Shields and Brooks
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: That brings us to some year-end analysis by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard.
MARGARET WARNER: David, a very different George W. Bush as the year ends than when it began.
DAVID BROOKS: In scale most of all. At the 2000 Republican Convention he gave a speech in which he said, my father’s generation was called upon with an epic struggle for freedom. We’re not called upon for that; we’re called upon for small acts of compassion.
The emphasis was on “small.” And that was the language of compassionate conservatism, but it turns out events have rendered it differently. His generation is called for an epic struggle, not summoning the armies of compassion but summoning real armies.
And so he has expanded in scope. He has become less of the small neighborhood caring guy, more of the big President, the Superpower leader, and he has filled the role.
MARK SHIELDS: George Bush in the words of Jeff Geran, the pollster, said, he began the year as a question mark; he ends it as an exclamation point. And I think that’s great truth to that. He was inaugurated January 20th. He became President really after September 11, and there’s no doubt about it. There was a sense of confidence there that he did not demonstrate early in the first half of the year in his presidency. He talked about the mission that he had assigned to General Franks — when he spoke about I’d rather be in our position than in Osama bin Laden’s, I mean there was a sense of confidence and command that George Bush has not shown before.
MARGARET WARNER: Even his adversaries, his political adversaries, David, are readily acknowledging that he’s a very effective as a wartime President. What makes him effective?
DAVID BROOKS: A couple of things: First of all, rhetorically he’s been very gifted. Who would have guessed that? Secondly, judgment, and this is something we overlooked because we think judgment involves reading a lot and studying a lot and knowing a lot, but you can break down the last couple of months into a series of crucial decisions, and he’s made the right one just about every time.
Should we trust the Northern Alliance? Yes. Should we go after the states that harbor terrorists, not only the organizations? Yes. Should we move out ahead of the coalition, possibly rupturing relations with Russia, others? Yes. That worked out okay. Should we downplay anthrax? Not personally get involved? Yes.
A series of correct decisions, and so we can talk about his style, which is very important, but he has actually made the right decisions on matters of substance.
MARK SHIELDS: I think the stature gap is closed, there’s no doubt about it. And that really plagued the President, and it has been closed since the events of September 11. And – but I think partly, Margaret, it was history’s errant for George Bush. I mean, whoever was President on September 11, the American people look to the President.
They forget about the Congress; they forget about all other intervening institutions. The President is the one voice who can speak to all Americans and speak for all Americans. And you know government may be your enemy in times of peace and campaign rhetoric, but, boy, when it comes to personal family and national security, government is your friend, and so the embodiment of that has served the President very well.
MARGARET WARNER: Now what about the questions he didn’t want to answer but had to do with whether he’s been personally transformed. Do you think he has?
MARK SHIELDS: Do I think he has? I’m not sure he has been – it’s obviously – there’s more gravitas – the circumstances demand a seriousness. The smirk is gone. It has vanished, but what I find most interesting is that none of his associates or supporters want to acknowledge that there’s any transformation, so those of us who see it are held in some scorn by the President’s own supporters. They want to say this is the George Bush that existed before; you just didn’t see him that way.
MARGARET WARNER: Though some friends, David, do say in private, he is more serious than he used to be. I read that some of his former fellow governors say, you know, the guy used to come to the governors’ meetings and kid around – that’s gone.
DAVID BROOKS: Even Jeb Bush said it at one point; Jeb Bush said that he has been transformed. He’s at once transformed and the same. He was always a morally earnest person, a serious Christian, and that has informed the way he’s dealt with the whole crisis, and –
MARGARET WARNER: This mission he sees.
DAVID BROOKS: This sense we have found our moment and our mission, his personal mission, but looking at him today my reaction to the whole event was, could he have been more Gary Cooper?
I mean, if you took in a bunch of cultural historians and said, what are the elements of the simple, straight talking American, he’d have them all naturally and authentically. You know he said he didn’t want to talk about himself; I don’t look in the mirror. He had the ranch behind him; he had the leather jacket.
He talked about fishing and clearing brush late in the press conference. This was somebody who’d almost risen to Reaganesque levels of tapping into deep American stereotypes, and that is something I didn’t see, I don’t think many people saw a year ago, and if I was just speaking politically as a political consultant, that’s magic, which not everybody has.
MARGARET WARNER: How well do you think, David, he’s done? He talked a lot – and was asked a couple of times about, what did the American people have to expect, what are you going to say to them now? How well do you think he’s prepared the American people for the fact that this is going to be a long war, and it may not be as overt and it may not have quick victories?
DAVID BROOKS: In this I think I agree with Mark, that the American people didn’t need much preparation – I saw a Gallup Poll recently. 83 percent I think it was think the hardest part of the war is still to come, the majority support going on to Iraq. I think the American people got it without him having to say a word.
MARK SHIELDS: I think that the President has missed a golden opportunity to ask all of us individually and collectively for the common good to sacrifice, and that’s where I think the failure has been on his part in his judgment.
