John F. Harris
Leading Actor Bush Avoids Center Stage
April 14, 2001
When the 24 military personnel detained in China come home to a hero's welcome in Washington state today, President Bush will be far away from the fanfare and the cameras, enjoying an Easter weekend at his Texas ranch.
Earlier this week, as racial violence erupted in Cincinnati, the Bush White House spoke out -- with a short written statement urging calm and stating that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was handling the situation for the administration.
This week's news demonstrated anew a fact that Bush has made clear over and over since taking office : The Empathetic Presidency is over.
Former president Bill Clinton rarely missed an occasion to be at center stage during times of national celebration and mourning alike. His aides said he likely would have boarded Air Force One to be at today's Whidbey Island homecoming, and he certainly would have spoken out personally on a volatile racial episode such as the one roiling Cincinnati.
But if public emoting and volubility were signatures of the last president, a certain taciturnity in the face of major news stories is becoming a signature of this one. The more reserved approach, White House officials say, is both an expression of this president's personal values as well as a decision by him and his political strategists about how to best use the White House platform.
"The president recognizes that from time to time there will be emotional and volatile events; he does not believe that politicians should seek them out and insert themselves in them," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday. "They should speak out ... but not everywhere, every time."
Clinton's sometimes ostentatious shows of sympathy -- speaking with a quavering voice at the site of countless floods, tornadoes, shootings and funerals -- occasionally became a source of ridicule. Even so, for him as well as for former president Ronald Reagan, the ability to serve as voice for the nation during moments of high emotion was a potent tool of leadership.
In Clinton's case, the notes he struck in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing helped revive his presidency during a low point of the first term. Against this backdrop, Bush's comparatively austere style represents a significant shift in the modern presidency.
After last month's fatal school shooting near San Diego, Bush did not visit the community, as Clinton did after similar episodes, nor did he sermonize on the subject. In brief remarks to reporters, he called the shooting, in which a 15-year-old youth has been charged, a "disgraceful act of cowardice" that highlighted the need for Americans to "teach their children right from wrong."
Other examples abound. In late January, when an earthquake in India killed tens of thousands of people -- in an emerging nation that often feelsit is not taken seriously by Western powers -- Bush released a four-sentence written statement extending condolences and saying "earthquakes know no political boundaries."
Some earthquakes, however, pack more political tremors than others. At the time of a Feb. 28 temblor in Seattle, which caused significant damage but took no lives, White House aides worried that the president's initial expressions of sympathy -- made in comments to reporters along a rope line at an unrelated event -- might be seen as perfunctory.
George Bush, in his White House tenure, was hurt in 1992 when he was seen as insufficiently attentive to the problems caused in Florida by Hurricane Andrew. After consultations with aides, the current president made more extensive comments offering help to Seattle later in the day.
Bush does not possess the rhetorical fluency of his predecessor, who could respond with ease when dramatic or emotional events captured national attention.
Martha Kumar, a presidential scholar who has studied White House communications strategies, said this president may simply need more time. While still cautious in public, he is rapidly becoming more adept than his father at projecting concern, particularly when he can interact with individuals in an audience. "He's more empathetic than you would expect from a Bush," she said.
Any unexpected news event must cross a high threshhold before drawing the attention of this White House, which places a premium on planning and strict adherence to a daily message. White House aides said they believe that one of the president's most important powers -- the ability to command a national audience for his words -- becomes diluted if used indiscriminately.
But this approach carries its own risks, some believe. Clinton's personal rating usually lagged far behind his job approval rating. But he always scored strong majorities in polls when people were asked whether he "understands the problems of people like you."
Bush usually did not score majority support when this question was asked during the 2000 campaign.
Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart said Bush is operating from an unwisely narrow conception of the presidency: "In trying to maintain message discipline, the Bush administration is ceding a very important role of the presidency -- that of a national figure who can speak to the country in times of trouble."
Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, agreed. While believing that Clinton "was certainly overexposed rhetorically," Greenstein said he has found Bush's willingness to stand in the shadows during major events "kind of astonishing."
Greenstein said he made this very point last week when Bush adviser Karl Rove invited him and other scholars, such as Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek, to the White House for a guest lecture on the modern presidency to Bush aides.
"It's almost as if he doesn't realize that the president is the symbolic leader of the nation, the head of state" as well as head of government, Greenstein said. "The presidency is a job that combines the equivalent of a prime minister and with that of almost a constitutional monarch."
The latter role demands speaking eloquently on important national events, he said, but Bush has "almost been absent from the larger stage."