The Oval: Less Extreme Selection?

Fresh from a transatlantic flight with his Supreme Court dossiers, President George W. Bush landed in Denmark feeling expansive about the prospect of making a big presidential decision. Speaking to reporters in Copenhagen on Wednesday, it was clear that Bush has a clear game plan in mind for the naming of his first Supreme Court justice.

Bush has already said he wants his pick to be in place by the time the court resumes its work in October. But in recent weeks his aides have toyed with the idea of delaying any announcement as late as possible to avoid a repeat of the mauling of Robert Bork, Reagan's doomed Supreme Court pick nearly two decades ago. Now Bush explained he was working his way back from the October deadline to figure out when to make his selection. "That's the backstop," he said Wednesday, "and we'll work backward to determine what is best for the Senate calendar to get the hearing and to get the vote, up or down, on the floor of the Senate." Bush is planning to meet with four senators early next week to figure out how long they will need for the confirmation and how ready they are to complete hearings by early October. Those senators, according to one senior White House aide, are Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist; his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, and the two leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee--the GOP's Arlen Specter and Democrat Patrick Leahy.

Bush will spend "the next few weeks" focusing on what he told USA Today was "a handful of candidates." He also said he would "sit down with the prospective nominees." His goal in the interviews, as he put it in Copenhagen, will be to "assess their character, their interests."

But the most revealing part of Bush's Supreme Court musing is his robust defense of his long-standing friend, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has come under early attack from conservative groups that claim his track record is too centrist. "I don't like it when a friend gets criticized," he said in Denmark. "I'm loyal to my friends. And all of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. And so, do I like it? No, I don't like it, at all." Bush was just as vehement that the Senate should reject the same pressure tactics from what he called "the special-interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity." That in itself suggests Bush may be leaning towards a less extreme selection in his nominee, regardless of whether or not he chooses Gonzales.

A Tale of Two Presidents

The first day of Bush's trip to Europe was, in the words of national security-adviser Steve Hadley, "a Denmark day." Bush was traveling to Copenhagen to demonstrate his thanks to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, not least for sending troops to Iraq. "Rasmussen has been a strong friend of the United States and a good friend of the president," Hadley told reporters. "I think the fact that the president is going to Denmark is just a testament to that, and an opportunity for him to recognize the strong support they've given and to say thank you."

For Bush and his aides, simply going to Denmark is sufficient. But for the Danes themselves, they have another standard by which to measure the president's expressions of good will. That standard goes by the name of Bill Clinton. Clinton was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Denmark, and his visit in late 1997 drew tens of thousands of flag-waving Danes to the city's New Square to hear him talk. The Danish prime minister of the period, Poul Rasmussen (no relation to the current prime minister), introduced Clinton to the crowd as "the president of peace."

That description tells much of the tale of the two presidents. Clinton's popularity came at a time of general peace and peacemaking, and his forays into war in the Balkans were distinctly pro-European in nature. Bush's reputation, in contrast, was doomed by the controversy over war in Iraq, and his visit this week was met by the usual street protests in Denmark. His reluctance to engage in Middle East peacemaking (until Yasir Arafat's death) only served to seal his fate in terms of public opinion. Opinion polls in Denmark suggest less than a fifth of Danes support Bush's foreign policy.

There's good reason to think that Bush is fully aware of his image problems in Europe, and the underlying reasons for them. As the president told reporters in Copenhagen, "It hasn't been an easy period of time for a lot of people. I know that. But I feel strongly in a heart of hearts that the decisions we have made will make it easier for our grandchildren to look back at this point ... and look back and say, thank goodness these people had the courage of their convictions."

Yet in spite of Bush's awareness of his own difficulties, he once again passed up the chance to engage in the kind of soft diplomacy that could repair some of the damage. Bush limited himself to private meetings with the Danish prime minister and the queen of Denmark. He staged no cultural or public events. That's unfortunate in a country where much of the media is fretting over how little the United States cares about Denmark and its concerns, in spite of the president's trip.

Clinton, on the other hand, is still paying his cultural respects. Just a month ago, the former president was in Copenhagen, where fans mobbed him on the street. As he explained to NPR recently, "I got to look around Copenhagen, Denmark, where they have one of the most beautiful amusement parks in the world called Tivoli, where Hans Christian Andersen got the inspiration for a lot of his fairy tales." It may be hokey, but as public diplomacy, it works.