COVER

THE NEW LOOK

THE ERA OF GEORGE BUSH PROMISED TO BE ONE OF PRAGMATISM, NOT RIGID IDEOLOGY

MARCI MCDONALD January 23 1989
COVER

THE NEW LOOK

THE ERA OF GEORGE BUSH PROMISED TO BE ONE OF PRAGMATISM, NOT RIGID IDEOLOGY

MARCI MCDONALD January 23 1989

Along Washington’s Constitution Avenue, the scaffolding has been hammered into place, awaiting the 140,000 Republican big spenders who have bought seats for this week’s inaugural parade—complete with a catered box brunch featuring George Bush’s favorite snack, crackling pork rinds. As 60,000 VIP guests flooded into the capital for the five-day, $30-million bash to inaugurate the 41st president of the United States, the city’s traffic police braced for limousine grid lock. And handpicked official souvenir vendors unveiled their wares, including magnums of inaugural champagne, inaugural Texas chili mix and a $75 set of 10 brass blazer buttons consistent with the next president’s preppie image. Not only is this year’s inauguration billed as the largest and longest-running in history; it is also the most expensive. Tickets to an exclusive black-tie dinner at Union Station cost $1,800 a plate. And a box to watch the televised gala starring country singer Loretta Lynn and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir carried a price tag of $30,000—1,000 times more than the top price for the festivities ushering Jimmy Carter into office.

Establishment: But the steep cost has failed to dampen enthusiasm. So coveted was admission to the Texas State Society’s sold-out Black-tie and Boots Ball that an anonymous invitation-seeker rented a Houston billboard to advertise an offer to pay $1,200 for a pair of $60 tickets. And when organizers invited corporations to pick up the inaugural bill with $120,000 interest-free “loans,” they were swamped with offers. However, the nonpartisan congressional watchdog group, Common Cause, has criticized the arrangement as “no way to start a new administration.” Said Ann McBride, the organization’s senior vice-president: “This clearly provides a way for corporations to give large sums of money to curry favor.” Still, it may prove a telling portent of the Bush era. According to Republican political consultant Kevin Phillips: “Ronald Reagan was a friend of glitz, but not the Fortune 500. Bush represents the Establishment, old money and Big Business.” He added, “This administration will be sort of country club genteel—think of the London, Ont., Chamber of Commerce—predictable, capable and uninspiring.”

That view, frequently presented in more flattering terms, has been the prevailing one ever since Bush swept to victory last Nov. 8 with a 40-state win—but, unlike Ronald Reagan before him, with no clear agenda or ideology. In fact, most political analysts foresee the next four years under Bush—barring any major international crises—as a quiet time of ideological drift and pragmatism, overshadowed by the constricting reality of a projected $185-billion budget deficit. Said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar with Washington’s Brookings Institution: “What is the defining principle George Bush has to work around in 1989? It’s that there ain’t no money.”

Deadlock: The deficit may make it difficult for Bush to fulfil many of his campaign pledges, including his vow to take action against pollutants contributing to acid rain. And confronted with a Democratic Congress, he may face four years of deadlock and stalemate. Said presidential scholar James Reichley, also of the Brookings Institution: “He may be operating under such constraints that there’s not much he can accomplish.” In fact, those limitations could provoke Bush into devoting most of his energies to foreign affairs just as he inherits a changed world order that is largely the product of the peace offensive of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan’s willingness to embrace it. Recognizing those facts in a recent interview, Bush himself acknowledged that Reagan’s economic legacy was clouding his usual irrepressible optimism as he prepared to assume the office he has dreamed of for most of his adult life. Declared Bush: “It’s going to be rough. If it weren’t for this blankety-blank budget deficit, I would really be like a kid in a candy store.”

Colin Campbell, a Canadian professor of politics at Washington’s Georgetown University, says that, in fact, Bush may be the best prophet of his own administration. Added Campbell: “He’s right when he says it’s basically more of the same, only in a kinder, gentler package.” Putting last fall’s bruising election rhetoric behind him, Bush has spent most of the past two months making conciliatory gestures to Congress and minority groups.

Reverence: In his cabinet, he has made a point of including one black and two Hispanics. And last week, after completing the team by naming retired admiral James Watkins as energy secretary and outspoken former education secretary William Bennett as his drug czar, Bush urged the cabinet to follow his example. He told a Republican advisory panel to spread some of the administration’s estimated 6,000 patronage jobs among “Americans who—let’s be frank—our party has perhaps done too little to include in the past.”

Still, the chief distinguishing feature of Bush’s cabinet is that he has chosen people who are in his own image. Many of them, including Secretary of State James Baker, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, a Texas oil millionaire, are longtime personal friends, trusted pragmatists who share his patrician roots and reverence for public service. And most are, like him, seasoned veterans of the Washington power game.

