Bush Gets 'Vision Thing' And Embraces Big Risks
Elisabeth Bumiller, writing in the New York Times (Jan. 12, 2004)
It was in a moment of irritation during the 1988 campaign that the Republican presidential candidate, Vice President George Bush, first derided"the vision thing," as he called it, thus employing an ungainly piece of Bush-speak to describe a leader's ability to set forth inspiring national goals. Mr. Bush, who may have been one of the most selfeffacing presidents in recent American history, went on to become a one-term incrementalist with little taste for big schemes.
Sixteen years later, the second President Bush has inherited his father's syntax but not his cautious goals from a less traumatic time. As last week proved again, this president has embraced not only"the vision thing" but the idea of a very big presidency: big ideas, big costs, big gambles. More than many presidents, historians say, Mr. Bush seems to understand how to use the powers of the office and to see the political benefits in risk. He may leave the details to others, but when backed into a corner, he doubles his bets.
Of course, this is also magic-show time in Washington, when White House advisers work feverishly backstage to roll out what they hope will be dazzling ideas to lead in to the State of the Union address on Jan. 20, the day after the Iowa caucuses. In a re-election year, Mr. Bush's plan is to steal the show. So the warm-up acts started last week.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that could confer legal status on millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. On Thursday, the White House officially leaked the broad outlines of a presidential speech this week in which Mr. Bush will propose establishing a base on the moon and sending humans to Mars.
"Setting forth a plan that takes humanity off this planet on a permanent basis is pretty visionary," said John M. Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University."You could get a little corny about this, but this is the start of a process that could go on for centuries."
Mr. Bush's father proposed sending humans back to the moon and on to Mars, too, in a July 1989 speech on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum that marked the 20th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's landing. But the 41st president included almost no details in a plan that had been hashed out at the White House, not NASA.
"All Bush 41 did was spell out destinations, and the initiative died pretty much stillborn," Mr. Logsdon said. In contrast, NASA has been involved from the beginning in the current project, and Mr. Bush is expected to go into considerable detail, although at a time of soaring budget deficits he is expected to be vague about the long-term costs of the plan.
The details in any case are not the point; neither is the heated criticism from Hispanic leaders that Mr. Bush's immigration plan does not go far enough."The vision thing" is the point, whether it is big tax cuts, big wars, big plans for democracy in the Middle East. Presidents, historians say, need national unifying principles.
"Winston Churchill always said that government should not be engaged in small endeavors," said David R. Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton White Houses."It had to be engaged in large endeavors to stir the public's imagination. And Bush gets that, whether by instinct or by reading."
Presidents, Mr. Gergen added, really need grand plans during re-election campaigns.
"Where vision becomes important is in winning the mandate and getting momentum heading into the second term," he said."If he campaigns now on what he wants to do in a second term, he'll be in much stronger shape in January 2005. The second term is always tougher than the first, and usually less successful. So what you want as a president is a fresh wind at your back."
It is impossible to know for sure if Mr. Bush, who spent Saturday and Sunday clearing brush at his Texas ranch before an overnight trip to Mexico on Monday, has embraced"the vision thing" as another object lesson from his father's presidency. The Bush family doesn't talk in those terms and may not even think in those terms.
Some historians discount it, too."I don't think this is a psychiatric thing where he felt his father was one way, and so he's going to be the other way," said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian.
On the other hand, it is possible that Mr. Bush, who was intimately involved in his father's two presidential campaigns, may have noticed something in 1988 that Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative fund-raiser, wrote in The New York Times:
"When the vice president minimizes the importance of vision -- he calls it 'the vision thing' -- he does so at his peril," Mr. Viguerie wrote."It is Ronald Reagan's concept of America's place in the world and of the country's ultimate destiny that held his diverse coalition together. Without a vision, or a 'vision thing,' Mr. Bush will soon find the elements of the Reagan coalition spinning off."
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