The Master
Two journalists argue that Bush has failed to learn Reagan's lessons.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


George W. Bush's Troubled Quest For a Presidential Legacy

By Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon

Public Affairs. 382 pp. $27.95

All Republicans are virtually required to genuflect at the shrine of Ronald Reagan. Bob Dole, as a prospective candidate in 1995, famously said that he was "willing to be another Ronald Reagan." Mitt Romney, in a January debate, managed to pack one response with 14 references to Reagan. And the current president, during a C-SPAN interview in 2005, said: "You know, I think if I had to have a mentor . . . it would have been Ronald Reagan."

It's a tough standard to meet, particularly since Reagan the pragmatic man does not square with Reagan the ideologically conservative myth. Indeed, Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon -- father and son journalists and co-authors of Reagan's Disciple-- do not believe that George W. Bush measures up. In essence, this is their verdict: "We knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a source of ours. Mr. President, you're no Ronald Reagan."

The Cannons would never say it that way, of course. They are reporters, not bloggers. Their tone is dispassionate. Their prose is measured, with nary a pejorative adjective. They are devoted to "analysis based on facts and historical context," and that is precisely the strength of this book, which interweaves the Reagan and Bush narratives (the father covered Reagan for The Washington Post; the son covered Bush for the National Journal) and arrives at judicious findings based on the weight of the evidence.

And the evidence is clear. With respect to Bush's signature foreign policy adventure, the Cannons decide that "Reagan wouldn't have gone into Iraq." During his own tenure, Reagan "realized that he did not have (nor did he seek) a free hand in waging war." He was "cautious about such involvements" and believed that wars could not be successfully fought without popular domestic support, the requisite troop strength and a feasible exit strategy. His incursions were limited, particularly after 240 Marines died in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon. All told, the Cannons conclude, "he was a reluctant warrior who much preferred negotiation to counting the dead."

Reagan, they persuasively write, was also far more schooled than Bush in the art of compromise and the careful expenditure of political capital. The Social Security issue is a case in point. Reagan forged a deal with congressional Democrats in 1983, and though it wasn't perfect -- taxes went up -- it kept the program solvent and showed he could work with the majority opposition. By contrast, during the first six months of 2005, Bush spent much of his political capital stumping in vain for Social Security privatization, a concept that grew more unpopular the more he talked about it.

It was no surprise that Bush stuck with the issue even as public support dwindled; nor was it a surprise that he persisted on Iraq long after a majority of Americans deemed the war a mistake. After all, he has long insisted that he pays no attention to polls. Yet, as the Cannons demonstrate, that is not how Reagan governed. Reagan was guided by his foundational convictions (lower taxes, strong defense) but was attuned to public sentiment and recalibrated when necessary.

Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff, told Carl Cannon: "You can't govern by polls, but you need the American people with you to govern effectively. . . ." It's not hard to read those remarks -- and others voiced by Reagan alumni -- as evidence that Bush's governing style is viewed skeptically by keepers of the flame.

Reagan employed what the Cannons call "a diverse and sometimes quarrelsome circle of advisers," people like Duberstein, Howard Baker, George Shultz and Colin Powell, most of whom were "practical and realistic." Bush's inner circle, by contrast, has not been known for its wide range of opinion. Reagan, in the words of Harvard professor Joseph Nye, "listened to people who were telling him what was wrong." Bush, the Cannons say, has been less tolerant of dissent and more often has refused "to learn from his mistakes."

The Cannons employ anecdotes sparingly, but to good effect. One Bush friend from Yale, Lanny Davis, recalls a long night shooting pool with the future president. Bush kept trying to make a double-bank shot in the side pocket, vowing not to quit until he pulled it off. He never did, and his friends finally compelled him to leave. It is this "competitive stubbornness" (in Davis's words) that has damaged Bush's poll standing, with no realistic recovery prospects before he is compelled to leave office.

Reagan, on the other hand, left office with his popularity high, with "a nation at peace, and one more confident of its place in the world." His political dexterity and his gift for fusing idealism with pragmatism remain the Republican gold standard. As the Cannons so effectively demonstrate, Reagan the mentor still awaits his rightful disciple.

-- Dick Polman is the national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His daily political blog is at

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company