While Reagan arrived in the White House a sworn enemy of Big Government, Bush is a product of it. As the son of a senator and a former Texas congressman himself from 1967 to 1970, he is in many ways the ultimate Washington insider. And like him, 10 of his 17 appointees are veterans of previous administrations. Said Phillips: “He’s named a lot of retreads basically. You’ve got a second Gerald Ford administration getting recycled.” But that very familiarity has provided few indications of what new directions, if any, Bush will take. Said Hess: “You’ve got people long on experience and short on bold new ideas.”

But Bush’s conciliatory tone and cautious appointments have won him a honeymoon with the media. Mark Hertsgaard, who criticized the White House press corps for allowing itself to be manipulated by Reagan’s handlers in his book, On Bended Knee, says that American reporters already appear to be according Bush the same indulgence. He added, “The press is not really raising the difficult questions.”

In part, Hertsgaard says, the uncritical approach of the media is a result of traditional American reverence for the office of the presidency. But he also charges that the Washington press corps is “a palace court press.” He notes that in media reports, Bush is no longer the man who only months ago was accused of playing a nasty game of political hardball, hitting his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis below the belt with charges of being soft on crime and convicted black rapists. And Bush himself now characterizes his election behavior as “naughty.” Said Hertsgaard: “It's all let bygones be bygones. Suddenly, Bush is very statesmanlike and inclusive, able to change his public image, chameleon-like.”

Considerate: In fact, Bush’s political odyssey over the past year provides a bewildering set of contradictory images. He first emerged as what many commentators called a “wimp.” Then, as the presidential candidate, he was caricatured as a bully, and now he appears as a conciliator, making every effort to avoid confrontation. Most people who know him claim that the current version is the most accurate. For years, Bush has built a reputation in Washington for his considerate gestures. And he has sent an estimated 60,000 personal notes, pecking them out on a battered portable typewriter, complete with typographical errors and the apologetic postscript, “Self-typed!” His friends argue that the tough-guy image that he displayed during last year’s campaign was part of a game plan imposed by campaign manager Lee Atwater and communications consultant Roger Ailes. But one reason for the confusion about which image represents the true George Bush—and what form his administration will take—is that, despite an impressive résumé, Bush has left few ideological fingerprints on the jobs he has held.

As a result, trend-watchers have seized on superficial omens. Noting that Bush, an adopted son of Texas, lunches in the White House Mess with a bottle of Tabasco sauce always at hand above his right knife, they predict that he will be responsible for tacos, chili and Tex-Mex food sweeping the nation. Also nominated for the new “in” list: country music, horseshoe-pitching contests and English springer spaniels such as three-year-old Mildred Kerr Bush, better known as Millie. Usually seen dragging a bathrobe-clad Barbara Bush out onto the vice-presidential grounds for a constitutional stroll at dawn, Millie achieved new prominence last week as the star of a news conference. Arriving in the Florida Keys for a fishing trip, Bush sent reporters scurrying for the phones by announcing that “our dog is pregnant; we expect puppies in the White House.”

But the fishing trip, Bush’s third since the November election, also demonstrated the reason that the White House media corps has spent time studying the finer points of duck blinds and casting lures. Not since the Kennedy clan cavorted in rough-and-tumble touch football games has an American president shown such an obsession with sports. Within days of winning the election, Bush flew to the Florida beach-front estate of millionaire horse-breeder William Farish for a nonstop whirl of fishing, snorkeling, bodysurfing and jogging.

Revenge: Since then, he has also fished in Alabama and Florida and gone quail-hunting on Farish’s South Texas ranch. And he has engaged writer George Plimpton in a fierce horseshoe competition. In Sports Illustrated, Plimpton reported that Bush won by invoking the spirit of revenge he felt after losing last year’s Iowa caucuses. “Remember Iowa,” the president-elect shouted, hurling his final ringer to victory. Said one Bush aide: “It isn’t a transition. It’s the Wide World of Sports.”

Bush’s youngest son, Marvin, 31, a Washington investment adviser, warned that his father might also resort to sports language to explain his world views. And last week, Bush did just that. Asked if he intended to continue Reagan’s summits with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Bush puzzled some reporters when he replied with a convoluted sports metaphor: “The idea of every other year, home and home, is a good thing, and certainly at a minimum would be what I’d want to recommend.”

Regular: Bush has said that hunting and fishing have made him sensitive to environmental concerns. But Bush’s enthusiasm for sports may partly reflect his determination to establish an image as a regular guy. To that end, he once challenged a New York Times reporter to check his bedroom clock radio so that she could see that it was set to a country music station. But his aides say that it is his upper-class New England roots, not his acquired Texas tastes, that will provide the key symbols of his presidency.

It is from the patrician northeast that George Herbert Walker Bush, known to his family as “Poppy,” sprang. His father, Prescott, who died in 1972, was an investment banker in the ultimate blue-blood New England firm, Brown Brothers, Harriman. And every day, after dropping Prescott Bush off at the New York commuter station, the family chauffeur would drive George and his elder brother Prescott, known as “Pressy,” on to the private Greenwich Country Day School in their wealthy Connecticut home town. From there, Bush’s academic itinerary proceeded on a typical Ivy League route: to Phillips Academy, called Andover in honor of the Massachusetts town where it is situated; then to his father’s alma mater, Yale, where he was a member of the same fraternity house and earned admission to the exclusive, prestigious and secret Skull and Bones Society.

