Bush falls far from the tree

Posted: Apr 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Now that all those statues of Saddam have been toppled, there's another presidential edifice that needs to be knocked down: the tiresome cliché that George W. Bush is his father's son. Yeah, yeah, of course he's Poppy's biological son. But, politically, he's a different creature altogether.

For the last three years, talking heads, profile writers, editorialists and political opponents of the president have tried to make the current Bush nothing more than a chip off the ol' block. They say that the son is a privileged scion of a privileged family and that his presidency is some kind of vindication of his father's single term in the Oval Office.

I'm not saying this isn't interesting territory for speculation, but Freudian analysis can only take you so far. At some point, the batteries of the father-son analogy simply run out. A LexisNexis database search reveals that Dana Milbank, the Washington Post White House correspondent well known for his snarky coverage of the president, has written or co-written more than 100 articles containing a father-son comparison.

Another search for articles using the phrase "mistakes of his father" reveals far too many to wade through. The most common insight is that the son doesn't want to repeat his dad's mistakes. As former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta told USA Today, "If there's one thing we know about him, it's that he has studied the mistakes that his father made and he is loath to repeat them."

Well, actually we know a lot of things about Bush with more certainty than we know this -he has two legs, for example -but fair enough. It's certainly true that President Bush has studied the mistakes of his father -plenty of Bush's people have told me that themselves. It's also no doubt true that watching his father's defeat had a lasting impression on the president.

But is this really that surprising, or even that interesting? All presidents study the mistakes, and the successes, of their predecessors -particularly the mistakes of predecessors from their own party.

For example, the first President Bush's post-Gulf War crash in the polls is a lesson for the ages. In other words, there's every reason to believe that if, say, John McCain or John Ashcroft had been elected president in 2000, they too would have studied the mistakes of the first President Bush. That's what presidents do.

For example, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover -two leading journalistic graybeards -wrote a column in December 1992, "Bill Clinton's Sure No Jimmy Carter." It begins: "President-elect Bill Clinton and his managers seem spooked by the idea they might repeat the mistakes that were made by Jimmy Carter, the most recent Democrat in the White House. To avoid it, they have been consulting with some of those who managed the

transition 16 years ago."

I wish Clinton's people studied harder considering how Carteresque American foreign policy was for most of the 1990s. Note to laymen: "Carteresque" is code for saying, "Thank you, sir! May I have another!" to every tyrant or terrorist who whacks the United States in the butt with a paddle.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush's foreign policy couldn't be more different from that of either of his immediate predecessors. He's rejected both his father's Kissingerian fondness for stability and Bill Clinton's love of symbolic gestures (Kosovo notwithstanding). This president has toppled two evil regimes on the premise that the stability of tyranny is less preferable than the instability that comes from giving democracy a chance. The stakes may have been higher during the Cold War, but the boldness of Bush's foreign policy exceeds even Reagan's.

In fact, Bush's boldness makes his father look bad, rendering all of these stories about the son avenging his father or settling his dad's "unfinished business" seem ridiculous. Poppa Bush and his aides spent much of the 1990s arguing they were right for leaving Saddam in power.

The son turned that argument completely on its head, saying we'd waited too long in removing him. That doesn't help dad's standing in the history books.

All of this goes for the domestic agenda as well. The father was a tax-hiker, Rockefeller Republican and dealmaker, distrusted by the conservative base. The son's a historic tax cutter, born-again Christian beloved by his base.

The father, while a decent man, was not an ideological president. The son is the most ideological president we've had in a generation. Their biographies are night and day as well. The father was a war hero with the best political and foreign policy resume imaginable. The son was in the National Guard and arrived on the political scene late in life.

Sure, I think you could compare some of Bush's mistakes -there've been several -and successes to his father's mistakes and successes. But I could compare them to Clinton's or Reagan's or Truman's, too. And that's the point. The comparisons to dad just aren't that special. This president is his own man.