October 31, 2005
George Bush: You're No Ronald Reagan

By Richard Reeves

He had retired from the Senate, one of the best-liked and respected men in the country, and was practicing law and preparing to run for the Republican nomination for president in 1988. A call came asking him to come to the White House. He was walking toward the Oval Office when he saw the president, Ronald Reagan, standing alone in the darkened hallway. "Howard," said Reagan, "I need you ..."

That was during the first week of March 1987. The Reagan administration looked to be an eight-year drama with a six-year script. It was falling apart. Investigations of the president's secret approval of arms sales to Iran in return for releasing American hostages in Beirut had taken a strange turn. It seemed that profits from the sales were being used to illegally supply American-backed guerrillas, the "contras," who were trying to overthrow the left-wing government of Nicaragua. The president's approval rating had dropped by 26 percent in just two weeks; a majority of poll respondents believed he was lying about what he knew and when he knew it.

Reagan asked Baker to take over as White House chief of staff, replacing Don Regan, who did not know yet that he was being fired. When the ship of state is leaking and sinking, people have to be thrown overboard -- this time it was Regan. When Baker came to the job, Regan's men and others in the White House told him he should begin by studying the 25th Amendment, particularly the provisions for forcing out a president for reasons of health, physical and mental.

With a new staff, a new audience, Reagan did just fine. Against all conservative advice, he saved his presidency by making a deal with an adversary, a desperate communist leader trying to save his country from decades of its own mistakes. Communism was in a lot more trouble than Ronald Reagan, and the American president and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union found a way to personally trust each other -- and they changed the world. Reagan left office a hero, with the highest approval levels ever for a retiring president.

From the beginning, George W. Bush modeled his presidency after Reagan's, beginning with an almost day-to-day replay of Reagan's 1981 campaign to cut income taxes. On Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush-Reagan analogy became much stronger, with the fear and loathing of terrorism replacing the fear and loathing of communism that drove Reagan's foreign policy. And now, after a series of blunders and stupidities, including rushing into a war he could not win, and the need to start throwing friends overboard, Bush is where Reagan was in that spring of 1987, in deep trouble of his own making.

This President Bush, simply and obviously, does not have the personal power of Reagan to hold together the always uneasy bonds between ideological conservatives and more pragmatic elected Republicans. Reagan was able not only to pull that one off, but also to bring those difficult constituencies into partnership with conservative Democrats -- and change the political balance of the country.

Bush does not have that capability; he is in over his head. He needs help but will have trouble finding it. He may, with luck, find a respected elder statesman to take over the White House and transform it from the political war room presided over by Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney into a transparent, functioning house of state and government. But he is not going to find a foreign partner to help him change the world.

The world has always seemed beyond Bush's ken. He does not much like the place and knows very little about it. If he did, he would not have led Americans into the killing fields of Iraq. But he did seem to be the master of his party and a leader with a feel for domestic governance. Now, even those skills are suspect. It's an old line now, but the president's problem is there for all to see: George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Reeves

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