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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.