Sun-Times Dec. 26, 2000 - Feb. 27, 2001

December 26, 2000  


The president-elect's team is treating the economy like it treated the debates during the campaign, by doing its utmost to lower expectations. George W. and his people were very successful then and the three debates turned into a debacle for the fast disappearing Al Gore (he's fading from the political scene more quickly than an image in an old photograph is erased by sunlight.)

Flu vaccine might have been in short supply this season, but George W. is attempting to inoculate himself against whatever maladies might be in the air. Or, as he puts it, from whatever " warning signs" there are "on the horizon." If the economy tanks, George W. wants the blame put elsewhere. If the economy continues to grow, he wants to take the credit for saving it from disaster. The Bush team is good at distorting reality.

Take his cabinet, for example. It's diversity city, even more so than the original Clinton cabinet. It will be interesting, though, to see what the White House staff looks like, or who will be heading all the less visible agency positions. I expect a heavy preponderance of white males, sprinkled through with some Katherine Harris look-alikes. But, I hope that both Colin Powell and Condi Rice's staff appointments will be more friendly to minorities than Clarence Thomas's law clerk choices have been.

Though George W.'s bad-mouthing of the economy may be just a crass attempt to soften the resistance for a large tax cut, it appears an interest rate cut would be better medicine for the economy, given that the slower rate of Christmas buying has been brought about by an increase in consumer debt.

Many have noted the irrational exuberance of the stock market, but there has been irrational exuberance on the part of consumers which has driven up personal debt. Credit card interest rates will be oppressive next year.

An article in the October issue of the ABA Banking Journalpointed out that the volume of consumer bank loans rose at an 11% annualized rate during the first five months of the year (the figure is now around 7% for the year), after having contracted steadily since 1997. This Christmas, consumers are merely showing more rational exuberance and spending less.

But, one business that isn't spending less is the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, which is paying Hillary Clinton 8 million dollars for her memoirs. Now, there is irrational exuberance. Given the controversy (and when could there not be an ethics controversy concerning a Clinton?), one must note that many publishers have given stupefyingly large advances to various celebrities in the past that have not earned out. So why is one more corporate mistake held against the happy recipient of someone's foolishness?

The first lady winning her New York Senate race was an example of brand-nameism run amuck. She was a national figure running against a local (Long Island) figure. Name recognition is all in the world of marketing and it helped bring her the Senate seat and the large book advance.

Usually, memoirs come at the end of the career, not at the middle. If they come at the middle, they are self-censoring press releases, meant to build support for future advancement.

If Senator-elect Clinton wants to prove she has no eye on the presidency and wishes to remain only the Senator from the state of New York, all she needs to do is write an honest, forthright, soul-searching book, one that would end any prospect for higher public office. But, I wonder, even if she wants to, will she be able to? Mrs. Clinton's writing style swings between the unreadable (her early legal opinions) and the platitudinous (It Takes a Village.) Indeed, for the latter, she employed a ghost-writer.

But, for the senator-elect's own economy, she has done the opposite of what the new president-elect has done. She has built up expectations, dangled whatever tempting tidbits necessary to extract the tell-all type of advance from her publisher. Unlike Team Bush, she is willing to risk her reputation on a high-wire strategy of more and better. But, of course, no one has ever accused the Clintons of not being risk takers.

January 2, 2001

The New Year doesn't look so new when one glances at the Bush Cabinet. With Donald Rumsfeld, the Ford administration jack of all trades, selected as Defense secretary, the Bush 2 administration appears to be an ancient sunken ship rising from the deep, perfectly preserved in frigid waters, ready to set sail once again.

This sort of restoration of a past regime is a first in modern American history. To have the senior Bush defeated in '92 and have his son restored to the presidency in 2001 is the stuff of Shakespeare as much as politics. But this restoration, as the term was loosely used during the campaign, is proving to be not figurative, but literal.

Not even Richard Nixon's defeat in 1960 (followed by his loss in the governor's race in California) and his resurrection in 1968 compares. Nixon was not a president when he was defeated, merely a vice-president. He did not reassemble the Eisenhower administration when he assumed the presidency in 1969. The contemporary equivalent is closer to what is sometimes found in Britain's parliamentary system, a government voted out and then voted back in.