Bush has acknowledged that he was terrified of his stern father: “Dad was really scary.” And some armchair psychologists say that he has spent most of his 64 years trying to please his father and a succession of subsequent father figures, from former boss Richard Nixon to Reagan. But watching Prescott Bush devote evenings to town meetings and hospital boards, he learned the values of public service. And his friends say that the upper-class sense of social responsibility, which has been the guiding force of his political career, will help shape his presidency. Already, he has tried to convey that concept by paying tribute to private sector volunteers as “a thousand points of light.” Said Myer Rashish, a former undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration: “He approaches things from an aristocratic point of view—the sense of obligation, noblesse oblige. And that’s a very worthy tradition in American political life, one [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt came from.”

Heroism: That same sense of duty informed Bush’s heroism after he volunteered to become the youngest pilot in the navy at 18. On Sept. 2, 1944, when he realized that a Japanese plane had scored a hit on his Avenger bomber, engulfing the cockpit in black smoke, his first thought was that he had to finish his own torpedo run, hitting an enemy radio station. It was only afterward that he bailed out, winning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

From his mother, Dorothy, who at 87 still winters on an exclusive Florida island and summers on the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., Bush learned two qualities that were to color his vice-presidency: loyalty and the value of not seeking undue attention. She forbade her children to brag about their accomplishments, which may explain Bush’s awkwardness in selling himself as a candidate. And after eight years of complete loyalty to Reagan, even naming his 28-foot cigarette speedboat Fidelity, Bush, too, expects the same of his staff.

Wrath: Bush’s mother continues to exert such a powerful influence on his life that five years ago when, as president of the Senate, he was forced to break a tie vote for nerve-gas production, he so feared her wrath that he asked Reagan to call her and explain. In fact, after Bush returned from the war to marry his college sweetheart, Barbara, and graduate from Yale, they decided to move to Texas in part to escape his family’s overpowering influence. Bush likes to talk about packing his eldest son, George Jr., now a 42-year-old Texas oilman, into their red Studebaker and driving west to make his fortune. But he first worked selling oil equipment for a company that had his father on its board. And two years later, his uncle raised the $600,000 that launched him in his own oil exploration business.

Still, in a tiny apartment—sharing a bathroom with a prostitute next door—in the blue-collar Texas town of Odessa, Bush gloried in his escape from privilege. And there, too, he became acquainted with personal tragedy. In 1953, overnight, the Bush’s three-year-old daughter Robin developed leukemia and, helpless, they watched her condition worsen over the next eight months. When Robin died, Barbara Bush credits her husband with pulling her through. “He held me in his arms a lot,” she said. “Let me weep away and not be so nice to people.”

Unemotional: Barbara Bush is now fiercely protective of her husband. When she fumed over the media portrayal of her husband as cold and unemotional last year, she took to the road with her personal slide show. Among her snap shots: half a dozen toddlers clambering over a sleepy-eyed man in pajamas they call “Gampy.” As Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor, pointed out, Bush is the family man that Reagan only pretended to be. Added Sabato: “The Reagan rhetoric was family, but the reality was his family was a mess.” In contrast, Bush’s daughter, Dorothy LeBlond, calls him “the most sensitive human I know.” And three of his sons, George Jr., Jeb, 35, a former Florida state commerce secretary, and Neil, a Colorado oilman, have political ambitions themselves. They have provoked speculation about a Bush political dynasty, similar to the Kennedys. But last week, Bush said flatly that they would not find jobs in his administration.

Friends say that Bush’s own lifelong dream of the White House appeared hopelessly out of reach only four years ago. After finding himself ridiculed for his macho swaggering during his 1984 campaign against Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, he plunged into an uncharacteristic depression and talked of dropping out of politics. But Baker, the friend whom Bush had once distracted from mourning his wife’s death with a political job, rallied him by sketching the battle plan that carries Bush to the White House this week.

Daunting: Now that he stands on the threshold of his dream, he faces daunting challenges. Forced to reduce the budget deficit and committed not to raise taxes, he will also have to manage a $120-billion bailout of the crumbling savings and loan industry and a $95-billion modernization of the nation’s deteriorating nuclear weapons plants. But Bush also faces a time of unprecedented opportunity, including the possibility of concluding further arms agreements with a newly amenable Soviet leader.

How George Bush will choose to leave his mark on the White House is, of course, impossible for anyone, even Bush, to predict. But his role may be simplified by the fact that there are few high expectations for his presidency. After all, many of the country’s greatest leaders were underestimated when they came to power. And should he falter, Bush can always fall back on his well-practised, self-deprecating sense of humor. Over the past year, he has frequently invited a Washington satirical group called the Capitol Steps to gatherings at his house. And at his Christmas party, he entertained guests by joining the group in a send-up of himself singing, “I wanna be like you, Ron; I wanna be just like you.” What made the skit funny was that everyone listening knew that, above all, George Bush is determined to be his own man.