Last weekend the presidency of George Bush passed the 100-day mark, signaling that it's time for professional president watchers to try to evaluate his presidency. Like generals who are fond of reliving the last war, they have compared him to Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Carter and Nixon (but only because Bush, like Nixon, has a strong interest in foreign policy).
But George Bush's presidency so far reminds me of the presidency of another Texan - Lyndon B. Johnson. I know this sounds a little crazy at first - this well-bred, well-mannered president, a man so polite that he immortalized the phrase "deep doo-doo," has very little in common with the coarse, dirt-scrabble-poor president who is famous for conducting business on the toilet and for urinating (proudly) on the shoes of his Secret Service men. Their personalities are different, but their ways of coping with the job are not.
Not since LBJ have we had a true Washington insider in the White House. Washington insiders can be preppies or rednecks, but in office they are wheeler-dealers. Bush, like Johnson, is a man familiar with the processes and personalities of power in the Congress. When Bush lost the fight to have John Tower made secretary of defense, he quickly buried the hatchet, knowing how easily today's defeat can become tomorrow's victory.
His defeat in the Tower nomination has not stopped Bush from assembling a list of bipartisan deals on some pretty tough issues: aid to the Nicaraguan contras, the savings and loan crisis, the 1990 budget, land-based missiles (look for a similarly impressive bipartisan agreement on the Clean Air Act soon). In some instances the problems may really have been solved, in others, such as the budget, the solution may be illusory. However, it may not matter - the premier forum for attacking a Republican president, the Democratic Congress, has been bought off.
Johnson would admire this set of deals in the midst of a divided government; after all, he was at his best as Senate majority leader under a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. But most of all he would admire the contra deal, for Johnson's Achilles' heel was international relations. Unlike Bush, who seems more at home in the world of international affairs than in domestic affairs, Johnson's insider smarts did not extend to foreign affairs. He never could figure out how to cut a deal with Ho Chi Minh or with the large portions of the political establishment that came to oppose his Vietnam strategy. If he could have, he would have.
The similarities between Bush and LBJ go beyond their strengths as wheeler-dealers to their weaknesses as inspirational leaders. They each followed charismatic presidents - John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and they each tried to make a virtue out of their own ineptness at inspiration. Kennedy charmed the press corps and inspired a generation; Johnson created a credibility gap and turned a generation onto the streets. Television was the magic tool that allowed Kennedy to overcome worries about his youth and inexperience in order to beat Richard Nixon; Johnson shied away from using television as a tool to explain himself or build support for his policies, priding himself instead on his ability to "deliver" the programs that Kennedy had only talked about.
Bush's television presence is as weak as Reagan's was strong. During the general election Bush had the good luck to be well coached and to run against a real stiff. Since then, however, he has avoided TV and the kind of direct appeals to the American people at which Reagan shone. His staff tried to make a virtue out of his television avoidance, but when they contrasted Bush's involvement on the job with the detachment of his predecessor, they got themselves in so much trouble that Bush had to deliver an apology to his former boss.
Bush's emerging style will serve him well if he can cut deals that guarantee four more years of peace and prosperity. If he wins re-election in 1992, more than one president watcher will pronounce the end of an era for media presidents and praise the virtues of experience in government.
But, as Johnson discovered, not all problems can be negotiated away. Presidents are judged on their reactions to events. When things go bad, a president's only hope is his ability to inspire people to stick with him. When the 1982 recession appeared to signal the failure of Reagan's economic policies he went on television to urge people to "stay the course." As one veteran of both the Reagan and Bush White Houses said, "It's hard to imagine Bush giving a 'stay the course' speech."
In his first 100 days, Bush has shown us that he can make deals stick. But if he is to succeed over the long haul he will probably have to learn to make hearts soar.