Rumsfeld hasn't been in public view since the '96 Dole campaign, where he functioned as a television spokesperson for the senator from Kansas, appearing on "Meet the Press" and elsewhere. Rumsfeld turned up on C-SPAN, praising Bob Dole's performance in the first presidential debate, saying, "He gave a very nice ending--contact our Web site." Rumsfeld went on to laud the debate's moderator, "I don't know how you could have done a better job than Jim Lehrer." It's now clear who most likely pushed Lehrer for the job this time around, a choice that worked to young Bush's benefit big time.

Dick Cheney's ties to the cabinet members are perfectly clear. George W. ties to them are harder to detect. Cheney has worked cheek by jowl with most of them, going back to the Ford administration in the case of Rumsfeld and the new treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill. But when you go back to George W.'s life in the mid- and late '70s you only encounter Bush's lost years.

When Cheney was chosen for the vice presidential spot I, among others, thought it was an unwise move. Then, I presumed, that if John McCain had been chosen the Republicans would likely win easily. The Cheney selection made it a race, a race which Al Gore almost won.

But it is now clear just how deep the Bushes' thirst for restoration was. John McCain as vice president would have put too much of his own stamp on the administration. He would have come from too far out of the Bush family's comfort circle. Even young George's White House chief of staff, Andy Card, is his father's former right hand man.

In retrospect, it is now obvious that Bush didn't select Dick Cheney, but Cheney selected Cheney for the position. Since Dick Cheney and his former boss seem intent on recreating their own long submerged one term presidency.

When George W. introduced "his" selection of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush sounded characteristically unsure of himself and unsure of just who Rumsfeld was. The president-elect did manage to get out that Rumsfeld has "great judgment" (that prescient praise of Jim Lehrer, doubtless) and has "strong vision," that is, I suppose, for a man of 68. The president-elect continued, "He's going to be a great secretary of defense." And, as if just remembering his history lesson, he added, "Again."

Young Bush's own people in the administration are as parochial as Clinton's: Karl Rove is Bush's Mack McLarty and Karen Hughes his George Stephanopoulos. They are the familiar faces he can look to in the White House. Cabinet members with strong ties to George W. are the rarity. Rod Paige, who has been chosen to head Education, is, at least, from Houston. But he is the exception that proves the rule, one of the few without stronger personal ties to Dick Cheney or Bush the first.

January 9, 2001

As the last days of the Clinton administration dwindle down to a precious few, they don't cease to be strange and one-of-a-kind. Last week's swearing in of the first lady as Senator from New York was, it itself, a whole year's worth of weirdness. The Clintons continue to provide the nation with spectacle, however unsettling its aspect.

There was Al Gore croaking out a "Congratulations," before he swore in the first lady, "I'm so proud of you," he added. Even she didn't look as if she believed him. All day Gore looked ready to burst, but not with pride. As his national vote count majority continues to swell (now over half a million) he does seem about to explode from a volatile combination of frustration and finality.

The new Senator was wearing her trademark turquoise pantsuit, I presume, for sentimental reasons, wanting to honor her well-used campaign uniform. The formalities of the Senate, though, dubbed her, "Mrs. Clinton of New York," not a name she is used to answering to.

But, in a more familiar gesture (for him at least), 98 year old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) asked her, "Can I hug you?" and then did so, doubtless to allay the rumors that he is about to depart the heavenly confines of the Senate chamber for the great beyond.

As with so many things that occurred during the Clinton administration, I'm sure that this year's swearing in of the new Senate received more media coverage than any other previous swearing in ceremony in the nation's entire history.

Because of that alone, it would be only fitting that the soon to be ex-president go into the communications industry, since he and his wife have done so much for television ratings and volume of newsprint expended over the last eight years.

However the early years of the Bush 2 administration go, I'm not expecting such a publicity bonanza to come. Indeed, given George W.'s recent proto "press conference" that followed the presentation of his final three cabinet choices, I foresee very little entertainment value forthcoming at all. The whole country, for the first time, was treated to what Texas journalists (who had seen it before) call the Bush "glare." It was an amazing sight, the flip side of the more well known Bush sneer.

