The "Just Folks" Presidency
By Hugh Sidey
(TIME, April 17, 1989) -- Good writers, those two. Poetic, brief and accurate. George Bush must have been listening and working up his own version:
Old baseball mitts and spotted plump puppies,/ Horseshoes that ring and bright smiling yuppies . . ./ These are a few of my favorite things.
When my polls are bad, I simply remember my favorite things/ And then people feel so glad.
So far, Bush's presidency has played remarkably like The Sound of Music. It might not have worked in the cold war, but that seems to be over. Comes an economic recession, forget it. But right now, in boom and blossom time on the Potomac, Bush has astonished the Beltway punditry by achieving resounding job approval (54% last week in a TIME/CNN poll, down slightly but still substantial). All the while he has been shrinking his nightly TV presence by as much as one-third compared with his predecessor's, and often he is nowhere to be seen on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
How does a President stay up while going down? "This low-key, no-pressure, no-sweat President has engendered more response than Ronald Reagan," says political analyst Horace Busby, once an aide to Lyndon Johnson. "The American people have much less need for Washington than Washington wants to believe."
Busby's response is visceral. A similar finding from Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs is factual. He records all the network evening news shows and analyzes them. Bush's presence is diminishing, that of Cabinet officers and other Administration spokesmen rising. The White House now is the focus of Administration news only about half the time, compared with 72% in the first days. "So far," says Lichter, "the 'just folks' presidency is working. Bush gets less press but better press. Bush is far more visible to the press than he is to the public, just the opposite of Reagan, who was far more visible to the people than to the press."
With the notable exception of the John Tower fracas, Bush has muted public controversy. He cut a deal with Congress to quiet the poisonous contra-aid issue. He tiptoed out of the Eastern Air Lines strike early and into the Alaskan oil spill belatedly. Twice in the past few days he has mentioned his admiration of the leadership style of Dwight Eisenhower, best known for his ability to reconcile contentious and talented people. "No room for grudges in this business," Bush told one meeting of young staff members.
By one estimate Bush has upped the presidential verbiage on policy issues fivefold, reducing the quarrelsome White House press corps to writing about facts and figures rather than about the isolation of the President -- stories not nearly so much fun and not nearly so apt to be printed or broadcast. A side effect has been the virtual absence of the phony leaks, dope stories about dark doings inside the Oval Office and mischievous whispers that delight the political predators of this city. Nor, one Bush aide ventures, is there any hint of undercover national security adventures being hatched in dim corridors. "A few secret messages, maybe some surveillance activities, but no clue of any Bay of Pigs or missiles for hostages," he says.
But a real Baltimore oriole perched outside the President's office and created a stir last week. It was a rare sighting. The number of requests for one of Millie's six puppies is in the dozens and climbing, the kind of happy predicament the Bushes relish. And before the world turns grumpy, as it surely will, the President can chuckle along with his favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra. The story goes that when asked if he was a fatalist, Berra replied, "I never collected postage stamps."
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