration proceeds on the belief that no one would possibly question its wisdom and that anything can be sold with the proper marketing strategy and enough repetition of an unvarying script. If the president is known for "reaching out" and "building bridges," as we're constantly told, it must be so, even if the Jeffords fiasco proves it wildly false. If he says it's possible to have a huge tax cut while building a missile shield and without dipping into the Social Security and Medicare piggy banks, it must be so, even if the numbers don't remotely add up. So goes this cognitive-dissonance presidency.
Perhaps it's the ease with which the White House walked over the Democrats on the way to the tax cut that has accelerated this brand of subterfuge. These days, with impressive brazenness, almost every Bush photo op belies what his administration is actually up to.
- In a five-day period the president appeared at two national parks, Sequoia and the Everglades, dressed in more earth tones than Al Gore at his most craven. The message, of course, is that Mr. Bush likes hugging trees almost as much as he does African-American schoolchildren. But in fact his environmental record remains unchanged. He shows no signs of opposing drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast (though even his brother is against it) or of opposing the development of a commercial airport not far from the Everglades' border. The National Parks Conservation Association gives his record a D thus far, noting that his modest increase in the parks budget is more for buildings and roads than for preserving nature.
- In his commencement address at Notre Dame, among other religious venues, Mr. Bush has repeatedly praised the power of faith-based charities. But according to The Washington Post, the administration very quietly stopped pushing its promised boon to charities in the tax bill: a deduction for charitable contributions for those taxpayers who don't itemize on their returns. Not only did the White House let that provision die to preserve its main goal, a top-heavy reduction of tax rates, but in fighting for an end to the estate tax it has also eliminated an added incentive for the wealthy to donate to charity.
- In Philadelphia in mid-May, Mr. Bush posed in front of a sea of police officers to push a plan to hire more prosecutors to enforce existing gun laws. But three days later Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote a letter to the National Rifle Association endorsing an interpretation of the Second Amendment that could in fact gut existing gun laws. Some of those cops standing behind the president may also be gutted, for in its budget the administration has asked for a 17 percent decrease in COPS, the federal program that provides money for police salaries.
- Mr. Bush has repeatedly visited various Boys and Girls Clubs, touting them as an example of how the government can "facilitate programs" for kids and promote "the universal concept of loving a neighbor." In his budget, federal money for Boys and Girls Clubs is eliminated entirely.
Even the first lady has been enlisted in these bait-and-switch shenanigans. Laura Bush appeared at a Washington public library in April to kick off "the Campaign for America's Libraries" — just one week before her husband's budget cut the federal outlay for libraries by $39 million.
Photo ops are nothing new in the modern American presidency, but didn't they use to occasionally dramatize a president's policies rather than disguise them? It's now reaching the point that a smiling Bush appearance blessing any cause, program or habitat is tantamount to a visit from the angel of death.
Once Senator Jeffords blew the whistle on the White House's invincibility, the Beltway establishment started to get at least some of this picture; the Dean, for one, declared that "almost overnight" the president had been transformed from an "aspiring Ronald Reagan" to a potential failure. But in truth Mr. Bush hasn't changed, it's just the Washington perception of him that has. And the country, as usual, is ahead of the capital. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows the president's approval rating sinking to a mediocre 55 percent — even with rebate checks on the way. The two- point spread favoring Democratic policies over Republican mimics the election spread between the combined Gore-Nader vote and the G.O.P. ticket last fall.
Even Mr. Bush's vow to "change the tone" and be a "uniter, not a divider" is no longer standing up to scrutiny. With Mr. Lott declaring "war" on the Democrats, William Bennett calling John McCain a "crybaby," Larry Craig, an administration ally in the Senate, labeling Republican moderates as "weak sisters," and Mr. Jeffords driven to enlisting bodyguards, it's hard to imagine how the tone could get much worse. Against a backdrop of Republican "civility" this rancorous, a Democrat as partisan as Tom Daschle starts to look like Gandhi.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company