A member of the press had the gall to try to interrupt the president-elect mid sentence with a question and Bush's face turned stony and mean and the glare commenced. It was not a pretty sight, though one he managed to keep under control during the campaign.

Bush and his spokespeople boast that the George W. has no trouble appointing strong, intelligent (the word "more" always is in the air, though left unsaid) people to serve him. He thinks that is the best attribute of a chief executive. Well, it is something that he is used to, at Yale, at Harvard, hanging around his father's administration. Rich young men are used to having the best and most competent serve them. It comes with the territory.

Now, it's unknown what will come with the new territory Al Gore ventures out to explore. He may spend too much time covering old ground, wondering about the what ifs, trying to decide what went wrong and why.

Among many to chose from, I have my own pick for Al Gore's worst mistake of Campaign 2000. He should never have conceded in the early hours of Nov. 8th. It was Gore at his worst: being tired, wanting to get it over with, believing the television reports, not having his own information--or trusting it.

There was a lot wrong with Florida and all of brother Jeb's machinations and machinery that followed, but it was Gore himself who most forcefully christened George W. as the winner of the presidential election, because he, Al Gore, said Bush was, when Gore made that fateful phone call.

If it had not been made, the country as a whole may have shown even more tolerance for a recount than it did and the five Supreme Court justices might not have thought they were on such good public-opinion footing to intervene and hand the victory to George W. And then, there might have been a chance Hillary Clinton would have said to Al Gore, too, "Congratulations. I'm so proud of you."

January 16, 2001

Given the withdrawal of Linda Chavez as the Labor Secretary designee and the rapid follow-up selection by the president-elect of Elaine Chao (a Bush I transportation deputy secretary), a little review of history is in order. One of the hallmarks of recent Republican administrations is that they feminized that particular cabinet position.

Now, in 2001, such an appointment might seem to be progressive, forward thinking, a positive act of affirmative action. We are now used to having well-qualified women in cabinet positions (see Madeline Albright.) But, in the late 80s, during the Reagan Administration, the choice of a woman as labor secretary was only a ploy to show the Republican scorn of big labor.

Feminist economists point out that women are put in jobs employers want to cheapen. After women became bank tellers in the 1930s, as well as pharmacists, bartenders, and real estate agents, employers reduced pay and the position's status fell.

The secretary of labor became a woman's position under Ronald Reagan and continued to be one under George H.W.Bush. That gave them both a laugh, a two-fer: one, to downplay labor and, two, to claim they were elevating women.

In 1987 President Reagan appointed Ann McLaughlin labor secretary. She, at the time, was the wife of the conservative commentator John McLaughlin of "The McLaughlin Group," the weekly political yell-fest. Ann McLaughlin, who set the tone for the women to come, had to be excused from a business-school class she was taking at the time, when Reagan appointed her (she had been attempting to get an MBA.) After the graduate-student McLaughlin came Liddy Dole (1989-90), and then Lynn Martin (1990-93.) And then Linda Chavez (who only gets a date of her appointment and withdrawal, 2001-2001), and now Elaine Chao.

Poor Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary (1933-45), the first and last (until Reagan's appointment) female to hold the position, is doubtless spinning in her grave. Perkins was a powerful woman, like Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, and a long-time advocate of improving labor conditions and wages.

George W. has stuck steadfastly to the modern Republican tradition of dissing labor and elevating his cabinet's affirmative action numbers by his choice, at first, of Linda Chavez and, subsequently, Elaine Chao, a former Peace Corps director, CEO of United Way, as well as a member of George W.'s father's administration, and the wife of a Senator Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.). Republicans favor well-connected wives for labor secretary.

Does it matter? Labor did know what the Reagan and Bush I administrations thought of it. Initially, Robert Reich was not happy about taking the secretary of labor job in the first Clinton term, given its past modern history. Unfortunately, his short stature let Rush Limbaugh and other conservative critics make fun of his size and the labor department itself. Clinton then appointed Alexis Herman in his second term; she was a light-weight, but had a life-long commitment to core labor values.

