Richard Reeves

A President Like Us Is Off to a Good Start

WASHINGTON -- Nobody around here can remember exactly what it was they didn't like about George W. Bush. He is being hailed on all sides for his bipartisan reaching out, photo-opping, humble-as-pie normalcy.

There is, of course, no such word as "normalcy," as any student of the presidency knows. It was a word made up in 1920 by another language-mangling Republican, Warren G. Harding. The 29th president, a newspaper editor and publisher with a knack for making friends, had campaigned in the turmoil of inflation, Red-baiting, and doubt about World War I and its aftermath by saying: "America's present need is not heroics, but healing, not nostrums but normalcy."

A leading Republican of the day, the more famous newspaper editor William Allen White, put it this way: "He was nominated because there was nothing against him, and the delegates wanted to go home."

Unfortunately, Harding had little talent for governing, which soon became obvious to everyone, including him. In a letter from the White House to an old friend, he wrote with more humility than even George Bush claims: "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here."

Whatever his talents, the 43rd president, Bush, is more fortunate. He is riding high after two weeks in office, because he has the high and useful honor of not being Bill Clinton. Washingtonians, at least those here because the government is here, had forgotten over eight soap-opera Clinton years what "normal" was. Chaos, contradiction and confusion were expected most every day. The Clintons wore out the town -- and their welcome.

At the moment, conversationally, there is a Bush-Clinton co-presidency. As always there are good and bad things to say about a president. The good things are being said about Bush; the bad things are said about Clinton. The man from Hope, as opposed to the man from Midland, wanted to be remembered, and he is.

Here is a sample from an important fellow Democrat about Clinton: "That son-of-a-bitch and his Me, Me, Me is going to take us all down with him. The Marc Rich pardon and trashing the Oval Office or whatever they did has probably already cost us the chance to take back the House of Representatives in 2002."

That may be an exaggeration, but it is not an isolated quote. Another going the rounds is: "Nothing he did so dishonored the office as his manner of leaving it."

Meanwhile, Georgy Boy, the giver of nicknames for all he meets, has been skillfully running a two-track presidency. There is a visible President Bush practicing a presidency of gestures, saying little but being seen in classrooms and churches, and sipping iced tea with national and local leaders and other interesting folks, including preachers, priests, rabbis and American imams. (A quick count indicates that American Muslims voted for Bush 8-to-1 over Al Gore. You remember Al Gore, don't you? The fellow who got a half-million votes more than Bush?)

Then there is the off-camera President Bush, who is appointing some hard-line conservative believers whose idea of normality seems suspiciously like an updated 1950s. It's something like Ozzie and Harriet, but Harriet has a job now and the people next door are diverse, different from us but good, hard-working, God-fearing people you wouldn't totally mind having next door. In fact, the Bushes are the kind of people you'd like having next door. The Clintons aren't.

The most telling line in the joint ABC News-PBS "Frontline" documentaries on "The Clinton Years" came from George Stephanopoulos, who said of himself and his former leader: "Actually we didn't have enough respect deep, deep in our bones for the office itself."

Whatever his limitations, President Bush respects the office. People like that, even around Washington. The 43rd president is off to a smart start.

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