First Brush With History

It was week one of President George W. Bush's first foreign-policy crisis. The cable-TV news networks were blaring on about "the showdown with China." Talking heads were asking when the 24 American crew members "detained" on Hainan Island were going to be called hostages. The president, meanwhile, was out on the South Lawn, pacing off 60 feet, 6 inches, the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate. Bush was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers' home opener, and he didn't want to put one into the dirt, the way his father, former president George Bush, had done once on opening day at a Houston Astros game. Bush was practicing throwing with a bulky bulletproof vest. At one point, he pretended to keel over backward from the weight of the jacket.

The president's aides were worried that Bush might look a little out of touch and unconcerned with the gravity of the moment if he went to the baseball game. Bush cut them off. "We're going," he announced. On the mound in Milwaukee, President Bush wasn't worrying about bringing the boys home. He was nervous, he later told NEWSWEEK, about how small and far away the catcher looked. He was anxious, too, about getting booed by the fans. "They don't want some politician out there in their midst trying to hog camera time," explained the former major-league team owner. The Milwaukee fans didn't boo, but Bush still threw the pitch into the dirt. But, he recalled with a grin, "it had a lot of steam on it."

Bush was just as humble when his administration's low-key diplomacy paid off and the crew of the U.S. Navy EP-3E was released five days after his junket to Milwaukee. Hearing the news on Air Force One, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice congratulated the president on his steadiness during the crisis. "Well," Bush replied, "I think this is actually what they pay us to do." Remembering this conversation in an interview with NEWSWEEK--and recalling how Bush's father refused to gloat when the Berlin wall fell in 1989--Rice remarked, "These are modest people." Humility is a byword around the Bush White House. Staffers are warned not to get swelled heads. They are supposed to follow the example of the president, who likes to keep it simple and speak plainly.

A little too plainly, sometimes. In a TV interview last week, Bush announced that the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from an attack by China. Some of his foreign-policy advisers cringed. It seemed that the president had, perhaps unwittingly, just undermined two-and-a-half decades of a carefully contrived policy known as strategic ambiguity, which is designed to keep Taiwan and China guessing about the true level of U.S. commitment to Taiwan's defense. White House aides scrambled to say that Bush was not announcing a true change in China policy but rather a "recentering," whatever that means.

The apparent slip-up on Taiwan was a reminder of concerns that Bush is not quite up to the job of chief executive. But such moments have been relatively few and far between, considering that many voters--and pundits--expected him to stumble and fall. Asked to grade himself at the 100-day mark of his presidency, Bush was able to answer, "Doing pretty darn good"--and know that many voters agree. Polls show him with approval ratings around 60 percent. Most presidents experience a drop in their numbers in the first three months. Among modern presidents, only JFK, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have seen theirs go up. Some voters might be surprised by the Bush administration's determined rightward tilt, given Bush's moderate tone during the campaign. But few are questioning his legitimacy, the way many did when he lost the popular vote and squeaked into office in a disputed election. In his first months Bush has not offered the grand dreams or high-flown rhetoric of a Reagan or JFK, but then no one is laughing off the White House's self-conscious comparisons to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who also mangled his sentences while quietly getting things done. The first 100 days suggests that beneath Bush's humility--both natural and contrived--there is a streak of confidence, cunning and, at times, cockiness.

Bush likes to joke about being underestimated, or "misunderestimated," as he puts it, sometimes with a wink. (Weekly strategy meetings at the White House are now called "strategery meetings.") Ever since he was nicknamed "Shrub" by Ann Richards, the then incumbent governor of Texas--whom he beat--Bush has found it useful to lull his foes by playing dumb and lazy. When his boisterous and sometimes overanxious counselor, Karen Hughes, fretted last December that reporters were writing that Vice President Cheney was acting as a kind of "prime minister," the president was unfazed. "That's great," said Bush. "I have twice as much clout now." He explained that everyone would assume that Cheney spoke with his authority. Asked by a reporter what he planned to do after he returned from a visit to a Democratic congressional retreat in February, he answered, "Take a nap."

Bush has been very clever about not getting sucked into the Washington media whirl of posturing and bickering. Standing in the governor's mansion in Austin shortly after he was elected, Bush told his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, "We've got to be careful not to be drawn into the Washington game." Three months later he met with his press aides to warn: "Don't get caught in typical Washington politics. We're above all that and I want you to be above all that." The Clinton White House was famous for its campaign-style rapid response, its determination to never let a news cycle pass without a headline. Bush, on the other hand, does not thirst to be on page A1 of the newspaper every day. He says he is perfectly content to be "the A4 president," as he was dubbed by political writer Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times.

