Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Clinton, Bush have much in common

June 27, 2004


One trusts international organizations, one is skeptical of them. One sees grays everywhere, the other sees vivid blacks and bright whites. One believes in an activist government, the other in a more laissez-faire approach. One is late for everything, the other is scrupulously on time. One burns the midnight oil, the other is tucked in by 10.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrate that there is more than one way to be a baby boom president. Indeed, Clinton in retirement and Bush in office define themselves by what they are not, which is to say each is not the other guy. But they are not as different as they think they are, as they wish they were, or as they tell their allies they are.

President Kennedy used to say that there was a bond among all presidents -- he warned a listener that only a man who sat in the president's seat could ever appreciate the burdens of that office -- and in truth the bond that Clinton and Bush share is bigger than they will admit.

Among the links of that bond: the burden of an economy they cannot fully control. A distaste for the press, which the two presidents -- one a Democrat, the other a Republican -- believe is unfair and overly negative. Worries about the dangers of terrorism, the incendiary nature of the Middle East, the stability of Russia, the haughtiness of Europe.

Clinton and Bush share several things in common: They both came to office with little foreign-policy experience. They both avoided service in Vietnam. They both ran for re-election against decorated war veterans. Clinton ran for re-election in peacetime, Bush is running in wartime -- no small difference, to be sure -- but their profiles as they approached their campaigns for a second term have remarkable similarities, and examining these similarities deepens our understanding of the men, and perhaps of our politics:

On the defensive. Both Clinton and Bush are politicians with an optimistic outlook and are most comfortable on the offensive. But as re-election approached, both were decidedly on the defensive. Clinton was still getting adjusted to the new Republican ascendancy on Capitol Hill; indeed, the triumph of Speaker Newt Gingrich was so transforming that Clinton was forced to argue, plaintively, that the presidency was still relevant.

For his part, Bush is on the defensive on the economy and on Iraq, where the fighting continues and where weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found.

Personally reviled. Clinton and Bush were popular governors and had spent decades at the center of circles of admirers who sought their approbation and their company. Once in the Oval Office, however, they spawned unusually fierce distaste from political rivals. Clinton was regarded by the right as a political and personal libertine and as the symbol of baby boom sloth and lack of discipline. Bush is loathed by the left, which sees him as the personification of the American icons that cause it the most discomfort: the cowboy and the capitalist.

Faith-based initiatives. No modern president except Jimmy Carter was nearly as public with his professions of faith as were either Clinton or Bush. The two parties' postwar political champions, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, were conscious of the power of religion in politics but were almost secular figures in style. Not so their two most recent successors. Clinton and Bush often speak in the cadence and language of Scripture. Clinton said he was guided and comforted by the Psalms. Bush said the philosopher who most affected him was Jesus Christ. Both know and understand the lure of gospel music. Both speak of the restorative nature and power of prayer.

Long, hard campaigns. Both Clinton and Bush faced opponents with unusually long pre-campaign calisthenics. Sen. Robert J. Dole, the Kansas Republican who faced Clinton in 1996, and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who faces Bush in the fall, clinched their nominations early. Dole, a creature of the Senate, resigned from the chamber to raise the stakes of his own campaign. Kerry, who spoke in senatorial idioms long before he sat in a Senate seat, is trying to loosen up as he warms up; he knows that an MTV audience has little patience with C-SPAN sentence structures.

All this tells us something -- not who will win in November, but how campaigns and, ultimately, the country, are run. It tells us that politicians are more similar than they acknowledge. That modern presidents, for all their power to propose and to control the agenda, are almost always on the defensive. That the presidency may be the most important and most popular office in the land, but that its occupant is seldom very popular. That prayer is an increasingly important part of the presidency, and of our politics. That presidential politics is no longer a seasonal pastime. And that polarization is a growing phenomenon -- but not a new one.

All this tells us a lot about who we are. It tells us nothing about who will lead us from here. That's in our own hands.

- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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