- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2001

During the spy plane crisis with China, the president was a blur of activity — burning up the phone lines to heads of government around the globe, issuing detailed instructions to harried aides, addressing a worried nation several times and staying up half the night to personally manage the negotiations.

Actually, that doesn't sound like George W. Bush at all, and it wasn't. In fact, he spent most of the 11-day crisis acting as though there were no crisis — traveling to Milwaukee for a ball game, leaving most of the work to his secretary of state and national security adviser, making only brief public remarks and getting to bed on time.

He and Colin Powell, who took the lead in the administration's decision-making, met only twice during the episode, and he never felt the need to telephone the Chinese leader. As Chicago Tribune correspondents Naftali Bendavid and John Diamond recently reported, with charitable understatement, “He set broad guidelines and let subordinates wrestle with much of the substance.”

When it was over, instead of basking in his success, Bush headed off to his ranch for a — well, “respite” doesn't seem like quite the right term. Who says he's done nothing for energy conservation? You don't see him wasting any of his own.

Sometimes, when W. shows up on television or in the newspapers, it sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise to be reminded that he really is president. Maybe that's because he's been comparatively underexposed. By the end of Bill Clinton's first 100 days, it seemed as though he had been in the White House for decades. Bush was recently ridiculed by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for running an administration that “does not require his presence.” Everything required Clinton's presence.

The question before us today is: Can Americans get used to carrying on their daily lives alone? Alone, that is, without the constant company of the leader of the free world — exhorting us, persuading us, comforting us, entertaining us, anytime, day or night.

One reason Clinton drove so many conservatives to frothing incoherence was that he was so inescapable. Having him in the White House sometimes felt like being stuck in an elevator with a motivational speaker.

We've traded the peripatetic presidency for the placid. Bush seems to be following the Calvin Coolidge model, figuring that nothing he doesn't say can hurt him. Other presidents made a practice of wooing or attacking their critics. This one figures he can immobilize them with boredom.

But it could be that Bush is just matching his natural inclinations to a little-noted reality. Clinton's wall-to-wall activity disguised the central fact of the modern presidency: Its shrinking importance.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith argues that what most magnified the power of the office was the Cold War. Presidents from Truman to the first Bush also had the burden to constantly address events around the globe that could alter the strategic balance, to the benefit or detriment of billions of people — or bring on a superpower showdown that could extinguish the human race.

Many of those chief executives also had a big role in a historic crusade that is largely behind us: the civil rights revolution. Truman desegregating the armed forces, Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock, Kennedy facing down George Wallace, Johnson declaring, “We shall overcome,” Carter bringing black activists like Andrew Young into the highest levels of government — all these helped make the office one of moral, not merely political, leadership.

Saving the world from communism and redeeming the promise of racial equality were big, inspiring responsibilities demanding big, inspiring leaders. Today, on the other hand, the central task of the president seems to be paying down the national debt, which might excite a convention of CPAs. And it was the frenetic Clinton, not the torpid Bush, who put items like that at the top of the national agenda.

“The framers would be shocked to hear the president described as the most powerful man in the world,” argues Richard Norton Smith, who says that in the last decade, “it's come to resemble the constitutional ideal of an essentially administrative office.” Clinton's ambitions exceeded the means available to him. So he incessantly pushed undertakings that his predecessors would have regarded as too trivial for words.

The means available to the president, however, suit Bush just fine. Calvin Coolidge once remarked, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” Bush seems to realize he isn't, and the opposition won't disagree.


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