WASHINGTON--Any newcomer stepping into the role of the leader of the world has a stature problem, especially a mere governor like Carter or Clinton or now George W. Bush. Bush arrives particularly hampered by the closeness of the election, the bizarre way it was decided, and the honeymoonless reception he's consequently received from official Washington and the loyal opposition.
How to assert himself? The inaugural address just won't do. Bush is not very good at speeches, and with very few exceptions (notably Kennedy's) even the inaugural addresses of those who are very good leave no impact at all. (Can you cite a single line from either of Clinton's inaugurals?)
Bush is not a talker. But he can show himself to be a doer. Here are three things he can and should do on his first day in office:
1. (BEG ITAL)Pardon President Clinton. Clinton may not want a pardon. He may not accept a pardon. (An irrelevancy: pardons are pardons whether accepted or not.) He might not even need a pardon. No matter. Without ostentation or fanfare, Bush should quietly and immediately put an end to any potential prosecution.
This is not, of course, a pardon that ranks with Richard Nixon's, but it would (a) show magnanimity, (b) establish a post-Nixon tradition that presidents are not to be hounded with prosecution after leaving office (a practice now generally confined to the less politically civilized precincts of the globe), and (c) vindicate the original conservative opposition to special prosecutors as an extra-constitutional outrage foisted on the country by vindictive partisans who only learned to oppose it when it came back to bite them. (As usual, Justice Scalia's lone dissent in the 1988 case that upheld the independent counsel law was right.)
Clinton had his trial in the Senate. That's enough.
2. (BEG ITAL)Reopen Pennsylvania Avenue. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton closed to traffic the street running in front of the White House. The result is not just an eyesore of ugly concrete barriers and a traffic nightmare, but an open declaration of fear.
Bush can signal a new era and a new attitude toward America's enemies by refusing to cower in his own house. Reopening the avenue would be a statement: We will not allow terrorists to alter our national life.
Would there remain a threat? Yes. But it is radically minimized by a design proposal that calls for two low pedestrian bridges crossing the avenue. These would not only be sightly and convenient, they would prevent trucks from traversing the street, thus eliminating the possibility of anything remotely like Oklahoma City.
3. (BEG ITAL)Abrogate the ABM Treaty. For the last decade, since the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the end of the arms race, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has lost whatever purpose and logic it might once have had. It is an absurd obsolescence. In a post-Cold War world, it not only prevents the United States from building defenses against emerging threats of nuclear attack by rogue states, it prevents us from even intelligently (BEG ITAL)testing defensive technologies. Testing today is dumbed down--rockets are purposely slowed down, for example--to meet treaty requirements.
In a May speech at the National Press Club, Bush outlined a new strategic doctrine for the United States: To henceforth build both offensive and defensive weapons to suit our budgets and strategic needs, not the restrictions of a defunct treaty nor the objections of foreigners--notably Russians--whose principal concern in life, understandably, is not the national security of the United States.
Technically, the ABM Treaty does not need to be abrogated. It expired in 1991 with the death of its only other signatory, the Soviet Union. But just to be sure, and to satisfy those who might refuse to acknowledge that the treaty is null and void anyway, Bush should simultaneously exercise America's right under the treaty to withdraw from it on six months' notice.
What will that do? Scandalize liberals, alarm the media and immediately bring on a debate that Bush can only win. Defenses are not only the next inevitable step in the evolution of missile technology, they are overwhelmingly popular with the American people. Let the other guy argue that we must continue to leave our cities and people utterly defenseless against ballistic missile attack because of a treaty signed 29 years ago with a country that no longer exists.
Pardon your predecessor. Open the avenue. Throw off the shackles of a dead treaty. Not in the first 100 days but in the first 100 minutes. Let Washington, and the world, know you've arrived, Mr. President.