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Mary McGrory

Pit-Stop Presidency

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, October 27, 2002; Page B07

Is the presidency of the United States a part-time job? You might think so, given the hours George W. Bush has been putting in lately.

For the past two weeks he has been careening about the countryside through 13 states, plugging Republicans down to the state senate level (Pennsylvania) and swooping down on states where he isn't even needed (Maine). He is raising millions of dollars for candidates and raising alarms about Saddam Hussein and the awful prospect that the Democrats might prevail in the November elections.

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Here is a commander in chief with one war in progress and another in the making. Supposedly grave decisions have to be made -- as they always are on "The West Wing" -- on both fronts. But the president has other fish to fry -- namely, Democrats.

He stops by 1600 Pennsylvania from time to time to take a bow and sign a bill. But he doesn't stay long. While he does not engage in the anti-Washington rhetoric of other Republican presidents -- Nixon, Ford, Reagan -- he votes with his feet, so to speak. He ducks out of "the splendid misery" whenever he can.

Election Day will clear up many mysteries, among them possibly the question of how the country feels about a chief executive who uses the Oval Office as a pit stop.

The Democrats, as Bush's political director, Ken Mehlman, gleefully remarks, offer no opposition. They are frightened of his 63 percent approval ratings, and on the subject of the war on terror, they cling to him like lost children.

They do not complain about being kept in the dark for 12 days about another radioactive lunatic at large on the planet, North Korea's Kim Jong Il. The president never mentions his name, wanting to avoid a comparison of the way he treats Iraq and the way he treats North Korea: One gets bombs, the other gets talked to.

Naturally, Democrats don't want to call attention to having the wool pulled over their eyes and try to keep the conversation on prescription drugs and Social Security -- on Nasdaq, not Iraq.

All candidates know from their polling and canvassing that terror is much on people's minds. The world has been fixated on the subject because of the gruesome sequence of events in the nation's capital, where snipers, as is now alleged, shot 13 people, 10 of whom died. It brought home the difficulty of catching terrorists, about which the First Citizen of Washington has made some rather large promises.

Muffled cries for gun control were heard but were unaccountably dismissed as "low blows." The president was sufficiently concerned to promise a study of a scheme for "fingerprinting bullets" -- vociferously opposed by the National Rifle Association. But even Charlton Heston, the president of the NRA, said in New Hampshire it might be a good idea.

Bush continues his partisan pilgrim's progress until Election Day, which he will spend in his spiritual home, his ranch without horses in Crawford, Tex.

During the campaign, in which he has insisted on being the central figure, he has portrayed himself as a tireless, affable, aggressive leader who is endlessly helpful to his party. His policies, however, have given the world a different image of his country. With him at the wheel, Uncle Sam has become thought of as the SUV of nations: It hogs the road and guzzles the gas and periodically has to run over something -- such as another country -- to get to its Middle Eastern filling station.

Bush rather glories in the antagonisms he arouses, at least in Europe and, incipiently, on campuses. His intentions toward Iraq will increase tensions with the Muslim world, a factor he does not seem to have taken into consideration. His partisans are citing the secret nuclear program just revealed in North Korea as an inevitable result of "soft-headed" Clinton fantasies about "engagement." Bush will welcome the antiwar movement slowly beginning, as Ronald Reagan did. Both Reagan and Nixon bragged that they "didn't make foreign policy on the street." That was a way of discouraging massive turnouts and dismissing them. The dilemma remains: Demonstrations only stiffen spines, but their absence suggests there is no resistance.

Maybe when Bush makes one of his excursions to Washington, he might take a walk through Arlington National Cemetery and see that it is running out of space for those little white slabs, which give the heartbreakingly short span of many lives.


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