But the Linda Chavez appointment was a direct affront to labor, and the AFL-CIO shed no tears over her fast demise (and may or may not take some credit for it.) Chavez seemed to suffer from what I have called the Vanessa Williams syndrome. The young Ms. Williams never imagined that she actually someday could become Miss America, so she let herself be photographed in the nude, which eventually caused her banishment. And Linda Chavez, I presume, never thought she would be named secretary of labor and therefore let herself house and fund an illegal immigrant, while Clinton cabinet appointees began dropping like flies for similar behavior.

President-elect Bush boasted that his new pick "believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it." But, it was her father who managed that; Ms. Chao just received the fruits of the dream. She went to Mount Holyoke College and Harvard and has had a management career ever since.

Elaine Chao is on record opposing "quotas," but she herself fills the Republican quota of one as the new labor secretary designee.

January 23, 2001

Now that the Bush Cabinet is, more or less, complete and confirmed it does appear that history may repeat itself. The rap on Bush I was that father Bush was good on foreign policy (the big picture, not the vision thing), but bad on the domestic side (it's the economy, stupid; not knowing what a bar code was, etc.). Bush II, given his Cabinet choices, is following his father's pattern, but with a twist.

A glance at the cabinet reveals the reason for enduring last week's Ashcroft grilling. Bush II has decided to hand over the domestic side of his administration to free market champions and culture war stalwarts, whereas he has filled the foreign policy side with his father's tried and true veterans.

George W., unlike his father, has decided not to downplay the nation's domestic conflicts. Young Bush and his advisors have concluded that Bush's father was wrong to try to maintain a noblesse oblige, an above-the-fray attitude, and, finally, a defensive position, in the social battles of his one term presidency.

George Bush the elder tried to keep the executive branch aloof and let the congress wage those fights. But, it was Bush's man, John Frohnmayer, then head of the National Endowment of the Arts, who took the heat from Jesse Helms and other staunch conservatives during the NEA controversies of the early '90s. Bush senior was ultimately singed by those cultural skirmishes fought so fiercely by the Republican right.

His son doesn't intend to be burnt at all. George W. has invited the Religious Right into the heart of the executive branch, his Cabinet. The presumption is, as it was during the campaign, that it is better to energize his base, keep it on its toes and in tone, fighting battles with the embattled left throughout the entire term, so the troops will be ready for the 2004 campaign.

Bush thinks that his father's seasoned men and women will take care of the truly important things, America's place in the world, and the social warriors will keep up the battle cries and will never go unnoticed, by him or the electorate.

And that is why John Ashcroft was required to do his humble-pie routine before the Senate committee that two weeks earlier he served on as a firebrand. Ashcroft did his best to reposition himself in the center of American life. Roe v. Wade is "settled" law. All the law suits he brought against it while attorney general of Missouri and Governor where only to "refine" it.

On day one Ashcroft claimed the state of Missouri was not a party to a desegregation suit he protested; the next day, after it was shown that he was wrong, he thanked his inquisitors for giving him a chance to "clarify" his position.

How does a man who has been such a religious right activist come to the center of power? Ashcroft's rise is an interesting case study. When, as a young Pentecostal, Ashcroft ran for congress in the early '70s, those who knew him best (the people he grew up with) handed him his first defeat. But, he was appointed the auditor of Missouri ('73-74) as a consolation prize; he ran in '74 for a full term as auditor and lost. But, again, he was saved by appointment, this time to the post of assistant attorney general.

So, a young man who was rejected by voters the first two times he ran became elevated to a high position in state government by appointment. Having gained enough public presence as an assistant attorney general, he was elected Attorney General in 1976. By 1985 that position led to the governorship and the Republican tidal wave of congressional victories in 1994 put him in the Senate. But, after one term, Ashcroft finally had too much public exposure; he, suffering another repudiation by the electorate, lost his seat to a dead man. Ashcroft himself calls these defeats and eventual victories "crucifixions" and "resurrections."

Ashcroft now has been resurrected one more time by George W.'s appointment to be America's Attorney General. That's how an extremist moves into the center.

The bet George W. is making is the same as his father: that foreign policy will, in the end, outweigh domestic policy. But, the new president should recall, that was a bet his father lost.

January 30, 2001

There is an unfortunate conjunction between the two most highly publicized break-outs in recent history: the first, the so-called Texas Seven's flight from incarceration, and the second, Bill Clinton's escape from the White House.

