Bush's way: a taker of big, bold risks

In 1993, on the day before George W. Bush announced his candidacy for governor of Texas, the Houston Chronicle ran the wrong picture with a story about him. Over a short piece detailing his address to a group of Republican women, the paper printed a photo of - you guessed it - his father.

Mr. Bush brushed the mistake off. But throughout the campaign he kept worrying that Texans wouldn't see him as a person in his own right, according to Bill Minutaglio's biography "First Son." He thought that when voters heard his name, the patrician George H.W. Bush was indeed the image that flashed in their minds.

Eleven years later that's one thing that Bush probably doesn't have to worry about. He takes the stage at Madison Square Garden Thursday night as a politician in full - a president who, for better or worse, has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to wield the powers of office.

From fiscal to foreign policy, Bush's four years have been marked by bold - some would say foolhardy - initiatives. If reelection campaigns are usually about the incumbent, then the 2004 vote may hinge on how Americans feel about this Texas gambler style of leadership.

It's ironic, in a way. By becoming an un-Yankee, he's positioned himself to surpass the achievements of his aristocratic Yankee forebears.

"Bush's most important asset is his very focused and distinct personality," says Stephen Cimbala, a political science professor at Penn State University in Media, Pa. "You may agree or disagree with his positions on various public- policy matters, but you know where he stands."

The highlights of Bush's biography are now well known, given the scrutiny turned on any US president. The quick version is this: He was a cutup frat boy, the dervish of family gatherings, a middling oilman and baseball executive whose life turned around when he gave up drinking at age 40.

But within this general story are small revelations that voters may still find surprising. His brother Jeb ("Mr. Perfect," according to the nickname bestowed by George W.) was indeed the child his parents thought might follow the father into the Oval Office. But that was simply because he was the serious one in the family.

Bush relatives judged George W. to be wild, but also "the smart one," according to historian Herbert S. Parmet, a George H.W. Bush biographer. And it was George W. as a young adult who served a political apprenticeship under his dad. He was assigned to keep an eye on the mercurial, aggressive political consultant Lee Atwater, for instance. And as the elder Bush's term in office wound down, it was George W. who noticed the strain in his father's face and discussed with him whether he should stand for reelection.

"I don't know that he will run again," George W. told associates at the time, according to Mr. Parmet. "There's a good chance that he won't."

Ultimately the father did run, of course. Now the son is too - and to all accounts he didn't inherit that reluctance to try for a second term.

In fact, one word experts use over and over again to describe Bush's political leadership style is "aggressive." Just look at the timeline: Barely elected to office in 2000, Bush would have to govern from the center, said pundits. He didn't. Faced with predictions that his tax cut would unleash a flood of red ink, he would have to trim it, according to many commentators. Scratch that - it passed largely intact. He'd never be able to invade Iraq in the face of international opposition, judged some experts. Then he did - despite hints that his own father thought it a bad idea.

"He is decisive, and he takes risks," says Marc Landy, a Boston College political scientist and author of a book on presidential greatness.

On the stump, Bush himself offers up his clarity of vision as the reason he should get four more years. But one person's clarity is another's stubbornness, and it is precisely the president's refusal to look back that drives many of his opponents wild.

Bush's policies have been hubristic, say top Democrats, in the sense that no one really knows where they are taking the nation. The tax cuts have launched the US on a fiscal voyage without a predictable end point. The invasion of Iraq has indeed upset the Middle East status quo - yet no one will know whether that will be for better or ill for years, if not decades. "He rushed to war with no plan to win the peace, cost the United States $200 billion and rising, and pursued a go-it-alone foreign policy that has undermined the war against terror," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe last week.

In many ways Bush has had two presidencies already. His first was dominated by tax concerns, the passage of the No Child Left Behind education act, and other domestic issues. Following Sept. 11, there have been notable legislative changes - among them the establishment of a limited prescription-drug benefit for Medicare recipients - but foreign policy has been preeminent to an extent not seen in US politics since the Vietnam War. And it is here that the two competing descriptions of Bush - as strong to supporters, as blind to reality to opponents - truly collide.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, for instance, uses the seven minutes in which Bush continued an event with schoolchildren after airliners hit the World Trade Center to devastating effect in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11."

But the administration frames the narrative differently. They prefer this version, drawn from the 9/11 commission report:

On Sept. 11, Air Force One arrived at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska at 2:50 p.m. Bush's security detail had taken him on a meandering path across the Midwest to this point, but that was now to end. At 3:15, via teleconference, the president began the first National Security Council meeting of a new era. He "began the meeting with the words, 'We're at war,' " said the commission account.

And it is his performance in this context, and how it is perceived by voters, that by all accounts will sway the outcome in November. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that this year national security issues are more important in voter's minds than economic ones. The old Clinton slogan - "it's the economy, stupid" - has thus been turned on its head for 2004.

It's not a given that this focus benefits Bush. He gets higher marks than John Kerry on the generic question of keeping Americans safer from terrorism, perhaps. But Pew found voters split evenly over which candidate would be better at handling Iraq.

A crucial subquestion may thus be how closely voters see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror.

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