Bush, Eying Legacy, Reads Books!
January 18, 2002, 04:00 AM
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Sitting presidents are obsessed with how history will rate them.

If you read the Lyndon Johnson 1964-65 secret tapes in the new Michael Beschloss book, Reaching for Glory, you learn that even a president who had just been elected by the largest majority in history was paranoid about everything political.

John F. Kennedy haunted Johnson. And LBJ was suspicious of the entire Kennedy clan, particularly Bobby.

As it turns out, presidents don`t have to be in office very long or even have won the popular vote before their thoughts turn toward posterity.

According to recent reports in the Washington Post, President George Bush has been spending a considerable amount of time over the past few months reading books about the presidency.

Several prominent history scholars have been to the White House for chats with Bush and his key adviser, Karl Rove.

Bush is following precedents set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy who had ready access to "brain trusts" from Harvard and Yale.

The historians have been summoned to help Bush and his staff learn from past incidents how former presidents have dealt with crises in their administrations. Bush hopes to learn from the past and avoid the blunders that tarnished many presidential reputations.

One of the White House visitors was University of Alabama professor Forrest McDonald who gave a lecture on "the characteristics of the great presidents."

The object is not to "get stuck in the moment but to step back and take the bigger picture and think about how others have dealt with situations," Rove said.

In reviewing presidential performances, Rove gave high marks to Ronald Reagan for his "vision." And, surprisingly, Rove rated President Bill Clinton highly.

"I`d limit it to the domestic side," Rove said. "But he had depth and that`s what this president (Bush) has sought to get."

Rove issued failing grades to Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. And George H. Bush was damned with faint praise. Rove thinks that "41" didn`t get off to a good start in his presidency and suffered the consequences.

As part of Bush`s continuing education, Rove gave his boss a copy of "Theodore Rex," the best-selling Theodore Roosevelt biography by Edmund Morris.

That Bush should be reading the Roosevelt biography while the nation is focused on Enron is ironic.

TR, like Bush, was well known for his friendships with rich and influential people.

But, unlike Bush, Roosevelt was a true progressive.

"Theodore Rex," according to critics, emphasizes TR`s association with wealthy and powerful people while ignoring his progressive and liberal programs.

"What Morris approves of is Roosevelt`s conservative and wealthy friends," Yale professor of history John Morton Blum said. "He minimizes Roosevelt`s instincts for reform."

Blum points out that Morris`s biography doesn`t mention Roosevelt`s creation of pure food and drug laws, railroad regulation and a new structure for inheritance and income tax.

And Blum further notes that Roosevelt`s statement that "the rich have a peculiar obligation to pay taxes at a higher rate than others" is nowhere in the book.

One reason Rove invites historians to share their thoughts is to help Bush frame himself so that his legacy will be positive.

But to this observer it seems premature for Bush to be worried about his place in history before his first State of the Union address.

Some elements of the Bush presidency are etched in stone. Never again will two presidential candidates be so close in the voting that the election`s outcome will still be in doubt after 36 days.

But the jury is out on how Bush is handling two of the nation`s most pressing issues.

First, on the international side, terrorism must be contained so that the nation can regain its sense of security.

Second, in domestic politics, the nation risks becoming an oligarchy if campaign finance reforms are not put into effect. 

Bush`s success or failure in the War on Terrorism will be easy to measure. If bin Laden is killed or captured, the administration has succeeded. If bin Laden remains at large, the effort has failed.

More than four months have passed since 9-11. More than $3 trillion has been spent. The headlines have been the same for weeks: "U.S. Jets pound al Qaida targets."

Bush has to deliver bin Laden dead or alive if he expects to be re-elected.

At home, the Enron collapse has underlined the need for immediate changes in our campaign finance regulations. If we don`t learn one more damaging thing about Enron, we know that small groups of business leaders wield enormous political influence within Bush circles.

Enron isn`t the only can of worms. Recently, the administration announced its intention to weaken pollution rules on power plants. And plans to store radioactive waste in Nevada are moving forward. The nods of approval for these questionable ventures are worth billions to the companies. And the executives, through their donations to the Bush campaign, have close ties to the administration. See the opensecrets.org Web site for the sordid details.

Bush raised more money than any other presidential candidate in history. His supporters are cashing in their IOUs. New York Times reporter Paul Krugman refers to this as "crony capitalism."

Bush`s second-floor White House suite is adorned with portraits of Abraham Lincoln and documents signed by James Madison. Bush hopes to emulate these great presidents from the past.

But Bush has a long road ahead of him with plenty of land mines to navigate before he will be considered among the presidential elite.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.