George Bush, Relaxed

THERE are several style checkpoints along a president's first year in office, routine ways of gauging how he'll run his administration, how he'll relate to allies, adversaries, and the public. Inaugural address. Press conferences. First confrontation with Congress. First summit. First ``crisis.'' First major speech. George Bush's first big presidential address comes next week, when he talks about the massive US drug problem and how to deal with it. We'll be looking not only for substance - ideas, commitment, resources - but the way he engages the issue and Americans, who believe drugs to be the biggest challenge today. We'll be looking for ``the vision thing'' as well as the necessary armaments for this late 20th-century war.

On some minor issues (contras, flag amendment), Mr. Bush seems almost as ideological as his predecessor. But his is largely a relaxed, conciliatory, self-assured style that contrasts with more than parallels Ronald Reagan's.

He is much better with the press - whether it's a prime-time event, dropping in on the briefing room, or joshing with reporters hanging around Kennebunkport. He is a public man in a way that the paradoxically shy ``great communicator'' never was. He surrounds himself with children and grandchildren. Mr. Reagan rarely saw his. Judging by his golf style, George Bush certainly doesn't take himself too seriously.

What he does take seriously are things like Poland and Lebanon and the drug crackdown in Colombia. And he responds (rather than reacts) from a basis of experience and highly-informed caution. That can be maddening for partisans at both ends of the political spectrum, but it's an approach that strikes us as just right.

On the links, the president calls himself ``Mr. Smooth'' and gets off-the-record extra putts (which he won't back in Washington). Maybe it's the late-August atmosphere, but so far most Americans like the Bush style.

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