- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2001

The nation has not yet gone from standard time to daylight-savings time, but White House staffers and reporters had to set their watches forward several weeks ago. Bill Clinton never met a schedule he could keep. Things are very different in the new administration, where those who hesitate are lost.

The world is made up of two types of people: those who believe punctuality is a virtue, and those who will give their opinion just as soon as they get here. George W. Bush is in the former camp. He thinks his watch is not there just to keep his arm from floating away. He starts meetings on time, ends them on time, comes and goes on a regular schedule, and expects everyone around him to follow his example.

So strict is the daily routine in this administration, reports The New York Times, that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card “halts senior staff meetings at precisely 7:58 each morning — even if people are in midsentence — so he can arrive exactly on time for Mr. Bush's intelligence briefing at 8.” Others have found that on time is sometimes late, since the president occasionally insists on beginning sessions early.

Years ago, a political candidate used the slogan: “Isn't it time we had a senator?” For those of us who think that being 15 minutes late for anything is a capital offense, Bush's habit of punctuality suggests that our urgent concerns are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Clintonites may retort that Bush has to cultivate small virtues because he has no big ones, and they see nothing good about being prompt in drilling oil wells in the wilderness, cutting taxes for the rich, or breaking campaign promises about global warming. But even those who didn't vote for Bush may think Macbeth was right: “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.”

In any event, punctuality is not an exclusively Republican trait. Though Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush usually managed to be on time, so did Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. Time magazine's longtime White House columnist Hugh Sidey says he has never seen a chief executive as disdainful of the clock as Clinton — “and I'm up to 10 presidents.”

Under Clinton, things happened when they happened, and it was wise to pack a lunch and crossword puzzle. “Late” was not a four-letter word in his administration. “Clinton was almost never on time,” says veteran CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante. “He kept everybody waiting and never thought twice about it.”

And we do mean everybody. Plante recalls one occasion when the King and Queen of Denmark had the pleasure of cooling their heels for half an hour until the president got around to showing up where he was supposed to be.

Under Clinton, members of Congress invited to the White House got used to being treated as if they were standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. So they were astonished and pathetically grateful to find Bush behaving as if their time is every bit as valuable as his own. If his relations with Democrats on Capitol Hill are better than Washington experts predicted, maybe it's because courtesy is not lost on anyone.

Not only the high and mighty had to suffer under Bush's predecessor. Hugh Sidey says the worst offense he remembers was a ceremony unveiling a new sculpture of Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair. On a January day, a crowd that included many disabled people shivered outdoors for some 45 minutes until Clinton finally arrived.

Bush demands better of himself and everyone around him. Aides have learned to expect a scolding if they're not on time. Earlier this month, Bush scowled at presidential counselor Karen Hughes when she walked into a meeting 10 minutes late. Luckily for her, she had a good reason — she was answering reporters' questions about Dick Cheney's latest heart scare.

He does not relax his vigilance when he's out of town, either. National Public Radio reporter Don Gonyea recently recalled, with amazement, a trip Bush took to promote his budget: “It went through Pennsylvania and Iowa and Nebraska and Arkansas and Georgia, multiple events in small towns in five states over two days — and every single one started and ended on time.”

Evelyn Waugh dismissed punctuality as “the virtue of the bored,” but Democrats as well as Republicans may welcome a respite from the unnecessary exciting events of the last eight years. Bush's habit of being on time ought to count for something, even among the new president's bitterest critics. If he does everything wrong, at least he won't keep anyone waiting while he does it.

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