Bush's reticence is frustrating to Washington's inside players, who live off the 24/7 synergy between the media and the politicians they cover. The Bushies are "the biggest control freaks since Nixon," says Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and veteran White House reporter. "In their zeal to control the message, they've overcorrected. The result is... an aggressively unhelpful press operation," said DeFrank. "I keep asking myself, 'Why isn't this fun?' " Equally vexed is Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a classic congressional dealmaker (he is known as a Dealocrat by his fellow Democrats). Breaux was looking forward to a cozy relationship with Bush. Together, the two men had been sworn into the Alfalfa Club, a bastion of Washington insiderdom, and Bush had dubbed Breaux "Johnny B. Good" ("Must be a Yale thing," Breaux said, grimacing). "I don't want any negotiations I can't be part of," said Breaux. "It's fun, it's exciting, it's why I'm here." But by March, Breaux was complaining to a NEWSWEEK reporter that, despite Bush's vows of bipartisanship, the White House never called for his help. Likewise, Sen. John McCain lamented that he was being essentially ignored by the new president. Sitting in the Senate dining room as his campaign-finance bill reached a historic debate--with no input from the White House--McCain wondered why Bush wasn't doing more to dissuade him from running again for president in 2004. "Wouldn't the best way to do that be to co-opt me?" McCain demanded, growing heated. "Wouldn't that be the best way to do it? 'Hey John, we want to sit down with you'? "

During his first two months in office, Bush was widely criticized for not reaching out both at home and abroad. When Bush rebuffed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to reconcile with North Korea, foreign-policy commentators wondered if the new administration was too willing to slough off America's allies. On Capitol Hill, the administration tried to ram through its $1.6 trillion tax cut. In early February, at a meeting with Vice President Cheney, Sen. Pete Domenici, the longtime chairman of the Budget Committee, angrily demanded, "Why doesn't anybody ask me what I think?"

President Bill Clinton loved to debate legislative minutiae with members of Congress. By design as well as necessity, Bush has a wholly different approach. He talks about the need to spend political capital wisely. His father, he believes, squandered the capital he amassed from victory in the gulf war by not using it right away. Bush wants to win some relatively quick victories on his first two priorities--a tax cut and education reform--in order to build up capital for harder fights over defense and Social Security reform. Bush's strategist, Rove, has talked regularly to Ronald Reagan's imagemeister, Michael Deaver, about Reagan's first 100 days. "Discipline is the key," said Deaver.

Discipline is a word often heard in the Bush White House, in part to remind voters of the relative chaos in the early Clinton White House. When business interests tried to add their own favorite loopholes to the tax bill in February, they were bluntly warned, "Don't try to muck this up. Because if you do, we will remember who our friends are," recalled one White House aide. The president was adamant about not compromising too soon on the size of the tax cut. Before the White House started dickering with Hill Democrats trying to whittle down the $1.6 trillion price tag, Bush said, "Get this clear: I'm going to keep saying $1.6 trillion. I'm going to keep saying $1.6 trillion... We're not likely to get $1.6. It'll probably be something lower, but the glory will come when we're signing the bill in the Rose Garden." As it turned out, the Senate balked when two Republicans defected, but it appears that Bush will still get close to $1.4 trillion in tax cuts. Bush did not publicly declare victory. As he flew to Milwaukee for the Brewers game, however, he turned to his wife, Laura, and said, "We've changed the debate." The question is no longer whether to cut taxes, he said, but by how much.

When it comes to dealing with Congress, Bush regrets that Washington is not Texas. He misses the easy familiarity with lawmakers--and their discretion even more. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Bush recalled how, as governor, he'd wander down the hall and drop in at the offices of state legislators. "Never did they walk out and immediately hold a press conference," Bush said, in a not-so-veiled reference to camera-hungry congressmen. His great ally in Austin was the Texas lieutenant governor, a crusty Democrat named Bob Bullock. "Bullock and I used to meet for hours, and nobody would know about it," said Bush. By contrast, he said, "Johnny Breaux came up last night for dinner... It took no time for the word..." He paused. "There's no privacy." Still, Bush has been regularly holding small dinners and intimate meetings with Hill barons like Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, trying to forge ties.

Bush admits that in one area his administration could have done better: selling its environmental policy. By reversing a campaign promise to limit CO2 emissions, which add to global warming, and by rejecting some regulations on arsenic in drinking water proposed by the Clinton administration, Bush has set him-self up as anti-green. The Bushies complain that they were "booby-trapped" by the Clintonites on arsenic, but they have only themselves to blame for bungling the PR.

It should come as no surprise that Bush has a tin ear when it comes to the environment. Where he grew up and worked as an oilman, Midland, Texas, "tree huggers" were regarded as subversive. Bush's talk about compassionate conservatism during the campaign glossed over his deep aversion to government regulation--particularly in the energy field. Bush's political advisers are reportedly more concerned with securing his electoral base--middle-class voters who fear rising fuel prices--than they are about voters who talk about global warming. At White House strategy sessions, Rove was said to have argued that Bush needed to worry more about losing "the coal miners" than winning the "soccer moms." Replied Rove: "That's a mischaracterization. The issue is not either/or, it was how much and what's the proportion."

