New White House motto: Keep it simple

Unlike past presidents, Bush gives brief speeches, stays focused, and plays up his 'plainspoken' roots.

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If one thing is becoming clear about President Bush's manner and style, it's that his approach to life - and to governing - might be summed up in three words: Keep it simple.

His boosters argue it's refreshing after eight years of a complicated Clinton presidency. Critics snicker, saying he borders on being a simpleton. But most observers agree Mr. Bush's style is unlike any in the modern presidency, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who also loved to retreat to a Western ranch far from the pomp and pageantry of Washington.

His "give it to 'em straight" approach is evident in everything from his speeches (brief) to his tendency to play up his Texas roots (all but ignoring his blue-blood heritage). But it comes across, too, in his approach to policy - a halogen-like focus on a few select issues, and an apparent distaste for deliberate ambiguity (witness his recent statements affirming US defense of Taiwan).

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"He's just plain folks," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here. If Bush is criticized for not being up to the complex job of being president, "in public communications, there's always an advantage in simplicity."

So far Bush and his team have streamlined their agenda and are focusing intently on tax cuts and education reform. They stay rigidly on message and resist being distracted by events like floods or riots. Bush directed Attorney General John Ashcroft, for instance, to address the recent unrest in Cincinnati.

A lower profile

This makes for a much lower profile - one that's unlike almost any in the modern presidency.

From Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, "most presidents have tried to impose their leadership style on the country by making use of their ability to speak to the whole public - and by projecting themselves as large figures on the public stage," says Michael Waldman, author of "POTUS Speaks" and President Clinton's top speechwriter.

Bush's lower profile makes good political sense for at least two reasons: "A lot of this is in reaction to Clinton," Mr. Waldman says. "Clinton overdid it," by having so many agenda items and weighing in on so many issues. But also, the style just fits the man. "Nobody would believe you if you said his style was as big as Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's."

Indeed, many critics still wonder if Bush is up to a job as expansive as the presidency. They point to his many verbal flubs and his tentative, sometimes feisty style in dealing with reporters.

Yet his defenders say he studies hard. "I've never seen him get a briefing book where he didn't read it," says White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.

And he has worked hard to diffuse suspicions about his ability, in part by lowering expectations.

At a recent black-tie dinner for White House correspondents, he brought a copy of his first-grade report card, which showed all A's. "My advice," he quipped to Washington's glitterati, "is don't peak too early."

"That's very clever politics," says presidential historian James MacGregor Burns of Bush's self-deprecating humor. When Democrats skewer him, the charges just don't stick as well, he says.

Sharing the credit

Bush also attempts to lower his profile by sharing credit for success - which was part of the stated rationale behind yesterday's luncheon for all members of Congress.

Yet the president, by definition, is high-profile. And a man who eschews nuance can upset careful balances. "It's hard to find a diplomatic gaffe of such significance uttered by a president of the US," says Waldman, referring to Bush's utterance on Taiwan. His defenders note that he was simply bringing clarity to a long-muddy position.

Bush's approach is unlike that of his father, who knew the complexities of US-China relations. Bush has also worked to distance himself from his father's style. He has so far refused, for instance, to go to Yale University's 300th anniversary celebrations. His father did accept.

The younger Bush was born in Connecticut and attended Harvard University and Yale, but he rarely acknowledges this fact. On a recent trip to Connecticut he avoided the subject altogether. Instead, he emphasizes his Texas roots.

Bush the elder was also known for being out of touch. The current president's staff highlights the fact that he traveled to more states in his first 100 days than any recent predecessor.

"He understands the grass roots [are] going to affect Washington," says Professor Arterton. "And he's spending a lot of time fertilizing them."

No place like the ranch

If the new Bush style is different from his father's, it's perhaps more like that of Ronald Reagan. There's the hands-off approach to governing. There's the honed-down agenda. And there's the ranch.

The Bushes have constructed a one-story house on their property near Waco, Texas. It's small by neighborhood standards: about 4,000 square feet. The stone walls are made of cast-offs from the local quarry. One of the few luxuries is a swimming pool - which Bush calls the "whining pool" because his twin daughters complained until they got it.

In fact, Bush has spent so much time there or at the Camp David presidential retreat that Washington insiders are whispering that he doesn't like being in town. "I like both," he insists.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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