In the former, one is amazed by the solidarity of the seven prisoners who could not forsake one another, being so used to their close proximity for many years. None of them seemed to think seven short-haired guys traveling around in an RV would look suspicious, while the world looked for seven convicts on the lam.

And in the latter, Bill Clinton, after inking his plea-agreement with Robert Ray, bolting from the White House, but not before paying off any number of buddies and relatives and financial benefactors with pardons. Both the Texas Seven and Bill Clinton were acting true to form. It's hard to change one's lifetime habits.

As is often the case, the Texas fugitives were rounded up with their own assistance. They, too, were probably watching themselves on "America's Most Wanted," waiting for the law to descend. A good percentage of convicts seem to want to return to prison, since life among confined men is the one they find the most appealing and the one they know best. Certainly, this group of unmagnificent seven couldn't bear to part with one another.

Bill Clinton, too, found it difficult to part with the White House. He gave his Saturday radio address as if George W. Bush wasn't to be sworn in two hours later. The night before, Clinton gave a puffy-eyed speech (look for some gentle plastic surgery soon) announcing nothing except how well he thinks he served us all.

Well, Clinton's most enduring legacy, unfortunately, will be the Bush II administration. Nonetheless, Clinton's January pardon list is a compelling document. The first name on it is Verla Jean Allen, from Everton, Arkansas, and her pardonable offense was "False statement to agency of United States," which the former president must have found familiar.

In fact, in this group, fifteen Arkansans were pardoned, most for making false statements, bank fraud, or drug crimes, all Clinton family concerns and preoccupations.

In both pardons and commutations Clinton showed mercy on other men who have shown a weakness for young flesh and difficulties that arise from its pursuit, most notably former Clinton HUD secretary Henry Cisneros and congressman Mel Reynolds.

But, it is the financier and union-buster Marc Rich's pardon that has generated the most attention, since it so shouts that money talks and Mr. Rich gets to walk, given that his ex-wife (one of the nicest of the breed, evidently) has raised so much cash for the Clintons and the Democrats. When the Clintons left the White House they did depart with most everything that wasn't nailed down, since they now have so many different rooms in so many different cities to fill.

One wonders if there would have been more or less pardons and computations if Al Gore had ascended to the presidency. Would Clinton have wanted to leave his former vice president with this mess to explain? But, given past behavior, I don't think Bill Clinton gave two minutes thought to Al Gore, in anything he chose to do, given that he cost Gore the election. This noxious smoke screen Clinton has left behind lets George W. Bush seem squeaky clean, since second, third and fourth generation money has no need to appear avaricious and mendacious, since all that was accomplished long ago, perhaps even legally, and certainly with more discretion and less public scrutiny.

The new president is beginning to settle his debts now, with the help of congress, in the form of tax cuts to come and the promise of vouchers in his education reforms.

Democrats were throttled by Bush during the campaign for their "targeted" tax relief plan, whereas young Bush wants to give tax relief to all. But, it's hard to know what is more targeted than the "death" tax, the capital gains tax, and vouchers (which, of course, are tax cuts for those who send their children to private and religious schools, the folk who make up Bush's base.) The most money, of course, goes to the top 1%, but there's some small change thrown in for ordinary Republican conservatives.

February 6, 2001

The two-week-old Bush presidency proceeds quite like his presidential campaign: the left hand pretends it doesn't know what the right is doing.

We have seen the new president photographed in various multi-cultural surroundings, swearing in his ethnic and gender diverse cabinet (he had Colin Powell sworn in twice!), visiting an inner-city school, launching his education reforms, attending a largely African-American Sunday church service, standing in front of a rainbow coalition of religious personages announcing his creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, spending face time with the Congressional Black Caucus, appearing at the National Prayer Breakfast.

And, while these publicity-friendly photographic opportunities took place, his administration restricted federal money for overseas reproductive rights initiatives, stewarded John Ashcroft's controversial journey to become Attorney General, offered not-so-hidden tax right-offs to his high-income base, put the fox (ex-oil man Dick Cheney) in charge of the energy hen house task force (given California's experience with deregulation and corporate greed), packed his White House counsels' office with veterans of the Clinton impeachment wars, plans to elevate his vote-squelching Supreme Court lawyer, Ted Olson, a leading early Clinton hunter, to the position of Solicitor General (the holding room for possible Supreme Court appointees), and manages, throughout, not to be captured on film doing any of this as prominently as he markets his compassionate conservative image.

