WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There has from the beginning been a troubling ebb and flow to the administration of George W. Bush. Periods of energy and policy dominance come and then they evanesce. For a while, all is quiet. We saw this ebb and flow in the administration's progress towards tax reduction. We see it now in the execution of the war on terror.
Over the last few weeks, there has been ebb, encouraging the president's domestic critics to go into full howl. From their redoubts on the 9-11 Commission, they have been carrying on as exemplary Monday morning quarterbacks, transforming a serious function of government (the bipartisan review of policy) into a soapbox for demagoguery -- and truly amateurish dramatics. All the while, the president has been in a state of ebb.
How are we to explain this curious fluctuation of presidential energy? I have no idea. I will speculate, however, that the fluctuation traces directly back to the president. From all I have been able to ascertain, the liberals' portrayal of him as being passive is nonsense. Contrary to the murmurings of Paul O'Neill, this president calls the shots on a wide range of matters, from the daily deportment of his staff to matters of high policy.
Yet there do seem to be two George W's. One tells his staff to knock off for weekends and for "family time." He himself retires early and shows open disdain for the 24-7 politicking of official Washington. The other is commander in chief and on call 24-7. Is there a whiff of schizophrenia to this president?
Only his closest advisers would know. The White House keeps others at arms' length. George W. Bush's White House is more insular than any presidency since that of Jimmy Carter. It is surprising that the liberals in the press do not complain, but then those liberals are so biased against him that they have little grounds for complaint. No sensible president would allow them near him. To them, his every move is derisible. Yet no one else sees much of this president, either. His father was not like that. Why he is so remote is a mystery, as is the ebb and flow of his energy.
Thus the other night when I sat down to watch his press conference on television, I wondered if the ebb was going to continue. As fate would have it, I watched the spectacle in the presence of four very engage' liberals. They did not know my politics, so I enjoyed the anthropological experience of simultaneously observing the bird and the birdwatchers. The minute the president began speaking of his resolve to stay the course in Iraq, the birdwatchers began to squirm. It looked to me that they were suffering physical pain as he proceeded to remark on how difficult the last two weeks had been.
Some of their responses were inexplicable. When the president mentioned that the suffering and loss of life in Iraq had been for him "gut-wrenching," the liberal seated to my right grunted out a guffaw. And they all stirred and groused when he refused to "apologize" to the bereaved for the attacks of 9-11.
That inspired me. As soon as the press conference ended, I decided that I would ask these know-it-alls if they remembered President Franklin Roosevelt's touching apology to the American people after our Navy and Air Corps were caught utterly unprepared at Pearl Harbor. Surely they were admirers of FDR.
Pearl Harbor is the only comparable historical antecedent to 9-11, and it is surprising that in the controversy now being created over 9-11, the Dec. 7, 1941, destruction of our battleships and aircraft has been hardly mentioned. After all, there was abundant evidence in the 1930s that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. In fact, from 1932 on the Navy was apprehensive about the possibility of a Japanese sneak attack on Pearl.
In that year, the navy's Admiral Harry Yarnell secretly launched a mock attack on Hawaii with a carrier group from the north. Its 152 planes theoretically sank every ship in the harbor and destroyed all our planes on the ground. Can you imagine the indignation of the Democrats on the 9-11 Commission if they got wind of a precedent to 9-11 comparable to the Yarnell attack?
Of course, despite the apparent negligence preceding Pearl Harbor, no one in America thought that President Roosevelt owed anyone an apology. That would only signify weakness, and Americans in 1941 wanted their president to stand tall, unbowed by this setback and resolute that America would, as FDR vowed, "gain the ultimate triumph so help us God." Most probably if I were to remind the liberals who sought an apology from President Bush the other night of President Roosevelt's nonexistent apology, they would recognize my mockery.
Yet I decided not to mock them. By the end of the press conference, they had surprised me with mild approval of the president's performance. They thought he had convincingly shown resolve and the high Wilsonian idealism about spreading democracy that appeals to a liberal's best instincts. Possibly for now the president's period of ebb is giving way to a period of flow. Yet who can say for sure. This president keeps very much to himself.