George Bush: The Post-Hollywood Style

Inside the president's new relationship with the media

President George Bush waves from the stairway to Air Force One as he departs from Peterson Air Force Base in March, 1989. Credit: Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty

The most revealing event so far in the young presidency of George Bush may have been this: one day the new president held a press conference for White House reporters, and the story was buried in the next morning's Washington Post on page A11. No picture, no transcript of the presidential utterances.

This isn't done. The president is always news, the front-page news of this city, no matter what he says or does. It's an unwritten rule of the news business that the Chief Executive's words preempt almost anything else that happens, even if his remarks are banal and predictable.

Television news, which especially defers to the Oval Office, also gave only scant notice to the president's news conference. What's going on here? Have the media changed the rules on George Bush?

On the contrary, it is George Bush who has changed the rules, and the media managers are still trying to adjust One editor at the Post, an old friend, agreed that it was odd to put a presidential news conference on page 11. But, he said, this was no aberration. Just the day before, Bush had traveled to South Carolina for a speech touting his new budget, and the event was deemed so empty that it didn't deserve its own story. The president's rhetoric was reduced to three paragraphs tucked into another story. Post editors discussed whether they were being fair to the White House and decided they were merely exercising standard judgment about what was news.

Introducing the post-Hollywood presidency. For better or worse, it's going to be very different from the campy melodrama that has entertained the nation for the last eight years. Ronald Reagan is gone, and so are his handlers and scriptwriters and the presumption at the White House that the presidency must be carefully staged at all times–insulated from nasty questions and programmed for the delivery of lines that will lead the evening news. Under Reagan the news media were managed relentlessly, coaxed or bullied into focusing on the story that the White House wanted covered.

The Gipper understood his role and played it with a hammy gusto. On the whole, Americans loved the performance, especially the maudlin moments when Reagan congratulated them on being so strong and virtuous. Like any successful work of fiction, his words elicited a willing suspension of disbelief from his audience. Even citizens who knew better–who recognized that Reagan's sunny optimism blotted out the larger realities–enjoyed the warmth of his stage presence. In one of his farewell interviews, Reagan confided that "I don't know how you could do this job if you weren't an actor."

President Bush has decided, wisely enough, that he is not an actor and can't begin to match his predecessor's performance. Bush has evidently decided to be himself. Will this work in the presidency? The last guy who tried it–Jimmy Carter–wound up in tatters, mocked and reviled for revealing too much of himself.

Bush really enjoys the give-and-take with reporters, and he has engaged the press frequently and casually. He feels he is good at it, and he is far more relaxed in unscripted conversation than Reagan ever was–probably because he is much better informed about the details of governing.

The principal reason Reagan seldom held press conferences is that while White House officials could usually predict the questions, they were often startled by the answers that came out of the president's mouth. The "clarifications" issued by his aides became routine, correcting Reagan's erroneous statements about his own policies, retracting the most outrageous fabrications. George Bush doesn't need handlers to tell him what he thinks.

Unfortunately, Bush's open style may end up hurting him when he needs to evoke the mythic image of the presidency–something his predecessor was so good at. This is an intangible, to be sure, but it carries with it real political power–the ability to summon public opinion and be impervious to the daily flow of contradictory facts and arguments.

Reagan was marvelously successful at both. He created a persona for himself that floated above hasty facts–seemingly larger than life. Americans do not have a king, but like all human societies, they crave a magical leader who somehow seems able to rise above petty human foibles. When Reagan gave them that, they were quite willing to ignore or forgive his obvious shortcomings, his stubborn refusal to face the nation's real problems, from the trade deficit to homelessness.

As he has already made clear, George Bush is going to operate on a more human scale–more inclined to facing facts–and this means he will be immensely more vulnerable to failure. The immediate result is that he has lost control of the news media, already evident in the news coverage. When the president chats frequently with reporters, his remarks become less newsworthy.

The wandering eye of television is crucial to a president's success. Reagan had Michael Deaver crafting his scenes for him; the Bush White House has pollster Robert Teeter as a part-time consultant but no one in control of the media images. If this continues, we will all know a lot more that is real about Bush and how his White House operates. But Bush will also seem less enthralling–perhaps smaller than life.

The president, when he is not following a written draft, is not exactly a wordsmith. His ad-lib syntax is like a street pocked with potholes. When reporters recently asked Bush about banning the semiautomatic AK-47s that are flooding the country, Bush replied: "No, I'm not about to do that I think the answer is the criminal–do more with the criminal. Not try to–look, the states have a lot of laws on these things. Let them enforce them. It's hard, very hard to do. But that's my position, and I'm not going to change it."

You sort of get the idea of what he meant to say, but his sentences don't quite parse. Ronald Reagan had the same quality–only worse–but that's not what viewers usually saw on the evening news. What they witnessed was a confident-looking leader, striding purposefully along the White House portico, responding with a jaunty one-liner when Sam Donald-son or other news people shouted the predictable question of the day.

This scene was carefully rehearsed, but it looked spontaneous. Reagan looked active and busy–not lazy. Bush, by being more available and straightforward, is leaving himself open to a quite different image–an inarticulate leader who stumbles through unexciting thoughts.

For the news media, this is a tricky situation. Bush is providing what everyone, especially critics of Reagan, like myself, said we always wanted–a White House that is more open and responsive, less contrived and phony. Reporters and editors are probably experiencing right now a guilty hangover as a result of the ease with which they were seduced by the manipulative techniques of the Reaganites.

