Richard Reeves

President Bush: A Bad First Impression

LONDON -- One of the enduring mysteries of American politics, at least as viewed from Europe, is the periodic elevation of "unknowns" to the highest office in the home of the free and the land of the brave. The best recent examples are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. But George W. Bush is right up there, too.

In the European versions of representative democracy, the men and women who become prime ministers and presidents are almost invariably the legislative leaders of their parties, even if they have to form new parties to show their wares over time. If Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party should lose its majority of seats in the House of Commons to the Tories in national elections scheduled for June, the new PM will be John Hague, the familiar leader of the loyal opposition.

Under systems like that, our last election should have been between Richard Gephardt and Dennis Hastert, legislative leaders who are probably a mystery to most Americans.

The British, the French and other Europeans knew only one or two things about George W. He was, of course, the son of President George H.W. Bush, who, from this distance, stayed almost invisible in the giant shadow of Ronald Reagan until he presided over the Gulf War. They also knew the son was a real Texan and has been known to mangle the language created by the residents of this island nation.

The language-mangling is still the rage here. The New Internationalist Magazine advertises under the slogan "George Doesn't Get It" -- presumably you will if you subscribe -- and runs lists of some of his funnier malaprops, beginning with, "The vast majority of our imports comes from outside the country," and, "Welcome to Mrs. Bush and my fellow astronauts." The most pertinent of the statements of the leader of the free world is the last on the magazine's list: "It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it."

The point here is that leaders who come from nowhere -- though the United States is very clearly somewhere -- are quickly identified in shorthand. President Bush's tabula rasa has been filled with two words writ large: "The Oilman!" He has captured the world's attention by rejecting outright the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, signed for the United States by then Vice President Al Gore, designed to reduce the emission of gases linked to "global warming."

Most of the British seem to be debating whether The Oilman is deliberately trying to destroy the environment or whether he is just too stupid to understand what he's doing. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, since Bush does have defenders among the few who believe that there either is no such thing as global warming, or that if there is, human beings and their works have nothing to do with it. One of those, Melanie Phillips of The Sunday Times, wrote last week:

"The science of global warming has been suborned by politics and ideology. It was hijacked by those who wanted a new stick with which to beat western capitalism, America, and globalisation. It is the green version of the big lie."

She is in the minority, at least among commentators and politicians. A view from the left, reported by The Guardian after sending correspondents to the headquarters of Exxon-Mobil in Irving, Texas, ran under the headline:

"How the High Priests of Capitalism Run Roughshod Over Fears for Planet -- With Bush at its side, the world's most prosperous firm waits for the science to 'get crisp.'"

The story itself says: "Exxon is grasping at straws. They're looking for everything they can do to reposition the existing knowledge on global warming from fact to theory."

Strong stuff. But it is powerful, and it will stick and plague Bush for all his years for a simple reason. This is the first impression of a man who had made no real impression at all until he became president three months ago.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves