George Bush, the Energizer President
WE must often resort to certain axioms in decisionmaking, in public as in personal life.Skip to next paragraph
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When pressed to respond immediately with a decision, for example, it can be useful to answer, "If it has to be now, it's no." Urgency in such cases should not intrude on the substance of the issue itself. Many decisions should have no time limit put on them. The answers need to evolve out of improved thinking. Arbitrariness, which substitutes personal will for analysis, or a fear of appearing indecisive only admits errors into the basic thought structure that will eventually have to be removed. Invoking the axiom "If it has to be now, it's no" usually avoids being pushed around by time.
A corollary, "If it isn't yes, it's no," applies when much thought has been given to a question but no resolution has been reached.
This was the case, for example, with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's decision on whether to run for president this year. He had set certain criteria, including having reached a budget pact by the New Hampshire primary filing deadline. Was it a mistake to adopt a condition that could be vetoed by the simple obstinacy of the state legislature? Not if, to him, executive branch leadership of a legislature was a prerequisite for higher office. It could be argued that the state government budget-decision track he was on, and the presidency-decision track, did not exist on the same plane, and not even the powerful intellect of Mr. Cuomo could get them to coincide. If he could not make it to yes, he had to accept that, for the sake of others who had to get on with their elections and their lives, it had to be no. This is not the no of a finished thought process; it is the no of default.
Now, there is no evidence that George Bush ever went through any thought process at all to decide whether he would run for reelection this year.
It was apparently assumed that he would run. But should it have been assumed that he should run?
Ronald Reagan ran again in 1984. Irangate followed, a confused administration. President Reagan's achievements, it turns out, had been made during his first term. A fairer matchup for 1984 would have been between Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice president, and Mr. Bush, Reagan's. Assuming Bush would have won, he would now be finishing his second term. This would mean 12 White House years as vice president and president - quite a run. The Republican contenders for next fall would include Secretary of S tate James Baker, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, and Patrick Buchanan - a strong field. Plus perhaps Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Phil Gramm.
If the world is entering a new mono-military power, multi-economic-power phase in which the United States seeks a surer footing, this could be the time to join a serious policy debate within both parties. Bush's running again, despite Mr. Buchanan's presence, means the GOP will skip a turn in self-examination.
Images of fatigue, of overextension, have begun to crowd in upon Bush's public persona. How ironic that, in early summer 1979, it was also on a return from Japan that President Carter's fortunes took a spill. The "killer rabbit" episode, the stagger during a jog intended to communicate fitness - images of vulnerability - undermined Carter. Similarly, Bush's Asian outing pictured him as vulnerable physically and of limited clout in negotiating with the Japanese. Further, the trip was really a "domestic" t rip - intended for home consumption. Given how it has turned out, he should not have made it.
Again, did Bush ever decide whether to run again, or did he just slide into it? If he did not decide to run, he likely did not decide what he wanted to accomplish in a second term. If this is the case, lacking a keel of principles and a port to sail to, he could be vulnerable to the winds of circumstance, like those that tore apart his Maine summer home.
At the very time Bush clearly appears to need some time off - a break he has earned - he has to begin reelection campaigning. His pride in his energy could prove his undoing.
Why weren't four years enough for Reagan? If they had been, Bush would be concluding his presidency now, saying that he had seen the country through fundamental global change. Despite the recession, he could claim success.
Why weren't four years enough for Bush? Funny, nobody has asked.
Bush will be 69 in 1993 when he begins his second term, assuming he is reelected. That's not too old for a chief executive, but what is he trying to prove, playing three rounds of golf simultaneously?
George Bush has been the Energizer president. But the compulsive action that has characterized his political career, including his first White House term, may not be the right model for the rest of it.
We needn't look for anything so radical as introspection.
But the high-personal-energy presidency shows signs of running down.
If Bush hasn't really thought about why he wants to run, and how, he should do so now.