TPM Cafe: Opinion

Book Club: George W. Bush: Back To The Republican Kennedys


Yet, fifty years on, the short Kennedy presidency is far more admired by the public than either of the Bush tenures, and the iconic legacy of JFK's short White House stay greatly overshadows three full terms of the Bush family. George W. Bush was superficially a good deal like John F. Kennedy. Both had famous and powerful fathers, came from well-heeled, privileged backgrounds, had Ivy League educations, were elected president in squeakers, and saw foreign policy dominate their terms. Yet even Bush jokes frequently about his lack of eloquence and frequent malapropisms. Jack and Jackie Kennedy were the life of the party and led the nation culturally from the White House. Though gracious hosts, George and Laura Bush were famous for going to bed by 9:30 p.m. whenever possible. It may well be that Bush's serious, sober personal style was preferable to JFK's wild living for governance. Still, the public's imagination is rarely captured by bland temperance.

Concerning his presidential agenda and the Kennedys, George W. Bush was more like Ronald Reagan than his father. The second Bush was a determined tax-cutter, unlike his dad, who had famously violated his campaign pledge, "Read my lips, no new taxes," by raising taxes during his term. In seeking across-the-board cuts as part of his early legislative program, Bush copied Reagan in citing JFK before Congress and on the stump. The tax cuts were needed, said Bush, "to, in President Kennedy's words, 'get this country moving again.'" In his most significant early achievement--but one with damaging consequences for the burgeoning national debt -- Bush won $1.35 trillion in tax cuts, which he supplemented with still more tax breaks in both 2002 and 2003.

Other than tax cuts, the closest parallel in the Bush presidency to JFK's was a militarily assertive foreign policy. Just as with Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, the Bush administration was not prepared for its first-year crisis, the terrorist attacks on September 11. But in the aftermath of failure, both administrations were transformed; they reevaluated and recalibrated to prepare for the crises to come. In Bush's case, the decision to strike back in Afghanistan (and later, much more controversially, in Iraq) as well as the actions taken to protect air travel and the homeland defined his White House years. Kennedy and all Cold War presidents were able to use the clear and present danger of a well-defined threat (the Soviet menace) to marshal public opinion and congressional support for their goals. While it came at a high price, terrorism in the twenty-first century returned purpose and clarity to American politics -- and restored a natural enemy -- that had been lacking since the fall of the Soviet empire. The "axis of evil" (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, along with terrorism generally) enabled Bush to focus his energies on enemies that unified Americans, at least temporarily. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein became Bush's Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev.

In the view of many, though, this led to the kinds of excesses in the name of national security that had emerged during the Cold War era. The powers of the National Security Agency were broadened to permit eavesdropping on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals domestically, and the FBI's powers were expanded in a wide-ranging new antiterrorism law, the PATRIOT Act. The "imperial presidency" of JFK's era was back, and civil liberties were restrained to meet the threat posed by another "ism" -- terrorism this time rather than Communism. President Bush insisted that his national security reforms did not trample civil liberties in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War, and in his memoir, Decision Points, he specifically cited the excesses under the Kennedy administration: "Before I approved the Terrorist Surveillance Program, I wanted to ensure there were safeguards to prevent abuses. I had no desire to turn the NSA into an Orwellian Big Brother. I knew that the Kennedy brothers had teamed up with J. Edgar Hoover to listen illegally to the conversations of innocent people, including Martin Luther King Jr. Lyndon Johnson had continued the practice. I thought that was a sad chapter in our history, and I wasn't going to repeat it."

Bush was not so publicly critical of the Kennedys while in office, and certainly not in the opening stages of his administration. To the contrary, he believed his success in securing one of his major goals, an education law called No Child Left Behind, depended heavily on Senator Ted Kennedy. As governor of Texas, Bush had also skillfully wooed powerful Democrats such as Texas House Speaker Pete Laney and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, so he had confidence his technique of bipartisan camaraderie might work in Washington.

For the first film screening in the new Bush White House, the president and Mrs. Bush chose Thirteen Days, a movie about JFK's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The guest of honor was Ted Kennedy, and he brought much of the family with him. The occasion was to prove the power of what President Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, called "the amazing soft power of a kindly invite." As Fleischer pointed out, Bush recognized "there were two Ted Kennedys. There was the Ted Kennedy that . . . could take to the floor of the Senate and give the most impassioned, powerful speech anyone has ever heard and he will fight you tooth and nail. The other Ted Kennedy was the one who will reach a compromise with you and reach across the aisle. Both Kennedys existed on any given day . . . Bush knew if he could get the compromising Kennedy to be with him, chances were very good that his legislation was going to make it through the Senate. Kennedy was that type of old bull."

At the time, Bush insisted his gestures of friendship for Senator Kennedy had no connection to legislative deal making, but the ex-president's memoirs noted, "The movie hadn't been my only purpose for inviting Ted. He was the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that drafted education legislation. He had sent signals that he was interested in my school reform proposal . . . " That night Bush told Kennedy he wanted to be known as "the education president" and emphasized, "I don't know about you, but I like to surprise people. Let's show them Washington can still get things done." The next morning, a note from Kennedy to Bush arrived, reading in part, "Like you, I have every intention of getting things done . . . We will have a difference or two along the way, but I look forward to some important Rose Garden signings."

That same year, while No Child Left Behind was still being negotiated in Congress, President Bush marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the birth of Robert Kennedy by dedicating the main Justice Department building on Constitution Avenue in Washington to RFK. Before an assemblage of Kennedys and surviving New Frontiersmen, Bush hailed the special relationship between JFK and RFK: "No man ever had a more faithful brother." Asked by a reporter whether the renaming was an attempt to curry favor with Ted Kennedy, Bush laughed and replied, "I'm not quite that devious." But he was. By year's end, Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind, accompanied by praise from the Massachusetts senator: "President Bush was there every step of the way."

The Bush-Kennedy infatuation did not last, and could not. The ideological demands of their very different political parties tore apart the relationship, with Kennedy campaigning for Democrats in 2002, opposing Bush's conservative Supreme Court picks, and clashing repeatedly with the administration over the Iraq War. Still, George W. Bush had learned a lesson his predecessors had also absorbed. When trying to influence public opinion or make congressional deals stick, the Kennedys, past and present, were good allies to have.

Even Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, who was not a man much given to open sentiment, realized the emotional effect a Kennedy appearance could generate. In September 1963 President Kennedy appeared at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and Cheney was there to see JFK ride in an open motorcade a couple of months before Dallas. "He had inspired us all," Cheney later wrote, "and at a time when I was trying to put my life back together, I was particularly grateful for the sense of elevated possibilities he described." Kennedy footprints have been found here and there in the Bush White House years even as the Bushes gave Republicans the opportunity to tout their own dynastic family to rival the Democratic royals. For much of the Bush presidency, JFK had been in eclipse, rarely mentioned and seemingly becoming a distant memory for most Americans. And then something -- or someone -- unexpected happened in 2008, reviving the Kennedy image and promise. His name, of course, was Barack Obama.

© 2013 Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy

Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, is the founder and director of the renowned Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He has appeared on dozens of national television and radio programs, including 60 Minutes, Today, Hardball, and Nightline. He has coanchored the BBC's coverage of U.S. presidential returns and inaugurations, and has authored or edited more than a dozen books on American politics, including the highly praised A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised -- Ideas to Inspire a New Generation. His other books include Feeding Frenzy, about press coverage of politicians; The Rise of Political Consultants; and Barack Obama and the New America. Sabato runs the acclaimed Crystal Ball website, which has the most comprehensive and accurate record of election analysis in the country. In 2001, the University of Virginia gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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