The Reagan Comparison

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, June 7, 2004; 11:26 AM

The death of Ronald Reagan places President Bush squarely in the role of mourner-in-chief. But it's not entirely clear if Bush will emerge from a solid week of tributes and reminiscences resplendent as a self-styled heir to the Reagan legacy, or if he will suffer in comparison from a stature gap.

There is no doubt that the White House will be HQ for Reagan week. Bush not only woke and dressed to make a statement on Saturday but has since declared Friday a national day of mourning and a government holiday. Bush will preside over three days of intensely solemn, stately, moving and patriotic observances in the nation's capital.

Bush has never been shy about identifying with Reagan -- considerably more than he does with his father, in fact. The Reagan analogies were a recurring theme of his reelection message even before his campaign turned its Web site's home page into a gigantic Reagan tribute over the weekend.

Furthermore, Reagan's death is thoroughly distracting from stories the White House was eager to bury: The sudden interest in Bush and Vice President Cheney apparently expressed by the special prosecutor investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity; the oddly timed and mysterious resignation of CIA Director George J. Tenet; the grim news out of Iraq; the revelations of brutality at Abu Ghraib; the increasingly bizarre story of Ahmed Chalabi.

And, aware that he has no chance of getting anyone off the all-Reagan-all-the-time message, Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, has decided not to even bother campaigning for a week.

On the other hand, the death of the 40th president also sucked the air out of Bush's European trip, which was designed to enhance his stature, and it distracted from the strong job numbers posted on Friday.

And, when all is said and done, comparisons to the larger-than-life Reagan may not help Bush.

For instance, Bush's insistence that he is optimistic might look desperate when compared to Reagan's effortless confidence. His recent attempt to liken the war on terror and the war in Iraq to prior global conflicts between good and evil may fall short of Reagan's similar claim about the end of the Cold War.

And some of the things they have in common -- massive deficits, a disengaged management style, ideological stubbornness -- are not necessarily Bush's strongest assets.

"Bush rarely talks about his father's influence on his political views, but he has been outspoken in his praise of the 40th president. Reagan's death Saturday renewed talk that Bush is the natural heir to Reagan's political legacy."

"Mr. Bush's advisers said Sunday that the intense focus on Mr. Reagan's career that began upon the news of his death on Saturday would remind Americans of what Mr. Bush's supporters have long described as the similarities between the two men as straight-talking, ideologically driven leaders with swagger and a fixed idea of what they wanted to do with their office."

But, Nagourney writes, "Some Republicans said the images of a forceful Mr. Reagan giving dramatic speeches on television provided a less-than-welcome contrast with Mr. Bush's own appearances these days, and that it was not in Mr. Bush's interest to encourage such comparisons."

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