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."

Yesterday, for instance, Reagan "stole the show" from Bush, writes Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times.

"Did President George W. Bush speak on Sunday at the ceremony in Colleville-sur-Mer for the 60th anniversary of D-Day? It was hard to tell -- television networks put up a wall of Ronald Reagan nostalgia so thick that even the president who claims Mr. Reagan's mantle could barely break through. It was as if the president known as the Great Communicator had reached down to his understudy and with a sly grin whispered, 'Not so fast, kid.'"

Glen Johnson writes in the Boston Globe: "Remembrance and mourning for Reagan not only emphasizes the links between Bush and Reagan, but it also creates a firebreak in a campaign that has seen Bush's popularity plummeting, the public questioning his war in Iraq, and criticism spring up from his fellow conservatives."

But the steady diet of Reagan tributes "also carries a risk if the memorials take on a political air," Johnson writes.

He quotes William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute: "All it will take at one of theses ceremonies is someone saying, 'Let's win one more for the Gipper,' and it will be trouble for the president."

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Political observers say Reagan's passing provides a stellar opportunity for the Bush campaign to remind voters of GOP strengths. But there are also dangerous pitfalls in the long trek to the voting booth in November. . . .

"Bush is expected to play a prominent role as a 'national healer' at a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral on Friday before Reagan's body is returned to California to be interred later that evening at his presidential library in Simi Valley (Ventura County). The occasion allows Bush to focus attention on a positive tribute, while aligning himself with the luster, the stature and the affection that the former president still generates, GOP analysts said."

But Marinucci quotes former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a Democrat, on the risk of appearing diminished by comparison.

"He will do his best to try and associate himself with Reagan -- but it won't fly," Brown said. "It would be as if you're comparing a squirrel to an elephant."

"In an echo of the 'morning in America' theme used by President Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984, Bush aides have tried to set up optimism-pessimism as an enduring contrast in the campaign that they try to apply to both Kerry's policies and his disposition."

Here's that ad.

In his speech to the Republican Governors Association in February, Bush had this to say: "Ronald Reagan's leadership revived America's economy, renewed America's strength, and lifted America's confidence. And that spirit of optimism and faith in fundamental American values is the spirit we will carry to victory in November of 2004."

Here is Bush's statement on Reagan's death.

Here is the text of Bush's statement ordering government flags to be displayed at half-staff for 30 days and establishing Friday as a national day of mourning.

Here is his executive order closing the government on Friday.

Bush on Reagan:

"Brokaw: You think of yourself as a Ronald Reagan Republican?

"Bush: Think of myself as a George W. Republican, different era."

Bush on Iraq:

"I think it's fair to say that, you know, that the enemy didn't lay down its arms like we had hoped."

Bush on al Qaeda:

"It worries me that the al-Qaida leadership says, 'Well, we may be able to affect the election of the United States. We may be able to, you know, change the outcome of democracy by killing.'"

Bush on the draft:

"Brokaw: ... [D]o you think that the draft will ever return to America?"

"Bush: No."

"It is not clear when or where Mr. Cheney was interviewed, but he was not questioned under oath and he has not been asked to appear before the grand jury, people officially informed about the case said."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "Decisions on indictments could come within weeks, according to lawyers and others close to the case. Bush's decision to seek out the counsel of lawyer James Sharp was prompted by signals that prosecutors may want to talk to him shortly -- a clear sign the investigation is reaching its climax, says one lawyer. Another source says prosecutors have been returning to key witnesses to ask what were described as 'mop-up' questions. There are no suggestions that either the president or veep are in any legal trouble. But one key figure in the probe, sources say, is Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby."

In the New York Times, Michael Janofsky profiles Jim Sharp, the lawyer President Bush intends to hire if he is questioned in the case, calling him "one of the best lawyers in Washington the public has never heard of."

Cheney has had a private lawyer for several years: Terrence O'Donnell, a partner at Williams & Connolly.

Keith B. Richburg and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post that "Bush offered a conciliatory pledge to Europeans who today question the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance forged in World War II."

In an earlier report, Milbank wrote that "Bush's speech, though filled with tenderness for the veterans and their long-lost comrades, made no attempt at soaring. His delivery was subdued, so soft that some in the audience had difficulty hearing him despite the amplifiers. As he did in his speech on the same spot on Memorial Day two years ago, Bush told a series of war stories, many with themes of religion and bravery."

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

And here's the text of a news conference Bush had with French President Jacques Chirac and the text of the news conference Bush had with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Here is the text of the Pope's statement.

By the way, there was much speculation during my Live Online discussion last week on the nature of the veils that the White House advance team was providing to women in the group meeting with the Pope. Well, here's a White House photo.

In the meantime, here's video from ABC showing that Bush wasn't just up from some strange fist-pumping at the Air Force Academy. There were high-fives, a belly-buck, and much much more.

Dana Priest and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that "preserving the CIA's status at the White House and among world leaders will be among the toughest" challenges facing the new CIA director. Tenet's frequent presence in White House photo releases were one indication that Tenet was at the center of the major White House decisions on foreign operations. Here are some of those White House photos.

"White House officials do not expect that memorial services for former President Reagan, who died Saturday in California, will affect Bush's week here. But he may leave the summit briefly Wednesday night to greet Reagan's body as it arrives back in Washington. Then Bush would fly back to Georgia for the remainder of the summit through Thursday."

Manuel Roig-Franzia of The Washington Post sets the scene at Sea Island, Ga.

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "A Bush administration plan for the world's wealthiest nations to declare their support for democracy in the Middle East has strained relations with several important allies in the Arab world. Some of those allies have spurned invitations to attend a summit meeting in Georgia that starts Tuesday."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Bush's month of high-profile foreign policy meetings may have political implications for him as well. His political advisers believe that underscoring his stature on the world stage, even if disagreements are highlighted, enhances his image as a strong leader."

I'd link to it, but the telling document is mysteriously absent from the White House Web site.

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