For some reason he doesn’t want to ask us – this is the only war in history, Margaret, go all the way back to the Mexican War – when the United States has entered a war with no military draft and with a tax cut.
Every other time there’s been – saying we have to pay for this. That decision has been deferred until next February, when the President has to produce a budget, and it’s going to be unhappy and it’s going to be unpleasant, so I think in that sense the President has failed to grab – to understand what David just identified as the public mood that Americans want to sacrifice.
I’ll tell you, the failure to do it at some point, unless this is a string of uninterrupted successes, which, of course, will defy history, disgruntlement sets in, and there was a sense that we weren’t in on the takeoff, and you know you weren’t candid enough with us, you didn’t ask enough of us.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re suggesting then in the other war he’s waging, the war on the economic recession, he’s definitely not as sure-footed, and he’s not -
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think he’s been well served by his role of commander in chief and how people judge him to be. If you’d said a year and a half ago there’d been 2 ½ million Americans who had a job to go to that day that don’t have a job to go to today, that surpluses as far as the eye could see had been replaced by deficits as far as the eye could see, that the country’s in recession, and yet seven out of ten Americans say the country is headed in the right direction – now that is a sense of national unity and national spirit, but it’s disengaged from the reality. If I had described those circumstances, you’d have said, that guy’s in big political trouble.
DAVID BROOKS: I’ll agree with Mark maybe in a month or two at the State of the Union Address. I think Mark is right – this is a very self-confident country. This is a country looking for great challenges, wants to transfer the success abroad to success at home.
This is a Teddy Roosevelt moment. He said he was reading Edmund Morris’s book on Teddy Roosevelt – but it’s looking for limited but energetic government. He has to do something on the State of the Union Address that says I know the political landscape has been transformed; I know I can’t go back to compassionate conservatism, I have to do something energetic, something ambitious. And if he doesn’t do that, then we really will be in a situation, which Mark described.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with Mark that part of that will mean saying to the American public, you know, we had really good times last year but we need some financial sacrifice here?
DAVID BROOKS: Mark made a point last week, which I’ve been thinking about, a very profound point – not that you’re not profound every week -
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, David.
DAVID BROOKS: But he said – he said, look at the recession and the public reaction; there’s nobody – if I quote you correctly – saying, is America in decline, is America going downhill? This is a self-confident country. We feel we’re going to get out of it, so I don’t think the recession is the problem. I think it’s the confidence that demands that we take advantage of this moment. This is a moment. Do we seize it?
MARGARET WARNER: And you see the President shrinking from that?
MARK SHIELDS: I do from that challenge and that opportunity, but it’s almost at this point unsavory to whine or to gripe about your own economic situation – it’s seen as almost being unpatriotic, Margaret, and I think that’s what’s worrying – the self-perception of the American people itself has changed since the September 11th.
Coming back to David’s original point – we read so much from Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw and we heard so much about the greatest generation, and we revered them – and I think now is the -
MARGARET WARNER: And envied them.
MARK SHIELDS: And envied them. And now there is a sense that this is a generation that has produced its own social icons. They are the young men and women at risk, obviously, in the Middle East. But beyond that, they are the firefighters, the cops, the rescue workers, all of whom are seen as the embodiment of courage, of sense of duty, of loyalty, of honor.
And so we don’t have to go back to Bob Dole and to Audie Murphy and the heroes of World War II. I think that’s been a transforming sense of “boy, maybe we can do something. Maybe we are better than we thought we were.”
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think, David, there is this apparent reluctance or has been so far, in the President to do this?
DAVID BROOKS: Two things. Blame William McKinley. He was– Karl Rove, his political advisor, on the model, said that he is the William McKinley of our age when he is really the Teddy Roosevelt of our age.
Teddy Roosevelt is the guy who saw — we face good times. What are we going to do with these good times? Teddy Roosevelt did a couple of things. One of the things he did was he took on the money wing of his party. He took on the wing of the party that saw politics for nothing more than making money.
Fantastic gridiron dinner scene in the book Bush just read where he takes on the Wall Street wing of the party right there at the dinner. And so the question is can Bush rise above the pure money making part of the party and raises up to bigger things? It does mean, to some extent, declaring some bit of war on some of the instincts of your party, which says government… which is skeptical about government, properly so, but which take the skepticism to an extreme.
MARGARET WARNER: Then that would mean taking on the conservatives in the party.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and he has known no willingness to do that, which is surprising. They have been very patient with him. I mean he has not brought up the social agenda, which he and they agreed and for which many of them based their endorsement of him. But I want to point out one thing. George Bush is not alone in the sense of the transformation of the American political landscapes since the 11th of September.
People feel better about the Congress by a two to one margin, feel they’re doing a better job. They feel better about political parties; they feel so much better about government as an institution. So it’s really been a rising tide for all these various public mopes.
MARGARET WARNER: So it should be a great year next year. Happy New Year to you both.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.
DAVID BROOKS: To you, too.