Bush and Nixon: Practical conservatives

On more than one occasion, I informed readers that Bill Clinton reminded me of Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom he idolized). Having noted this, a friend asked, "But who does George W. Bush remind you of?"

I chewed this question over for awhile. No president who seemed anything like George W. quickly leaped into my thought. Oh, yes, he looks like his dad. But as a president he's his own man. Here - I have it! There's a pragmatic approach to government and governing in Mr. Bush that reminds me of somebody who certainly isn't W.'s hero: Richard M. Nixon.

All that Americans and historians seem to remember of Nixon is his disgraceful conduct in Watergate and how he exacerbated the Vietnam war instead of bringing it to an end.

Other than that (Ringing in my ears is that oft-quoted phrase, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln."), Nixon was a better-than-average president. He worked out a detente arrangement with the Soviet Union, and he opened up mainland China to the world. On the domestic side, Nixon kept the country moving along.

Nixon was widely viewed as a conservative simply because he was so anti-Communist. But when one looked at his views on domestic problems, it was difficult to discern a consistent conservative strain. Indeed, Nixon was the same president who brought that close associate of President Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, into his White House to shape his domestic legislation. Remember that liberal income tax bill that Moynihan authored and Nixon embraced - and didn't get anywhere because the Democrats in Congress didn't want Nixon to get credit for liberal legislation?

In an interview back then, I once asked Nixon about his political ideology. "I'm not a conservative," he told me, as I recall that conversation, "I'm a pragmatist." Then he added that he thought it was William Pitt who first said that politics is the art of the possible, and that's what he also believed. He said he believed in "getting things done" and would make the necessary concessions.

That is the political approach I see in George W. There also was a terrible flaw in Nixon's character that in no way do I see in the relatively young man who now walks the halls of the White House.

George W. is no ideological conservative, although right wingers were hoping he would be just that. They should have been warned by the word "compassionate" that he tacked on to his definition of his own conservatism. It was a tip-off that W. would not be rock-bound to that philosophy. Yes, he starts out from a conservative position. But then, to get results, he bends. Look at his tax cut. And look at that education bill: He no longer is pushing for vouchers. He's easing up on his energy position, too. You hear very little from him now about those big plans for drilling for oil in Alaska.

I've written earlier that I think that George W. deep down is really a moderate. No, he'll never admit it. And his critics will never acknowledge it. But as I've since thought it over during the past few weeks I've come to the conclusion that he is his own kind of moderate - a president who doesn't find it too difficult to move toward the center if he thinks this is the only way to get legislation passed. Call him a "pragmatist-moderate."

I said some of the above to my friend who then asked: "Well, does Clinton still remind you of FDR?" My answer:

Mr. Clinton had reminded me of Roosevelt because he was the best politician to reside in the White House since FDR. But I see no resemblance today. I like to think that had that classy president, Mr. Roosevelt, lived to have a post-presidency period he would have retreated into civilian life with grace and dignity. But not our Bill. He's still out there chasing the limelight and apparently running for something. Or is he simply running away from relative anonymity? Can't he live with the thought of just being an ordinary citizen?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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