Take Bush's Faith-Based group. Its second in command is the former mayor of Indianapolis, Steve Goldsmith, who once was forecasted to be the Jewish exception in the Bush cabinet. (No matter how diverse-appearing the Cabinet looks it contains no one of Jewish background.)

During '96, when running for governor of Indiana, Goldsmith was slated to be a rising star of the GOP, given his large appetite for privatization, mostly carried out in Indianapolis. But, by that time, Goldsmith's wholesale privatizations had proven somewhat disastrous, enough so to turn some of his Republican allies against him and he lost the race for governor to its current occupant, the Democrat Frank O'Bannon. Southern Indiana anti-Semitism was also said to be blamed, though Goldsmith (who is married to Dan Quayle's cousin) always preferred to keep his religion far in the shadows.

Until now, of course, when it suits George W.'s public relations presidency. The federal government has always found the means to funnel money to "faith-based" organizations (by means of non-profit auxiliaries), but George W. has turned that fact into a marketing campaign, as well as a way to direct funds to his friends rather than his enemies.

George W. looks like he intends to continue this style of presidency: soft public appearances on one hand, while the other hand has been turned into a fist behind the back, kept from public view--or, at least, George W. will not be seen wielding it. Dick Cheney and others are on board for that job.

Even though Bush's first two weeks echo his campaign strategy, the mainstream press doesn't criticize this sort of governing in the same way. Things are entirely different now. George W. is no longer the callow candidate; he is President of the United States and is given more respect, regard, and deference.

George W., in any case, doesn't seem to be getting his usual ample (Texas-sized) hours of sleep. Though not doing much of substance, he has to be awake much longer than he is used to and his few unscripted remarks have been often testy.

We all await the new president's first news conference. Commentators have flattered Bush, marveling at the contrast to Clinton's first few fumbling days in office: Clinton stumbling at every turn, Bush sailing through, surrounded by symbols of reconciliation and compassion.

One of Clinton's early mis-steps came because of a reporter's query, a response about gays in the military, which led to the Don't ask, Don't tell fiasco. But America waits to see the new President respond at length without a speech in his hand. But Bush knows where he wants the press: behind their cameras, taking pictures, not behind their notebooks, asking questions.

February 13, 2001

Every presidential election mimics a traumatic event in one specific way--even the undisputed ones that are not decided by recount deadlines and the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation gets to enjoy a self-induced amnesia brought on by the shock of the election's conclusion and finality. The winner assumes the office and his predecessor and opponent go quietly off stage.

This occurred in '96, when Bob Dole disappeared for some rest and, apparently, cosmetic surgery, and didn't reappear until becoming a Visa pitchman on television. And in 1992 George H.W. Bush went back to Texas, somewhat sullenly, but with dispatch and dignity.

Ronald Reagan, too, left quietly in '88, ditto Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford. Even Richard Nixon, after absconding in the presidential helicopter, went unseen for months. All received the gratitude of the nation for their absence.

The country finds it easier and curative to forget the sometimes spectacular clashes of presidential campaigns. Everyone longs for a rest, wants to deal with what is, rather than what could, or should, have been.

But not this time. We have had the permanent campaign; now we have the permanent election. And this one continues to be unprecedented. Obviously, Bill Clinton finds it difficult to go off into the mists, even for a gracious year or two. One reason, doubtless, is because he had no life to go to, since his entire biography has been political. Wandering the lecture circuit, even at a hundred grand an appearance, will not suffice for long. He needs to make news.

He did leave a lot of news behind and the anti-Clinton faction of Congress doesn't seem to want to leave it behind, either. Like low-budget vampires, committee chairmen like Clinton-harasser Rep. Dan Burton (R.In.) rise again from their media graves and convene investigations into the eleventh-hour pardons. Sen. Arlen Specter (R.Pa.), something of a specter himself, threatens to call witnesses (and for a constitutional amendment!). The Clintons may not have launched a thousand ships, but they certainly launched a thousand committees.

