Reports of the president's lame duckness may have been exaggerated. By choosing first Tony Snow as spokesman, and now Karl Zinsmeister as domestic policy adviser, George Bush has demonstrated that he is far from lame, and may even be frisky.
Snow is a familiar public figure who brings a welcome dose of humor and easy confidence to the job. Zinsmeister will be less visible, but his impact is potentially huge.
It's easy to imagine why the president and Zinsmeister hit if off so well at their first meeting. Zinsmeister, editor of The American Enterprise magazine for 12 years, is an intellectual powerhouse, but he is also a hands-on guy. I imagine the president was pleased to learn that Zinsmeister had been an embedded reporter during the Iraq War and has been back three times since. His reporting (and three books) on the war stressed the terrific professionalism of our troops. He has been less enthusiastic about the press. Here is an excerpt from a 2004 report:
"This bias toward [assuming] failure is fanned by what [U.S. News and World Report columnist] Michael Barone calls the 'zero defect standard' of today's media. For months, armchair journalists without the slightest understanding of what real war is like have howled that this guerilla struggle hasn't been run according to a tidy 'plan.' Why did we 'allow' the looting? How come nobody anticipated the IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) threat? Is it wrong for GIs to invade people's houses? . . . Wars never proceed according to plan; they are always fought by the seat of one's pants, through constant improvisation.
"On D-Day (one of the most carefully 'planned' military events ever), 4,649 American soldiers were killed within just a few hours -- many through what an accusatory mind could characterize as 'screw-ups' (gliders and paratroopers landing in the wrong places, amphibious and landing craft unloading in water that was too deep, Air Force and Navy failures to suppress German fire on the beaches) . . . By standards of war invoked by some contemporary media observers, those landings could be viewed as traumatic bungles."
Under Zinsmeister's leadership, The American Enterprise has become one of the two or three leading political journals in the United States. Recent issues have tackled "Red America: Blue Europe," "Whatever Happened to Small Government?" and "How Political Correctness Damages Policing," among many other topics. Here is Zinsmeister on p.c. attacks on police:
"The liberal elites who have indulged every politically correct attack on policing are mostly insulated from the effects of their campaigns. They tend to live in wealthy neighborhoods . . . A thousand people are murdered every year in Los Angeles. If even one percent of those crimes took place in Brentwood or Malibu or the Hollywood Hills, you would hear a lot less claptrap in the L.A. City Council and the Los Angeles Times about how cruel it is to chase down criminals."
Like Snow, Zinsmeister has not been an uncritical cheerleader for the Bush administration. In January of this year, he wrote of Bush, "Though he talks a good line about battling government bloat, our current President has shown an eerie lackawanna when it comes to actually keeping a lid on the federal Pandora's box. Quite apart from Katrina or the war on terror, there has been a pattern of troublesome spending spikes right from the beginning of the Bush Administration."
Zinsmeister is a keen observer of cultural and political trends in the country, with an eye for the telling detail. "Before 1993, no snowstorm had ever been declared a federal disaster by a U.S. President." Or this about hand-wringing over treatment of captured terrorists: "Would you believe that the number of formal U.S. investigations of how terror detainees are being treated recently reached 189? . . . Of course we need to weed out cruel or out-of-control guards, but the clear picture of the many commissions and blue-ribbon investigations is that our detainment system is pretty tight and self-regulating, that gentleness to the point of political correctness is the norm, and the rogue actions are nearly always found out and punished, usually quite severely."
Intellectuals do not have a sterling record as real-world policy makers. But Zinsmeister is unlikely to be spoiled by Washington, D.C. He has chosen to live with his family in upstate New York all these years because he prefers the small town atmosphere, and even for this job he will commute from Baltimore. He brings a voracious curiosity and a well-honed historical perspective to a job and a city that can always use them. Only two and a half years remain -- and they are not the fertile years for a president. But if nothing else, we can be sure that with Zinsmeister's influence, things will not be dull.