The easy access to Bush actually frees them to make the news judgments they essentially surrendered during the Gipper's time. The imperial presidency was always fraudulent–and it will be healthy for the nation if a new mythical king is not created. For the press, however, there is a real question of fairness. The news media has an obligation not to exploit Bush's generous approach with cheap-shot reporting and petty zingers.

The failure of Jimmy Carter's presidency was in large measure the result of reporters' pounding endlessly on small gaffes and quirks of character that Carter and his aides innocently revealed through their openness. Reagan's cynical handlers learned from Carter's experience–candor can be a loser in White House politics.

The press, therefore, will have much to do with deciding whether this president can modestly restore the level of truth telling–without being destroyed by it.

The public will be tested, too. Do Americans really want a president who avoids flashy showmanship and shows his warts so plainly? Or will they turn on him when the first big crisis develops and it's clear that he is an ordinary mortal like the rest of us? I have a hunch that before long the Bush White House is going to be under a lot of pressure to accept the fact that presidential theater can't be left strictly to improvisation.

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In his inaugural address and in nearly every opening move of his presidency, George Bush has revealed this about himself: he wants to be liked by everybody. His speech not only praised his Democratic opposition in Congress but also borrowed shamelessly from its rhetoric. He welcomed to the White House the liberal groups Reagan shunned, from black leaders to environmentalists. Aside from drug peddlers and hardened criminals, this president appears to have no enemies in domestic politics.

Compare Bush's affability with Ronald Reagan's opening sally into the thicket of Washington politics. In his 1981 inaugural, Reagan declared, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." On the Potomac those are fighting words, the meaning of which no one in the federal establishment could mistake.

Politics in the Reagan era would be "us against them." His aggressive political posture served him well. He was permanently identified as an outsider, attacking the sloth and nonsense of Washington. Even after eight years in office, he still talked as though the federal government were an alien beast Reagan largely failed in his promise to roll back several decades of liberal reforms and spending programs. Yet people still perceived him as a well-intentioned crusader trying to clean up "the mess in Washington."

Bush promises to manage Washington, not dismantle it–a clearly more realistic goal. The president is an Establishment politician, by dint of both breeding and experience. It's going to be hard for a man who served as CIA director to sell himself as a populist. In fact, Bush is more Washington than he is Texas or Maine, a moderate Republican who patiently worked his way up the ladder for twenty years.

In the capital these qualities are celebrated. Bush's adversaries not only know and like him; they recognize his desire to be reasonable. On the other hand, he is off to a shaky start–humiliated by the uproar over John Tower, his nominee for secretary of defense, and by the slow start-up of his administration.

Congressional Democrats sense Bush's weakness as a political leader and are willing to challenge him as they never would have confronted Reagan this early. Bush intends to attack problems–such as environmental degradation–that the Gipper refused to acknowledge. Perhaps over time he can construct a credible record of accomplishment that will compensate for his lack of charisma. But the politics of "us against them" has been the bedrock of leadership of every strong president in American history, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter, a good Christian, tried hard not to pander in this way. In time this quality came to be seen as weakness, and Carter got labeled "the wimp in the White House."

Bush, much more than Carter, is identified with official Washington, the Establishment that excites broad public hostility.

Furthermore, this new president's "kinder, gentler" declarations are not in sync with his own campaign character. Bush did not win the White House on affability; he won by harshly attacking the "liberal elite" and identifying himself, improbably, with the "little guy." His new posture in the Oval Office is certainly a more accurate self-portrait–but it leaves him exposed to the same popular discontents that undermined Carter.

The ambiguity of Bush's leadership is expressed most clearly in his budget. It is a document that evades hard choices and attempts to steer a clever middle course through the maze of unpleasant choices. The federal budget is a stark expression of national priorities.

Who gets the money? Who must pay for it? Those are the gut questions of governing. In those terms, despite his more humane rhetoric, Bush seems intent on continuing the Reagan agenda without much alteration.

Behind the confusing double talk over budget numbers, the reality is that Bush wants to keep increasing defense spending (though somewhat less so than Reagan) and to reduce the deficit by taking a whack out of almost every other program. On the tax side, he proposes, in all seriousness, to deliver yet another major tax cut for the wealthy, the small minority that reaps substantial capital gains on Wall Street investments.

The president and his crafty budget director, Richard Darman, have succeeded in obscuring these positions with their rhetoric about spending more on things like Head Start and the homeless and also by simply refusing to identify what Bush wants to cut. In the inside baseball of Washington, this tactic is applauded as shrewd–putting the monkey on the Democrats.

Maybe so, but the Democrats aren't anxious to lead, either. One Democratic senator confided their strategy to me: "Sit on our hands and keep our mouths shut and hope that Bush messes up." This is a cowardly approach to politics that, as the senator lamented, "might win the White House for us about once every 30 to 40 years."

But it is George Bush who is in the White House now–and he can't for long escape the responsibility to make the decisions and accept the consequences. Sooner or later, Bush will find all of these problems on his doorstep. If he refuses to shift the government's priorities in any significant way, then he is not going to have any real money to deal with the environment, the housing crisis, education or anything else on his stated wish list.

Eventually, people will see it was just talk. At that point, without Reagan's magical charm to protect him, Bush may hear disillusioned voters asking–where is George?