How Bush, the elder, influences son's White House
President's father wields diplomatic Rolodex, but also offers lessons on mistakes to avoid inside the Oval Office.
WASHINGTON — When Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah traveled to Texas last month, he visited his new friend President Bush and his old buddy from the Gulf War days, the other President Bush.
After dining on beef tenderloin and potato salad at the son's Crawford ranch, Prince Abdullah and the father spent 90 minutes together on a train from Houston to College Station, Texas, the site of George Herbert Walker Bush's presidential library.
The White House portrayed this leg of the trip as a personal catch-up. A Saudi Embassy spokesman, however, indicated that the elder Bush plays a reassuring role in the region, and that his advice is sought after. Indeed, last summer, when the crown prince complained of the new president's overly pro-Israel stance, the elder Bush was pressed into service, personally calling the Saudi royal to calm the storm.
Ever since No. 43 as the current president is sometimes called took office, the White House has played down the influence of No. 41. The two talk often, but as the president's dad recently said, "he doesn't need me or his mother hovering over the scene."
Still, Bush senior and, more broadly speaking, his administration casts a long shadow. Affecting everything from this president's war on terrorism to his economic message, and from politics to personnel, Bush I has fundamentally shaped Bush II, though often indirectly, and not always as a model to be followed.
"There have been lessons learned," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station. "Those lessons include: Show an interest in domestic policy; and don't alienate your base."
Echoing others, Mr. Edwards argues that perhaps the greatest impact of the previous administration is in the area of personnel. Key players on the president's war team Vice President Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell are all veterans of the first Bush administration.
Of course, any Republican president would have looked back to the last GOP administration for experienced hands, but in the foreign policy realm, the special relationship of No. 41 with the Arab world, as well as with China, is unique.
"People make family connections in certain parts of the world," he says. "They also might conclude that 43 will talk to 41 and know what 41 thinks, and that's probably irreplaceable" as is the "steadying, reassuring hand" that Bush's father offers him.
And offers outsiders. In Taiwan last week, Bush senior gave a speech in which he almost apologized for his son's recent decision to place steep tariffs on steel imports. According to press reports, he referred to the tariffs as an "aberration," and tried to affirm Washington's overall trade policy as a fair one.
On the domestic front, the administration has been influenced far more by the mistakes of Bush I, than its successes.
This president's policy approach shares some common ground with his father's after all, Bush senior, too, wanted to be known as the "education president," and he also embraced a "kinder, gentler" conservatism. But it is in the execution of their agenda that this White House has consciously veered in an opposite direction.
While Bush I neglected the economy as an issue and was clobbered for it his son ranks it as a priority alongside the war on terrorism, and doesn't cease to express his concern for the jobless. While the elder Bush alienated the right to such an extent that he was challenged for the nomination by Pat Buchanan, the younger Bush is actively feeding his base.
Recently, Washington conservatives have criticized Bush junior for neglecting his base by caving on steel tariffs, campaign-finance reform, and most recently, waffling on unequivocal support for Israel. Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, points to his boss's high approval ratings and scoffs at these critics as out of touch with the nation's conservatives.
So too, does Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a board member of the National Rifle Association. Bush, he says, has given each of the key constituencies of the "center right" at least one of their major issues, while his father "double-crossed" these groups.
Ticking off the "goodies," he names the tax cut, opposition to cloning, the dropping of the Kyoto climate protocol, as well as the Justice Department's argument that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms.
Whatever parallels there are between the administrations of Bush senior and junior, they do break down at some point. George W. Bush, like all presidents, is shaped by his own set of circumstances particularly the war on terrorism, says Martin Anderson, domestic policy advisor to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Anderson believes the younger Bush more closely reflects the Reagan presidency. In any case, "he's not the same as his father. He's a Texan."
That may be, but at the same time, he is a Texan named Bush.