Who will pardon the pardons? Or the pardoners? Meanwhile, Al Gore, though still wardrobe challenged, ambles up to New York City, the media capital of the world, to "teach" a graduate journalism class at Columbia University. As a Columbia alum, I can be alarmed that it is letting cub reporters teach cub reporters and, additionally, at the amount of money the former vice president must be getting for lecturing to the eager students.

What has Al Gore been doing since the early seventies? Not journalism, but politics. Why isn't he teaching political science? Why isn't he going away for a year or two and then returning to public view, recharged and ready to, as the new bumper sticker says, "Re-Elect Gore in '04"?

The new president, though, seems to be happy to share the spotlight. In fact, it is pretty clear his administration is delighted that it can conduct its business without enduring the total attention of the country.

Indeed, the Bush II administration, though full of precedents, has its share of news makers. Amidst the cheers for Colin Powell becoming Secretary of State one fact has gone largely unnoted. He's the first former four star general and chair of the Joint Chiefs to become Secretary of State since the Truman administration, when George C. Marshall was appointed to remake the world.

Traditionally, this country has tried to keep some sort of wall between the military and the civilian sides of government (much less a wall between church and state.) Often, the separation was just symbolic. But Powell's posting breaches that wall. George W. seems to want to tear down a number of them, given the chink his Faith-Based White House office makes in the church-state wall.

George W.'s father was also one-of-a-kind. He was the first former chief of intelligence, head of the CIA, to become president, following the Soviet, not U.S., model (see Vladimir Putin, etc.).

So, it may be a brave new world after all. The votes of Florida are being counted by a variety of organizations. The permanent election continues. And that, however strange it seems, may be the Democrats' biggest gift yet for President Bush.

February 22, 2001


When compared to its predecessor, the Bush II administration is full of startling contrasts. And I am not referring to the often broadcast change in Oval Office personal behavior promised by the new president. Both George W. and Bill Clinton are members of the Baby Boom generation, but they occupy different sides of that coin. Clinton is bookish, the intellectual, the policy wonk side; Bush is the nonintellectual, unbookish, business side.

The divisive 2000 election produced what appeared to be two separate countries: Blue America and Red America, the map of the United States that reflected voting patterns county by county (Chicago is Blue America.) It is a more subtle version of the blunter maps shown on television after the election, the blue states that went for Gore and the red ones that went for Bush.

As stark as that Blue and Red map is, many commentators (including myself) have claimed it is a cultural divide that is represented by the city/country split it shows, Gore's dominance in large cities and Bush's hold on the less densely settled areas of the country, which resulted in Gore's half-million plus lead in the popular vote and Bush's ultimate slim victory in the electoral college.

Yet, it isn't so much the culture of left and right, liberal and conservative, that is being played out in the Bush II administration (though those differences are clearly there), but a more fundamental America one, between the business class and the intellectual class.

This traditional divide in our culture (Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novelBabbitt is an early depiction) has been somewhat obscured during the last decade by the dot com revolution and the birth of the so-called "knowledge" industry, which doesn't look like old-fashioned business as usual.

But, the Bush II administration follows the old corporate model, personified most ably by Vice President Dick Cheney. Bill Clinton, if anything other than a politician, was a man of ideas, who surrounded himself with other Ivy League, Rhodes Scholar high achievers, liking nothing so much (well, liking well enough) as discussing issues and ideas seminar fashion, with academic friends, who he often put in positions of responsibility. His wife was much the same.

The first-term Health Care fiasco readily showed the Clintons as denizens of the intellectual world; it had all the earmarks of an academic project gone awry, producing reams of intellectual material, but no success as a business proposition. Endless high brow meetings, few results, a familiar outcome to anyone who spends time working in our country's universities.

But, Bush is all business. His admirers point proudly to Bush's MBA from Harvard as proof that he is not just a politician and certainly no dummy, as some detractors claim, and they hold up his time with the Texas Rangers to show how successful a businessman he was.

Indeed, James Higgins, a Harvard MBA alum, in the February 19th issue of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, credits Bush's MBA training as the reason the first weeks of the Bush II administration have gone so smoothly.

Higgins doesn't entertain the notion that the long-established business/intellectual culture division in our history is what accounts for the stark differences shown so clearly by Blue America and Red America.

