Bush is No FDR
[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published on May 2, 1989.]
If Ronald Reagan had left behind anything remotely resembling Herbert Hoover's horrendous bequest to Franklin D. Roosevelt, we would, just to begin with, be more likely to be drowning in a torrent of progress reports on the first 100 days of President Michael Dukakis. There might, then, be something in the way of a useful analogy.
As it is, there is nothing that seems to me to justify what we have been subjected to in print and on the air in commemoration of the hundredth day of the presidency of George Bush -- the "magical milestone," as one TV talk show host put it. Why "magical" and why a "milestone" when Bush's first term has 1,361 days to go?
You would have to be so politically dormant as to qualify for membership on the Oliver North jury not to be aware by now that the rationale for this ritual progress report on new presidents rests on the near 100 days it took FDR to respond to the calamity of the Great Depression with a monumental mass of public works programs, banking reforms, foreign subsidies and all the other relief measures of the New Deal.
What can all this have to do with Bush? Almost nothing, other than the natural impulse of political analysts to reach for instant historical analogies, aided and abetted by gang journalism and the power of a popular cliche'. The net of it, to my mind, has been to put Bush to a premature presumptuous test -- unfairly, more often than not.
Not even the numbers add up. Under the timetable of those days, Roosevelt was not inaugurated until March 4, giving him an extra six weeks to get ready. A shaken Congress was conditioned to comply quickly; FDR did not face today's dragged-out security clearances and protracted confirmation proceedings. The countdown on his fabled "hundred days" didn't start until March 9. The bell now ringing for Bush didn't ring for Roosevelt until June 16, when Congress finished its work.
Making that point and sensibly conceding a preference for careful "deliberation" over "hubris and haste," Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel for John F. Kennedy, argues that Bush, through an excess of timidity, has squandered his "honeymoon hundred." Maybe he has, if you accept Sorensen's premise that "each new president is offered free of charge a once-in-a-presidency opportunity to write his national agenda on a uniquely clean slate for a uniquely attentive audience."
Now that may have been so for Roosevelt, a charismatic Democrat responding to a deep and clearly definable crisis and to wide public disenchantment with a failed Republican presidency. For the ills he inherited, FDR had a predecessor of the opposition party to blame. To a degree, the same may be said of almost every modern president: Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Kennedy, Eisenhower. But Sorensen's dictum most emphatically cannot be applied to a rather more pedestrian Republican president, George Bush, who is picking up after a widely beloved president of his own party -- a man he loyally served, without a whisper of public disagreement, for eight years as vice president.
That hardly provides him with a "clean slate."
On the contrary, for the assorted and in some cases intractable legacies he must deal with -- a yawning budget deficit, bloated defense spending, the trade imbalance, Third World debt, the delayed fallout from Iran-contra, the drug scourge, the homeless, the ferment in East-West relations and within the Western Alliance -- he has no handy scapegoat. He also has no easy way to take his distance from the policies of his predecessor. For Bush, the "Roosevelt test" simply doesn't work.
Indeed, the whole notion of a "hundred day" test doesn't work when you weigh the reviews of Bush's performance against the record of almost every other modern president. He has no "agenda," conveys no "mission," reveals no "core philosophy," the pundits complain, as if Bush had not more than fulfilled the norm for platitudinous pronouncements of noble purposes. He is too ready to compromise, it is said, as if he is in a position to overwhelm a Congress controlled by Democrats.
Frankly, I would agree that Bush hasn't yet told us where "he wants to take the country by the year 2000" as some critics insist he should have by now. But no polls I have seen suggest that this is something the public is clamoring to know. What the polls do suggest is that Bush has managed to project a distinctively new and apparently comforting image -- not a Reagan clone, not a commanding figure, but also not the wimp with a mean streak that so many seemed to see not so long ago.
That's no mean accomplishment. It's also not such a bad beginning when you consider the first "hundred days" impressions conveyed by the pie-in-the-sky promises or pell-mell plunges of some of his predecessors -- Reagan's "balanced budget" pledge, Carter's early, overly ambitious lunge into comprehensive nuclear arms talks with the Soviets, Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, Kennedy's Bay of Pigs.