Jewish World Review June 24, 2005 / 17 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The drum major | There was something familiar about him as soon as he came striding into the room, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Dan Bartlett is the new Karen Hughes, the White House staffer in charge of coordinating communications, that is, keeping the press at bay. So while he was in Little Rock the other day, he swung by to talk to us newspaper types.

It wasn't easy to stay focused as our guest went down his list of talking points in practiced order: Social Security reform, the energy bill, CAFTA, Iraq . . . . The mind wandered.

Then I realized why Mr. Bartlett seemed so familiar. Of course. The starched white shirt. The neat haircut, which I'd bet is always kept the same short length. He wore the perfect gentleman's tie, that is, instantly forgettable. And his suit coat stayed on till he was invited to take it off. He was all business once he got to his message.

Before that, there'd been the customary small talk — about football, naturally, given these latitudes. A graduate of both the University of Texas and a number of Bush campaigns, he's a true-blue, or rather burnt-orange, Longhorn fan. That's when it hit me:

He reminded me of a younger version of one of the most sociable yet earnest gentlemen I've ever known: my late father-in-law, Robert E. Levy of Waco, Texas. We still have a picture of him standing tall in his drum major's outfit, baton at the ready, when he led the Longhorn band into then-new Texas Stadium at Austin in 1924. (Final score: Baylor 28, Texas 10.)

The photograph has been cut out and pasted on a wooden backing, complete with a little pedestal to hold it. The statuette is still in the downstairs bedroom, and you can almost hear "The Eyes of Texas" when you look at it.

Mister Robert would come back to Austin, along with the whole family, to lead the band into that same stadium on its 50th anniversary in 1974 — this time in a cowboy hat to match those of the band. He had to move with some alacrity to avoid being run over by all the marching feet and sliding trombones behind him. His agility brought to mind Satchel Paige's sage advice: Don't look back; something might be gaining on you.

Happily, Mr. Levy outran the band, or maybe it just marked time on a strategic turn or two. I'm not sure; I couldn't bear to watch some of the closer encounters. I visualized a NASCAR-style crack-up with band music. The Onion-style headline appeared spontaneously before my eyes: Former drum major run over by band/Goes down yelling 'Hook 'em Horns!'

I could even see the lede below it: "Interviewed in his hospital bed after a collision with a trumpet section, Robert E. Levy of 3801 Castle, Waco, Texas, explained, 'It was all the fault, don't you know, of my Arkansas son-in-law, who was always an embarrassment . . . .'"

Actually, everything went swimmingly that golden fall day. (UT 32, Texas A&M 3)

By 1999, when he would appear for the stadium's 75th anniversary, precautions were taken. Mister Robert rode onto the field in a golf cart. When he gave the Hook 'em Horns sign, the stadium erupted in cheers.

My father-in-law was one of those rare souls who went to heaven before he died because he got to watch the game from the Royal box, literally. He and his grandson would be the guests of Darrell K. Royal on that auspicious occasion. No higher station could be imagined. (UT 58, Texas Tech 7)

But now it's 2005, and I'm in Little Rock, Ark., listening to Dan Bartlett talk about Social Security, the need for a comprehensive energy policy because we-didn't-get-into-this-mess-overnight-and-we-won't-get-out-of-it-overnight, why the CAFTA agreement needs to be ratified for geopolitical reasons, and the endgame in Iraq (he hopes).

He proceeds methodically down the political field only a step or two ahead of the herd of critics that is always gaining on any administration. And it occurs to me that not just marching bands need a drum major to keep everybody in line and on point, and Dan Bartlett's is this administration's.

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Here's one more Robert E. Levy story, as the rabbi in Waco told it. One night they were leaving a fund-raising meeting together when Mr. Levy turned to him and confided: "It won't work, don't you know, it's just a waste of time and money."

The rabbi was surprised. "Bob," he asked, "if you felt that way, why did you make a pledge?" Mr. Levy looked at him as if the answer should have been obvious. "Rabbi," he explained, "I want to do my part."

Maybe that's why Dan Bartlett was in Little Rock rehearsing this administration's program at a time when its reception in Washington and around the country has become a mix of indifference and opposition. He's doing his part.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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