`King' Bush and His Critical Court

DURING the 1992 presidential campaign, President Bush was criticized for lacking vision, particularly about domestic policy. Mr. Bush and his advisers claimed that he had a vision but had difficulty articulating it and that, when he did, people didn't listen. In the end, the administration failed to counter the impression that Bush cared little for domestic affairs and had few concrete ideas about improving the economy. And to the end, the administration bemoaned its unfair treatment at the hands of the media and the electorate for not hearing what Bush was saying.

Two recent books by former officials in the Bush White House seek to explain how a president whose approval ratings hovered at 90 percent in the spring of 1991 could have lost the election in the fall of 1992 with barely 38 percent of the vote.

Both Charles Kolb's ``White House Daze: The Unmasking of Domestic Policy in the Bush Years'' and John Podhoretz's ``Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-1993'' point to the mediocrity of Bush's White House staff, particularly the head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Richard Darman, former chief-of-staff John Sununu, and domestic- policy czar Roger Porter, who was, according Podhoretz, a man gifted with ``almost infinite limits.''

And both men conclude that contrary to what Bush asserted, he was in fact a president without vision who predictably employed a staff without vision, and that was the undoing of his presidency.

But beneath a similar veneer, the two men tell different stories of the Bush years. The son of neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz, John Podhoretz held various junior White House positions under both Reagan and Bush, and he has written a caustic, funny, and ultimately cynical account of ``King'' Bush and his court. Charles Kolb, however, is far more sober. A former deputy undersecretary for education, Kolb became Mr. Porter's deputy in early 1990 and watched as the ship sank and with it, the Reagan revolution.

Kolb is a true believer; he was a loyal Reaganite who hoped the best for Bush and found the worst. His leitmotif is that Bush betrayed the promises of Reagan economics. At heart, that meant lower taxes, decreased federal spending, and a shrinking federal government.

Though Kolb acknowledges that, in reality, the Reagan years accomplished only the first of three goals, he was enraged when Bush agreed to the 1990 budget deal that increased taxes and led to a mushrooming of federal spending and the budget deficit. Kolb's enmity is reserved not for Bush, however, but for OMB head Darman. As Kolb sees it, Darman was Bush's Iago.

Kolb is often accurate in citing failed opportunities, whether during the Los Angeles riots or after the Gulf war, when Bush squandered enormous political capital and only urged Congress to pass legislation on crime and transportation. But truth be told, Kolb is very often tedious, tendentious, and displays the same penchant for numbing detail and the same pettiness of which he accuses his former colleagues.

Oddly, Kolb has little to say about Bush himself, perhaps because he had little direct contact with the president. In the end, he condemns not Bush but the Bush years as a betrayal of Reagan.

Unfortunately, he accepts on faith that supply-side economics would have worked if properly implemented. Thus, the actual economic performance of the country under supply-side Reaganomics does not strike Kolb as an invalidation. He says that had Bush adhered to Reagan's vision, all would have been well.

Supply-side economics was never fully implemented. Whatever Kolb may say, the bill for Reaganomics came due when Bush was president. Even had Bush enunciated a policy of his own, an electorate angry at the economic consequences of the Reagan years might have voted him out all the same.

Podhoretz is the consummate cynic. Unlike Kolb, he sees Bush, the man, and the staff he hired as ultimately responsible for the collapse of the administration. He describes the Bush White House as ``the center of a potent cult of personality in which every issue afflicting the body politic was reduced to its impact on the president's popularity or his chances of reelection.'' In Podhoretz's view, that White House was filled with mediocre advisers - he even calls them ``parasites'' - with a penchant for protecting their own reputations. These advisers fawned on their leader and in 1992 were unable or unwilling to tell him what was really going on in the United States.

Yet, both of these men served in the White House they excoriate. Podhoretz is amusing until one realizes that he was a courtier too. And Kolb stayed until the bitter end, sounding warnings all along.

With his unbridled cynicism, Podhoretz makes a biting commentator, but what kind of staffer was he? Angry at his feelings of betrayal, Kolb strikes many resonant notes, but with such anger, such pettiness. What kind of domestic policymaker was he?

Reading these books, one realizes why Bush lost. It was not just because of what these men testify about, but also because they were part of the problem.

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