Bush's close ties to the anti-big-government Republican right are on vivid display at the weekly meetings hosted by conservative activist Grover Norquist. A fervent ally of the Bush White House ("Karl's a friend"), Norquist confidently declares, "We're on the right side of history." Every Wednesday morning, more than a hundred true believers--from industry, religious groups, the gun lobby, right-to-lifers--gather in Norquist's boardroom to plot strategy. The White House always sends an emissary. Last week it was a staffer sent to talk about the energy plan cooked up by a secretive committee under Cheney. The staffer made clear that the White House plan would heavily emphasize production--thousands of new power plants, more drilling and mining--over conservation. The environmental community, the staffer made clear, was sure to be displeased. The room buzzed with approval.

The Bush White House cares about loyalty more than ideology. Independent operators are viewed with deep suspicion. After a month or so, a pool started up on which of two cabinet secretaries, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, would be the first to go. A high-powered businessman accustomed to getting his way, O'Neill spoke his mind, whether or not it jibed with the White House party line. He openly doubted that Bush's tax cut would do much to stimulate the economy, and he compared the effects of global warming, which most Bushies regard as fuzzy science, to a nuclear holocaust. Cutting stories about O'Neill's "flakiness" began to appear in the conservative press. As an old friend of Cheney's and Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's, O'Neill is not likely to be forced out. But when it came time to push for Bush's centerpiece tax cut, O'Neill was nowhere to be seen.

Whitman is an interesting reclamation case. In March, she provoked the wrath of the energy lobby by repeating a Bush campaign promise to impose limits on CO2, forcing the White House to reassure conservative senators that Bush didn't really mean it. She provided fodder for critics and late-night comics by blocking the Clinton-proposed regulations on arsenic. More recently, she appeared to undermine Bush's commitment to drill for oil on the North Slope of Alaska. "Her main duty," New York Times columnist Gail Collins archly observed last week, "appears to be offering up statements for the White House to contradict."

Yet Whitman is now in good standing with Bush. She got there by passing his ultimate "good man" test: she fell on her sword for him, taking the blame for the arsenic flap. "I really misjudged that one," she told NEWSWEEK. And she was gracious when Bush apologized for embarrassing her on CO2. "I've let you hang out there," the president told her. "I'm sorry." Then he invited her to Camp David for the weekend. "It was a Yalie reunion," Whitman recalled to NEWSWEEK. Her husband, John, was two classes ahead of Bush and two other Yale chums he invited out for the weekend at what one Bush friend calls "Camp for Adults."

Visitors to Camp David return exhausted by Bush's nonstop zest for tennis, bowling, skeet shooting, horseshoes and sundry other sports. But back in the White House, formality is strictly observed. Bush so reveres the Oval Office that he announced he would move a meeting to a different room if someone ever showed up without a tie. Staffers are expected to be on time for meetings, or be subjected to "the stare," a look Bush reserves for rudeness. The stare is especially withering if Bush hears a mobile phone ring or a beeper. Yet Bush himself feels free to be boyish and irreverent, to make fun of his staffers for scrambling to stand up when he walks into a room (he pretends to be a conductor, motioning them up and down) and handing out goofy nicknames, like "M&M, Plain or Peanut" for Mary Matalin, Cheney's communications adviser. Walking past a staffer standing strictly at attention, Bush will suddenly embrace him with a bear hug. "Amigo!" the president will cry. "It's totally discombobulating," says Rove. Bush scorns showiness or pretense. When O'Neill caused a fuss by trying to get rid of his Secret Service detail and hiring his own driver, the president quietly approved of the Treasury secretary's frugality. Staffers say Bush himself is cheap. A White House steward recently brought him a hamburger on an onion bun. "Listen," said Bush. "I'm from west Texas. We don't need to have those fancy buns around here. It probably costs more." Before the Inauguration, he asked a steward at Blair House, the guest quarters for visiting dignitaries, to cook him a hamburger. He was told that the kitchen does not make hamburgers. "Yes you do," said the president.

At such moments, Bush can seem like a cocky frat boy. But his aides say he is enormously moved and humbled by just walking into the Oval Office in the morning. Never more so than on his Inauguration Day, when he greeted his father. (The elder Bush, the 41st president, is known by White House aides as "41." Bush Junior is "43.") "Mr. President," said the father. "Mr. President," said the son. Both men teared up. Bush presumably checks in with his father. But a close aide says that Bush Sr. is somewhat reticent about giving advice. Talking to Rove at the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, last summer, Bush Senior "got sort of philosophical about it," recalled Rove. He talked about "the love of a father to help a son," but also "the limitations" of someone who was "no longer on the playing field."

His plain-spoken son is less philosophical about his time in the arena. But his joy is palpable. Aides have given up trying to have productive conversations with him in the motorcade. He is too preoccupied with looking out the window of the presidential limo and waving at the gaping spectators. On March 13 Bush was returning to the White House from a trip aboard Marine One. In the twilight the helicopter banked around the Washington Monument. The marble tower seemed close enough to touch. Bush smiled, his eyes aglow, and turned to an aide. He said, "Pretty cool, huh?"