Sunday, January 26, 2003


In today's New York Times, Bill Keller is right about Bush but sometimes for the wrong reasons. Yes, George W. Bush is very much like Ronald Reagan, but not because he has a Teflon coat to which nothing will stick. This is an insulting assessment of this president as it was for Reagan with its implication that unquestionably bad policies and actions would stick if the respective presidents were not as slick or affable. Indeed, Keller begins his piece with a few Bush mishaps that he thinks should have clung to the president more.

Keller also makes too much of Peggy Noonan's attempt to distinguish the ordinary Bush from the extraordinary Reagan. Noonan is largely responding to Dinesh D'Souza'a biography of Reagan which paints him as an ordinary fellow who somehow accomplished extraordinary things. Noonan, by contrast, thinks that despite his ordinary language and demeanor, Reagan was a more unusual, extraordinary character and that this helps explain his accomplishments, his difficult family relations, and his unusual personality better than D'Souza can. Noonan puts Reagan together nicely and corrects D'Souza's otherwise excellent biography. But Noonan also clearly likes the younger Bush, even if he doesn't quite measure up to Reagan's standard of greatness in her eyes.

Keller finally gets it right when he claims (as we have on IA for months now) that Bush resembles Reagan in his policies of tax-cuts and flexing American muscle abroad, and that he is "misunderestimated" (as Bush has put it) by the political elite. Keller notes that Republicans have been encouraging Bush to be like the next Reagan for whom they have been pining for so long now. Well, of course. Wouldn't Democrats like another FDR?

Continuing with backhanded compliments, Keller says that he began his piece thinking of Bush as Reagan-Lite, a president without Reagan's lifelong convictions and unschooled in Reagan's marvelous rhetoric. But Keller concludes that the inarticulate Bush is really the fruition of Reagan, a man able to advance Reagan's policies by adapting them to a new time. So Keller's first thought is that Reagan had some impressive and laudable convictions but mostly had great rhetoric which the rhetorically-challenged Bush couldn't match. But on second thought, both Reagan and Bush are ordinary bores who, because of their affability, had and will have successful presidencies. Reagan really was a boob, and so is Bush.

Next, we come to religion and psychology on which both presidents also seem similar. These two men, the "least introspective of presidents" (the boob theme continues), share a belief in God and are unashamedly spiritual. Apparently one must give dispiriting speeches such as Jimmy Carter's malaise speech to be considered "introspective" or deep. Not even Bush's battles with and victory over the bottle qualify him as "introspective" for Keller. The poor guy just seems too happy. One can feel Keller cringe as he compares the two men and their vision of America as having a "divine assignment in the world." Playing armchair shrink, Keller finally moves to the issue of alcoholism, speculating that Reagan, the son of an alcoholic, and Bush, a former binge drinker, learned how to maintain rigid schedules, including time for physical activity, to ward off chaos.

Interestingly, Keller calls both Reagan and Bush risk-takers without lapsing into Euro-trashy "cowboy" rhetoric. Keller recognizes Reagan's and Bush's abilities to focus narrowly on a topic, remove distractions from the main issues, and come to a decision. Moreover, Keller argues that only supremely confident people surround themselves with the kinds of impressive advisors Bush has chosen. Reagan did the same thing, of course; and it is actually the senior Bush who stands out as an anomaly in this trio.

In the realm of foreign affairs Bush also clearly resembles Reagan more than his father. Whereas the pragmatists were clearly in charge during the senior Bush's administration, now the "play-it-safers" and the "boat-rockers" coexist in charged tension or energetic equilibrium as was the situation with Reagan. In fact, according to Keller, Bush may be out-Reaganing Reagan in his contempt for international organizations which is the default position on every foreign affairs issue in this White House.

The rest of the essay has to do with domestic affairs, specifically tax-cuts and deligitimizing unions. Finally, Keller concludes that Bush has overturned the recent theory that America must be governed from the center. His bold ambition continues the Reagan project of markets unleashed, resources exploited, a progressive tax system leveled, a country unashamed of wealth, government entitlements gradually replaced by thrift, self-reliance and private good will, the safety net strung closer to the ground, government supplanted by the efficiency and accountability of a well-run corporation, a court system dedicated to protecting property and private enterprise, and a global market that hums to the tune of American productivity. In foreign affairs Bush's Reaganite goal is for an America unfettered by international law, unflinching when challenged, unmatchable in its might, and more interested in being respected than in being loved. (I love the "unashamed of wealth" line. Liberal commentators have made Reagan out to be the inventor of capitalism for years -- haven't they ever heard of Alexander Hamilton?)

For all of the remarkable similarities Keller draws between the two presidents, he never discusses in detail that both of them faced a nasty recession midway through their first term. Maybe he's hoping this one drags on a little bit longer than the one Reagan faced which ended just in time to insure his reelection. Keller has done his homework though; he displays a decent understanding of both Reagan and Bush and of what got them elected which Paul Krugman, for example, does not. Even if Keller says insultingly that "stupid can be smart" in describing how Bush's Reaganesque inattention to detail never compromises his standing with voters, this is as good an assessment as we can expect from the New York Times. Keller's not thrilled with either Reagan or Bush, but he's not holding his breath for a Democratic victory in 2004. Neither should anyone else if the economy picks up again soon.


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