West Wing Story: Blast From The Past

The numbers just didn't add up. For days leading up to George W. Bush's trip to Lithuania and Romania late last week, White House staffers were projecting that huge crowds would turn out for the president's visit. "The initial estimates are between 50,000 and 100,000," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told us on Air Force One. "In each place?" asked an incredulous reporter. "Yes."

Well, actually, no. Another top staffer, trying to tamp down the hyperbole, nudged Fleischer to revise his estimates. "I stand corrected: 25,000 to 50,000 in Lithuania and 50,000 to 100,000 in Romania," Fleischer said. He was still off by nearly 100,000: about 10,000 turned out in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and about 50,000 in cold and rainy Bucharest.

At first, I didn't understand why White House staffers--always loath to engage in "hypotheticals" of any sort--were talking up the hypothetical turnout in the first place. The only answer I could come up with: Bill Clinton. When the former president visited Bucharest five years ago, about 100,000 people packed the downtown square of the Romanian capital. Of course, the people of Eastern Europe would turn out for any American president, such is their love of the freedom we espouse. But whenever Bush has had to follow Clinton anywhere--notably to the D-Day ceremonies at Normandy last Memorial Day--his administration has been keenly aware of Clinton's shadow.

This even carries over to the White House Web site. A friend who recently went online to look up remarks by Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa easily found the text of Albright's four-year-old press statements on the State Department site. But on the White House site, the only reference he could find to Clinton was a standard biography. "I've checked out the 'site map," the 'history' section, the 'current news' etc," quipped my friend. "It seems history began on Jan 21 of last year."

Bush has long been the un-Clinton. Some of that is a result of Bush's distinct personal style and some of it is by design. The state dinners are smaller, the press conferences are shorter and the emoting less public. Back in April 2001, when White House aides thought the crash of a U.S. EP3 spy plane in China would be their toughest foreign policy test, Bush decided not to fly to Washington state to greet the released crew. He thought that injecting himself into such an emotional moment would be not only self-aggrandizing but, of course, Clintonesque. Same thing when nine men were finally rescued from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania several months ago. Bush greeted the men behind closed doors and then gave a subdued speech in their presence.

Much has been made of the differences between the two presidents. One likes to spend Thanksgiving in Martha's Vineyard with a thick stack of books, one in rural Texas with a thicket of cedar. One governs by polls, one by his gut--or so the story goes. But anyone who thinks that Bush isn't as susceptible--some would say attuned--as Clinton to public opinion need only look at some of the legislation he's been signing this Thanksgiving week.

Bush first opposed the creation of a Cabinet level Homeland Security Department, but he signed into law Monday. Why the change of heart? Polls showed the public thought it was a good common sense idea. His handlers thought it was a great political issue (especially because it prompted a showdown with Democrats over labor issues). And so Bush created the biggest bureaucracy since FDR's day. The "era of big government," as Clinton used to say, isn't over after all.

The Bush administration has also come around on other popular--some would say populist--ideas. The corporate reform bill, for example, which it ended up championing. And then today-after pressure from victims' families--Bush signed an authorization for an independent commission to investigate the 9-11 attacks. The Bushies just want the commission to come out with its findings well before 2004. And that's a number everyone agrees on.