WASHINGTON — 'It was on the global stage that President Bush made his biggest dent last year." Those words are from a column I wrote back in January of 1989, when George W.'s father was finishing his first year as president. Those same words certainly could be written now as the son completes his first year in the White House.
My conclusion in my column about the senior George Bush reads like this: "Cautiously (and caution is his mark) Bush is encouraging the reform movement in Eastern Europe and giving support to Mikhail Gorbachev. Thus, as he heads into the new year, Bush is trying to be part of an epic transformation of the world."
Well, George W. started out cautiously, too. He wasn't going to entangle the United States in problems abroad. Indeed, he was being criticized for this noninvolved approach to world affairs. He was even called an isolationist. Then came Sept. 11 and a president who became totally involved in a global war to free our nation from terrorists.
In my column of 1989, I noted this about the earlier President Bush's demeanor that I had just witnessed at a White House Christmas party: "It was the sunny self-confidence of this president at year's end - despite problems like Panama - that was so often commented on by the guests. As he and Mrs. Bush walked around the East Room it was apparent that they both were feeling good about themselves. Not cocky. But very good."
Of course, self-confidence describes George W. Bush as he begins his second year in office. But this self-confidence on the part of the son is much more remarkable: He is a wartime president with responsibilities on his shoulders that far outweigh those his father had at the same time in his administration. And while GW has kept his good humor, he certainly isn't - and couldn't be, in light of the dark circumstances - a truly "sunny" president.
There is another parallel between the two Bushes in their first-year performance in the presidency: their success in dealing with leaders in Moscow.
In a column in December of George Sr.'s first year I wrote (right after his return from a Malta summit with Gorbachev): "At this Christmastime the hearts of Americans are singing. The Iron Curtain is crumbling. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev are talking like friends. Peace may not be here - but it seems closer."
Well, there's that apparent closeness that GW has achieved with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Where this will lead we are not sure. Putin has already been of help to the US in its war against terrorism. But there are critics who warn that this bond is very tenuous.
I'm reminded of how the critics put down the elder Bush's accomplishments at the Malta summit. Paul Nitze, arms negotiator extraordinaire, was one. He talked to reporters at a Monitor breakfast right after Bush embarked for home from the summit and said that the president had simply had a public-relations triumph. Well, it's clear that the usually insightful Mr. Nitze was wrong in this instance.
In my year-end column that focused on the father's presidency I wrote: "Never mind that Mr. Bush was getting a pounding from critics who faulted his sending envoys to Beijing and how he was dealing with Panama. Never mind that there's still an immense budget deficit. Mr. Bush knew his public approval rating stood at 70 percent, the highest any president had enjoyed at this stage in his administration since John Kennedy scored 77 percent back in 1961. He knew, too, that most of the media had decided he was off to a good start after a year in office."
Similarly, we can write today: Never mind the criticism that GW is getting for his big tax cut and for, as his critics see it, his failure to deal effectively with the downturn in the economy. This president can, as he heads into a second year, point to public approval polls that have exceeded even those that Kennedy received.
The younger Bush knows that the country is behind him on the war and that this support is likely to endure. The public seems ready for a long war and one that simply must be won, no matter how long it takes.