If Bill Clinton were still president, he'd be in Cincinnati this week, biting his lip, getting misty, making up stories about how much the Cincinnati riots of the 1960s changed his life. He would hug a minister and a distressed mother, telling them he agreed with them completely on everything. Then, he would speak before a room of police, and wave his thumb around and declare that he agreed with them completely on everything, too.
There would be more hugging. And huge vats of unctuous Clintonian concern and earnest Clintonian conviction would be spilled out over the airwaves. The soccer-mom friendly news hostesses of MSNBC would be in hog heaven.
But Bill Clinton is not president. George Bush is. And what was his response to the Cincinnati riots? Total and complete silence. OK, not complete silence. The White House issued a brief statement urging calm and assuring the public that the attorney general was monitoring things. But compared to the sonic booms of pain-feeling during the Clinton years, the Bush response was about as loud as a butterfly landing on a pillow.
Indeed, this was after a string of significant silences. When the U.S. airmen finally returned from China last week, George W. Bush was nowhere to be found, letting the families and crewmen have the limelight. Before that, there was the high school shooting outside San Diego. Bush did not go and play the remorse voluptuary like his predecessor. He simply declared that the shootings were a "disgraceful act of cowardice" that underscored how parents need to "teach their children right from wrong."
Contrast all this with how Clinton staged multiple pep rallies for himself on the day of Bush's inaugural, even reviewing troops after he was no longer commander-in-chief. No wonder The Washington Post recently declared "The Empathetic Presidency is Over."
Of course, Clinton's one-man empathy show was precisely what some people liked about his presidency - and Bush's aloofness is precisely what others despise about his. But for some of us, Bush's attitude is a welcome change not just from Bill Clinton, but from Ronald Reagan as well.
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm still one of those people who think God put the Gipper on this planet to chew gum and kick butt - and he ran out of gum a long time ago. But Ronald Reagan was a president for an age when politics was about an ideological battle for the future of the world, and we don't live in such an age anymore. Hence, we don't need another Ronald Reagan, though don't try telling that to the many conservatives who still light votive candles in hope of his return.
Reagan was the greatest Cold War president, believing that the world was faced with a twilight struggle between good and evil. He rejected détente, which had removed morality from foreign policy, and instead emphasized human rights. He spoke bluntly of "evil empires" and fought what he and many of his believers believed was a rising tide of collectivism abroad and at home.
But politics is about moments. And Ronald Reagan was the right man for a certain moment in our history. George Bush may turn out to be the right man for this moment.
The Cold War is over. And despite a stock market that has me downing Maalox by the case, America is prosperous and secure. Even the Democratic Party is relatively reasonable compared to its 1970s and 1980s wackiness. In short, politics matters less. It still matters, of course, but there's simply less for the federal government to do. The era of big government, said Bill Clinton, is over. And Ronald Reagan deserves much of the credit for it.
It is no slight to George Bush to say that he is no Ronald Reagan. Bush often says things like "it is good to cut the taxes," which makes him sound like a Texan Louis XIV. But he certainly could have given a perfectly fine speech on the occasion of the Navy crew's homecoming or the riots or the school shooting.
Instead, as White House press secretary Ari Fleischer explained to The Washington Post, "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." Fleischer added, "They should speak out ... but not everywhere, every time."
That's exactly right. And this approach is reminiscent not so much of Reagan, but of Reagan's hero, Calvin Coolidge. Silent Cal, according to the historian Paul Johnson, "was the most internally consistent and single-minded of modern American presidents."
When asked at a March 1, 1929, press conference about his place in history, Coolidge responded: "Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business." It's early yet, but it may turn out that George W. Bush will be able to make a similar boast at the end of his administration.