WORLD

BUSH AT THE HELM

MARCI McDONALD February 6 1989
WORLD

BUSH AT THE HELM

MARCI McDONALD February 6 1989

The sun had not yet risen when George Bush strode into the Oval Office at 7:21 a.m. to begin his first working day as president on Jan. 23. The White House staff, accustomed to Ronald Reagan strolling in nearly an hour and a half later each day, snapped to startled attention. Later in the day, after speeding through a series of briefings and speeches, Bush informed his staff that the lights would “burn brightly well after dark.” And he made good on his word. It was not until 6:40 p.m., 11 hours and 19 minutes later—and a good three hours after Reagan’s usual exit—that Bush wound up a schedule that left many of his aides and the White House media corps trailing in his wake. Bounding past exhausted reporters to change for an evening reception, Bush teased, “We’ve got more events tonight.”

But for Bush, the brisk schedule was more than a display of first-day-on-the-job ebullience. After pledging continuity with the Reagan administration on the campaign trail—and refusing to spell out his own policy prescriptions until a Feb. 9 address to the joint houses of Congress—he turned to symbolism and style to signal that the new Bush era had begun. In sharp contrast to Reagan, who came to Washington vowing to dismantle Big Government, Bush—who has received a government paycheque for 18 of the past 22 years—praised federal employees as “some of the most unsung heroes in America.” And, pointedly distancing himself from what the media generally called the Reagan administration’s “sleaze factor,” Bush repeatedly pledged to enforce a new code of ethics for his officials. But his strongest message was that, unlike his easygoing predecessor, he intended to play the role of an accessible, activist president, fully engaged in the nation’s business. Said former Reagan aide Edward Rollins: “Bush is basically saying, ‘Hey, things are different.’ He’s saying, ‘I’m more hands-on.’ ”

Despite his determination to chart his own course, Bush did take one cue from his predecessor: he announced that on Feb. 10 he will make his first foreign trip a visit to Ottawa, just as Reagan did in 1981. The decision relieved Canadian officials, who had been lobbying for a meeting before Bush flies to Japan on Feb. 24 to attend Emperor Hirohito’s funeral.

Still, despite his flurry of calls to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other world leaders, the shape of Bush’s foreign policy remained largely undefined. And neither his genial meeting with congressional leaders nor confirmation hearings for five of his cabinet nominees provided any specifics on how he plans to implement his campaign pledges while wrestling with the projected $185-billion budget deficit. In fact, one indication that Bush’s rhetoric may already have outstripped economic realities came early in the week. After pledging an end to the “scourge” of drugs in his inaugural speech, he admitted in an impromptu interview that he did not foresee additional funding for the drug war. That acknowledgment came with reports that his new drug czar, former education secretary William Bennett, who will direct the national drug control policy, would not rate a seat at the cabinet table—a fact that Bennett himself learned when he discovered that he had not been invited to its first meeting. Warned Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat: “The priority of drugs in the executive branch will actually decrease.”

Despite Bush’s inaugural message of antimaterialism, the calmest of last week’s confirmation hearings proved to be the one for his richest cabinet appointee, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher. Senators urged the dashing Texas oilman, who is worth an estimated $250 million, to take aggressive action in enforcing trade regulations—code words for retaliatory measures. One reason for Mosbacher’s warm reception may have been his wife, Georgette, whom Vanity Fair magazine hailed this month as “the shiniest star of the new administration.” In a series of dazzling miniskirts and ball gowns, the stunning 42-year-old redhead managed to upstage even the Bushes during last month’s inaugural festivities.

Like his antidrug pledge, Bush’s campaign claim as an “environmentalist” also encountered its first confrontation with reality last week. At confirmation hearings for his designated secretary of the interior—responsible for such public lands as national parks and wetlands—retired New Mexico representative Manuel Lujan, the Environmental Policy Institute’s Michael Clark charged that the nominee had one of the worst “antienvironment” voting records in Congress. And many critics claim that Lujan’s nomination cancelled out Bush’s widely hailed appointment of William Reilly, former president of the Conservation Foundation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pollution abatement laws and establishes cleanup standards.

But at Lujan’s hearings, George Frampton, president of the Wilderness Society, warned that the "litmus test" of Bush’s environmental pledge will be whether he decides to go ahead with oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Last week, Lujan sidestepped the question. But Bush indicated that he still favors exploration. Warned Frampton: “For better or worse, I think a line has been drawn in the dirt on this issue.”

Bush also found his salute to high ethical standards undercut by another of his cabinet appointments. At confirmation hearings for John Tower, his controversial choice for defence secretary, the diminutive former Texas senator admitted that in the past 2 1/2 years he has earned more than $900,000 as a consultant to five major military contractors. At a time when the Pentagon is still reeling from a scandal involving massive kickbacks from military firms, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, the Democratic chairman of the armed services committee, questioned whether Tower could be objective in parcelling out contracts. But the most controversial of Bush’s appointments remains his only black nominee, Dr. Louis Sullivan, his designated secretary for health and human services. At the very moment Bush was assuring 45,000 prolife demonstrators across from the White House by telephone hookup that he favored overturning current abortion laws, Sullivan was reportedly telling one senator that he privately opposed such a court challenge. After summoning Sullivan to the White House for consultation, Bush declared that he “supported my position 100 per cent.” But Sullivan’s repeated changes of heart on the issue have angered right-wing Republicans and provoked Vermont’s Senator Gordon Humphrey into a patronizing declaration that sabotaged Bush’s overtures to the black community. “Let’s put it plainly,” said Humphrey. “Dr. Sullivan is the only black nominee to the cabinet. It would be embarrassing to the President, embarrassing to the Republican party, if that nomination encountered any trouble.”

Last week, even those squabbles failed to disturb Bush’s apparent romance with Capitol Hill Democrats or the media. Congressional leaders arrived at the White House with a crystal gift jar of his favorite snack, crackling pork rinds and a bottle of Texas hot sauce. And the media proved so elated at Bush’s availability that one New York Times commentator noted, “Some people accuse the press of behaving like a George Bush fan club.” Still, Republican whip Richard Cheney warned that Bush ought to “enjoy it while it lasts.” When the President finally gets down to specifics, the battle lines are likely to be drawn—and Bush could well come to regret his new image as a hands-on president. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated more than once in his reign, there are certain moments when a president may find it advantageous to claim that he had no idea what was going on in his government.