The presence on George Bush's bedside table of a new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of war unnerves the president's aides who fear their boss is fully committed to what one worried staffer calls his "rendezvous with destiny."
Henry L. Stimson's world view, as described in "The Colonel" by British journalist Godfrey Hodgson, has been frequently reported since the book's publication in October as resembling President Bush's. The added dimension is that Stimson, an aristocrat who envisioned an American-shaped world order, is a conscious role model for Bush. According to aides, their chief -- a man of actions rather than letters -- is reading and talking about the book.
That's just fine for Bush aides who see a quick, successful war as ensuring the president's reelection and confounding antiwar Democrats. But other staffers, perhaps a majority in numbers though surely not in influence, are not pleased by the emergence of the old colonel from the mists of time to reinforce Bush's determination. "I think the president is ready for war, for his rendezvous with destiny at one minute after midnight Jan. 16," one staffer told us.
Those unhappy with this prospect are also displeased by identification in the president's mind of an isolated Arab despot with Hitler's might. While America's problems deepen at home and the Republican disarray worsens, Bush is focused against Saddam.
Hodgson's biographical essay about a dimly remembered figure would have received limited attention had it not accidentally been published in the midst of the Bush-Saddam staredown. Even so, it has not reached best-seller lists, even in Washington. But anything on Bush's personal reading list sells close to home. The meager supply at the Crown bookstore one block from the White House sold out (we bought the last copy).
Reviewers have noted that as a schoolboy at Andover, George Bush was in the audience in June 1940 when Stimson addressed the triumph of Hitler's barbarism (shortly before Bush enlisted as the youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy). Bush shares membership in Yale's Skull and Bones secret society and much else attributed to Stimson in this biography: "American leadership in the world"; "love of adventure," including blood sports; and "more comfortable in the quiet corridors of power than on the hustings."
The widening breach between Bush and the Republican Party's conservative base is also brought to mind by the decision of Stimson, then the GOP's last secretary of state, a few days after his Andover speech, "to defy his party" and enter Roosevelt's Cabinet. Bush's normal political instincts are suggested by what is described as Stimson's instinct for the center. "This centrist posture has often concealed a fear of, even contempt for, public opinion or at least for every discoverable expression of it," Hodgson writes.
The biographer concludes by comparing Stimson's Republicanism to Ronald Reagan's, whose "aspiration was not so much to the leadership of the world, moral or otherwise, as to the building of a system that would protect America from the contamination of foreign entanglements . . ." Where Bush stands is obvious by his cohort's railing against right-wing critics as "isolationists."
But "isolationist" is an anachronism, as is the Stimson role model. When Stimson bolted his party and inspired the young Bush, he was facing a barbaric world conqueror, not an Arab land-grabber.
While Stimson's defection ensured a needed bipartisanship, Bush has been unable to command such Democratic allegiance. Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, just the respected moderate Democrat Bush needs, last weekend broke his silence by saying he sees the president's policy "drifting in a direction that I'm afraid serves the national interests of Japan and Germany more than the national interests of the United States."
At a time when domestic policy and Republican unity have reverted to the chaotic state of the '70s, there has been little discussion at the White House over what the president's State of the Union address should prescribe for these woes. All eyes are fixed on war, but those who want to avoid it have one consolation. Bush's aides concede one characteristic of his, most unlike Col. Stimson's, is often to reverse himself on an issue where he seems most adamant.