What Big Test?

Frank Rich

Bush's Big Test," as headline writers had it, was actually more like a pop quiz.

The 24 "detainees" never morphed into "hostages."
The "accident" never became a "crisis."
The 11 days never became "13 Days."

The closest the incident ever came to escalating into a TV mediathon was when Sandy Berger and Lawrence Eagleburger tried to outdo each other in on-air bloviation, as they unsuccessfully vied to shove a resurgent Henry Kissinger out of the spotlight. Channel-surfing among these burly former national security hands was tantamount to watching "The Three Stooges" as scripted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Did our new president come through?

Without a doubt, especially if you grade him, as the nickname-besotted press is wont to do, on a curve designed to leave no president behind. The only catcalls have come from the right, most fervently from The Weekly Standard, which labeled the president's accommodation to China "a national humiliation."

In an editorial, William Kristol and Robert Kagan identified a reason for what they saw as a capitulation to a totalitarian regime : "the American business community has a hammerlock on American policy toward China."

They may have a point. The list of corporations with major commercial interests in China — among them Boeing, General Motors and Microsoft — reads like a who's who of big-time contributors to the Republican Party and, in most cases, to the Bush-Cheney inaugural. And such corporations don't look kindly on disruptions. One of them, U.P.S. ( which gave 85 percent of its $1.3 million in election 2000 soft money to Republicans ), didn't even let the matter of a captive American plane derail its gala rollout of China cargo service last week. Another is The Standard's owner, News Corporation, whose customarily saber-rattling New York Post eschewed criticism of Beijing throughout this episode. Its boss, Rupert Murdoch, makes no secret of his eagerness to kowtow to a regime that will make a fifth of the world's population safe for his brand of satellite TV.

But what's most revealing about the right's criticism of the Bush administration is how closely it echoes that of the left. The American business community that The Standard identifies as having a hammerlock on Bush administration China policy is the same one that liberals have been angrily decrying for its hammerlock on Mr.Bush's relaxed policies about carbon dioxide in the air, arsenic in water and ergonomics in the workplace.

Conveniently enough, the corporations with the biggest stakes in all these matters, foreign or domestic, now have their own in-White-House advocates. Typically, the former chief lobbyist of General Motors — which has sunk $2 billion-plus into a Shanghai operation and would also benefit from relaxed emission standards — is the Bush chief of staff, Andrew Card.

At the very least, no one can accuse the new administration of being ideologically inconsistent or, like its predecessor, undisciplined. From the structure of its tax cut to its energy policy, the business of the Bushies is business, and no one pretends otherwise. The foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has even had a tanker named after her by an oil giant, Chevron. So what if Chevron agreed to pay $95 million last year to the government to settle a lawsuit that alleged it underpaid royalties for oil it produced on federal and American Indian lands? If the Bush administration has its way, this company could soon be drilling for oil in a national forest near you.

Clear as the new president's politics are, however, many in the press persist in treating the administration as an inscrutable mystery as hard to crack as that of China's fractured leadership.

Is George W. Bush a puppet reading a script, and if so is the ventriloquist Dick Cheney, Karl Rove or Karen Hughes? Or is the new president a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, a charming leader whose use of cue cards, reliance on aides and short workday belie his strength of character, conviction and perhaps even intellect?

The answers are not at all hard to figure out. Mr. Bush is obviously reading a script — just look what happens when he tries to improvise — but the script is clearly a sincere one, reflecting his own world view. His devotion to business reflects the fact that business of a most specific sort is virtually his only life experience prior to his brief career in politics. Mr. Bush is no Horatio Alger but the product of an old-school, old-money network where family friends and Ivy League connections help grease the entrepreneurial gears with well- timed bailouts and sweetheart deals. It's this particular establishment culture, in which the big boys trade favors and never doubt that they know what's best for America, that has nettled administration critics on both the left and right since Inauguration Day.

As for Mr. Bush's character, it's also right there at the surface. He is not a fan of confrontations, whether with China or anyone else — as befits a man who has had to navigate few of them in a remarkably charmed and carefree life. The pattern of his behavior during the China collision was typical : his relatively truculent language in the first days of the incident quickly trailed off into muted tones of conciliation and concession. This was the same playbook he followed repeatedly during the presidential campaign. Faulted for appearing at Bob Jones University, for refusing to meet with gay Republicans and for ducking debates, he at first in each case dug in with stubborn pronouncements defending his initial course. Then he folded.

The folds continue. Already his administration has reversed its schemes to shut down the White House AIDS office and to stop testing school lunches for salmonella — each time trying to hide its retreat by declaring that the announcement of the offending policy had been some kind of bureaucratic "mistake."

Most revealing is Mr. Bush's passivity as Congress guts his signature issue, education reform. His initial plan is being stripped of both vouchers ( opposed by Democrats ) and national testing standards ( opposed by some Republicans ). But according to Time this week, the president didn't even bother to lobby for his ideas — much as he failed to pick up the phone to try to win over the renegade Republican senator James Jeffords to his tax plan. If he won't confront lawmakers over these pet issues, what will he go to the mat for?

Despite all the superficial similarities — the self-deprecating humor, the delegation of details to subordinates, the return to serene Western colors in Oval Office décor — Mr. Bush is at best a digital facsimile of Reaganesque. Mr. Reagan's steelier character reflected his own un-Bush background : he was the product of an alcoholic father and modest financial circumstances who had to work his way through college, where he was elected student body president ( as opposed to president of Deke ). He ran the Screen Actors Guild during tumultuous times and knew his share of career reversals. Though no less a friend to business than Mr. Bush, he had deep-seated convictions about a range of issues and thought them through in hundreds of self-written radio scripts that were published this year ( "Reagan, in His Own Hand" ) on the occasion of his 90th birthday. As his biographer Lou Cannon put it, "Reagan had climbed the ladder of success from the lower rungs, demonstrating a combination of persistence and humility rare among either politicians or actors."

Persistence and humility are not words that come to mind when thinking of Mr. Bush. Nor is it possible to imagine him leaving behind a cache of handwritten policy musings.

The passion that Mr. Reagan brought to his crusades against totalitarian empires seems to have surfaced in our new president only when championing baseball. In the past two weeks, Mr. Bush has found time not only to throw out a traditional first ball ( albeit into the dirt ) at the Milwaukee Brewers' home opener, but to preside over two White House baseball events : a tribute to Hall of Famers to herald the introduction of T-ball to the South Lawn ( and about time too! ) and a screening of a new HBO movie about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris .

Billy Crystal, making an early bid to be this administration's Barbra Streisand, attended both, and you have to wonder if he's had more face time with Mr. Bush than Colin Powell did during the president's Big Test.


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