The one place, while president, Bill Clinton could find no comfort was in his dealings with the military, which is solidly part of the business culture.

One can only imagine what sort of virulent criticism would be hurled at Clinton or Gore, as representatives of the intellectual culture, if either were president today overseeing the USS Greeneville debacle. Yet Clinton did nothing to change the business culture of the military and it is that culture that likes to entertain other businessmen who are due favors by letting them play with their toys.

When it results in tragedy, that culture undergoes some inspection. And, doubtless, such corporate and military hospitality will not be extended in the future to nuclear submarines and will have to return to golf resorts, where it belongs. (Clinton letting his intellectual-world friends sleep in the Lincoln bedroom appears, in contrast, rather harmless.) But business culture now reigns in the White House. And actions, in that world, speak louder than words.

February 27, 2001

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is not William Jefferson Clinton that is keeping George W. Bush off the front pages. Many have claimed that Clinton is hogging the limelight, aided and abetted by the tireless anti-Clinton cabal in Congress, one kept fed by Clinton's last minute, come-and-get-em, buy-one-get-one-free pardon policy.

What keeps George W. in second place is George W. himself, his lack of presence, substance, heft. The new president has said little and he has said it unmemorably. Indeed, if Bush makes us ponder what he says, it is because it is wrong, such as the remarks he made at one of his visits to grammar schools last week, when he said that if a young child learns to read "he or her" will be able to pass a literacy test. Now, everyone makes grammatical mistakes, even columnists, but Bush makes them so often that the public, more or less, now just looks away.

During the presidential campaign, Bush's "lack of experience" was commented on, his less-than-serious aspects were played up. Now that he is president, journalists are loathed to do that, since he is, after all, the President. But young Bush does not command attention and the way his handlers have continued to present him (endless elementary school appearances, friendly audience photo-ops, a hastily-called first press conference, barely a half-hour long, with expectations so low he got through it with only a few bloopers) keeps emphasizing his lack of impact.

The outskirts of Baghdad have been bombed, but everyone presumes that was the work of the original Gulf War team, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. George W. doesn't yet seem to be the commander in chief. He talks to military audiences, but only to promise them better barracks.

It has been pointed out often that the office can alter positively the individual who assumes the presidency. That a man can grow in the job. Likewise, it is shown that it can age a man, leave its burdens etched on his face.

But Bill Clinton hasn't seemed to age in that way. He looks better upon leaving the presidency than when he entered. As happened so often during the eight years of the Clinton administration, it is his wife Hillary who took the brunt of the stresses and strains of life at the top. If anyone needed a vacation after eight years, it was Hillary Clinton, but, instead, she mounted a successful senatorial campaign and went right to work as a United States Senator. Now, her brother Hugh's participation in the pardon scandals ages her even more, heaping yet further family ignominy on her shoulders.

Bill Clinton has never seemed personally avaricious, or desperately materialistic. Rather, he seems to want to possess the Midas Touch and make everyone around him happy, by being able to dispense money and good fortune to all. He must have known, beyond the money he and the Democrats got from the Rich family, that his friend, Jack Quinn, Marc Rich's lawyer, would be getting a handsome fee for advocating for his fugitive client.

And Clinton must have known, despite denials--if Hugh Rodham isn't a complete fraud--that his brother-in-law would be paid for his work on behalf of the two criminals the president showed mercy to.

I expected the Clinton pardons to be spectacular, but I did not think the controversy would be over money, but, like Bush's father's pardon of Caspar Weinberger, over the silence they bought.

By the way, Clinton's loyal and silent secretary, Betty Currie, got the Clintons' cat, Socks, but did Socks get a six-figure trust fund for cat food? Clinton loves to be loved, but, when it goes bad, he tells them to give the money back.

George W. does have to fight the tawdry appeal of all this to get some coverage. But, one reason Bush's first weeks have been bathed in quiet is that there is no pack of rabid Democratic congressional Bush-haters attacking him, as the Republicans, from the beginning, went after Clinton. The Clinton controversies may continue to be the best cover George W. has, something like sunlight in everyone's eyes, blinding most everyone, so it isn't noticed how thin and transparent the 43rd president actually is.