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Jewish World Review May 22, 2001 / 29 Iyar, 5761

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The Remote Control President


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN the 6th century., the men of Athens would vote annually on whom to ostracize, to banish, from the country for 10 years.

Why? Because people get sick and tired of the same big shots always having their names in the buzz. Just like we hated the same guys always running for student office back in high school and college, we despise seeing the same grown-up politicians always trying to grab the limelight.

The Athenian ritual of ostracism was a way to rid the capital of someone who had gotten too popular, too dangerous, too ambitious or simply too in-your-face.

Washington enforces a similar system. If you get your head too far above a certain line in this city and keep it there for too long, the people here have a way of lopping it off. There is a finite supply of fame and celebrity, and people of this capital, like their counterparts of ancient Athens, don't like to see someone trying to hog it all. That goes double for newcomers.

The Clintons never understood that. Bill and Hillary were in the paper and on TV every time you looked. They were the prom king and the prom queen, presiding forever at the edge of the dance floor for all to see. And people here hated it.

George and Laura Bush must have noticed. Since taking office, the new president and first lady have rationed their publicity as if they were sharing the last canteen on the lifeboat.

How does an American president run the country without putting his face in our faces? The way Dwight Eisenhower did: operating through a "hidden hand," as Princeton's Fred Greenstein described Eisenhower's approach of delegating the big jobs and the big publicity to a strong Cabinet; and by refusing to deal in personalities.

That's exactly how Bush has done it. He had Colin Powell get the EP 3 crewmen home, then he got Don Rumsfeld to say we were right once they were home. Rather than greet the returning Americans, he again left the honor to others.

Can you imagine Bill Clinton passing up such a fat meal of "I feel your joy" media coverage? The only time he let a cabinet secretary grab credit for something was when he let Janet Reno roast in public after Waco. Bush has followed Ike's lead not to engage in personalities, by avoiding fights -- Reagan vs. Tip, Clinton vs. Gingrich -- which constitute a surefire claim to national media attention. It's also a reliable, reader-friendly story line. Bush has done everything he can to avoid a public feud. He's cozied up to Ted Kennedy and California's George Miller on the education bill the way Ike did with Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn on domestic issues on which Democrats held the edge. He's succeeded, so far, in staying above the hard battle John McCain is waging on campaign reform.

Mary Matalin, a White House aide with a sense of history, defends the Bush's hidden-hand presidential style:

"The upshot of having ... a strong Cabinet with the kind of leader that he is, is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It's an efficient place. You show up on time. You make your points precisely, and you get done on time. This is not a White House about meandering, and pizza parties, and staying late to show off. It's about getting your work done and doing it in a way that you're accountable for and you're advancing the agenda."

The danger for Bush is that his cold, remote style of leadership will deny him the necessary public support when times get tough. President Eisenhower was an American hero when he entered office. He had become that by leading the allied forces in Europe during World War II.

George W. Bush has no such claim to fame. He lacks the cushion of affection that we gave forever to the man who received the Nazi surrender. By keeping his distance from us, by refusing to warm himself to the national embrace, this man from Texas has staked his personal success on those of his energy and economic policies. If they fail, so will he.



JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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