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George H.W. Bush’s First 100 Days

April 28, 1989 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: At noon tomorrow, Eastern time, George Bush will have been President of the United States for 100 days, and thus, the first 100 days of the Bush presidency will have passed. The first 100 days of presidencies is not something printed on calendars; it is something mostly invented and observed by pundits. And we observe it tonight with our own pundits, Gergen and Shields. Mr. Bush, himself, set the stage for the observances by visiting six states in four days. He made 12 major public appearances this week to highlight the successes and goals of his administration, speaking on topics ranging from drug policy and capital gains to relations with Congress.

PRESIDENT BUSH: [Monday, April 24, Chicago] I think the work we’ve done these past three months demonstrates the value of tough principled negotiations between this administration and the Congress. The bipartisan budget agreement that we worked out 10 days ago is a key example.

PRESIDENT BUSH: [Tuesday, April 25, San Jose, CA] I’ve listened to all the criticism and I’ve heard, as you have, the criticism of people who ridicule cutting the capital gains tax as somehow a tax break for the rich. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. Lower capital gains taxes will create jobs for those who don’t have jobs, will help build a better America.

PRESIDENT BUSH: [Thursday, April 27, Miami] Americans cannot blame the Andean nations for our voracious appetite for drugs. Ultimately, the solution to the United States’ drug problem lies without our own borders, stepped up enforcement but education and treatment as well.

PRESIDENT BUSH: [Today, Washington, D.C.] It is a very important thing for a president to get outside the White House and move around this country. And some of the friends that were traveling with us didn’t seem to understand that, but I can tell you I learned a lot from it and it was a good thing to do and I’m going to keep doing that.

JIM LEHRER: According to a Los Angeles Times Poll released today, the president’s positive evaluation of his own work is shared by almost half the nation. The Times said 47 percent of those asked approved of his actions in the White House, 18 percent disapproved, 35 percent registered no opinion.

Never among any group registering no opinion is our team of Gergen and Shields. That’s David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, and Mark Shields, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. How would you characterize Mr. Bush’s beginning, David?

DAVID GERGEN: I think he’s doing a little better than he was 50 days ago. I thought he was off to a very slow start, but it seems to me he’s started to catch hold a bit more. I think the team day-to-day looks better. He’s done a particularly good job in these first hundred days at defining himself, who George Bush is. I do not think he’s done so good a job as defining what his goals are, what his agenda is. I think that’s one of the weaknesses today.


MARK SHIELDS: I think he’s still haunted by Ronald Reagan. I mean, the strength of George Bush is his comparison to Ronald Reagan, the point that David makes, the persona. He has a deft way with those about him. He’s appreciative. He doesn’t have to be introduced to his grandchildren. There’s a genuine family feeling in the White House, but he’s a man thus far who seems to be more of a code of personal conduct, rather than to have a core of philosophical consistency, and I think that’s what’s missing. That’s the agenda and the lack of an agenda as contrast to Reagan; Ronald Reagan had an agenda.

JIM LEHRER: But you said he’s defined himself personally, David. In what way?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think he did have to follow an extraordinarily popular president who had a style that was extremely pleasing to the country and that I think was a major test for George Bush was how to get out from the Reagan shadow, and I think he’s done that in a fairly stylish way.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t think he’s done that?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I don’t think he’s done it in this sense. I don’t think he’s done it because the very reason that David said. He followed a fairly successful, popular president. We’ve had a series of presidents for the past quarter of century who have followed unsuccessful presidents of the other party and the problems that they inherited, they’ve been able to say, “Geez, I’m telling you, the guy that was here before us, he left no money in the petty cash, there were no stamps in the postage meter, and so you can blame him.” You can’t do that. S&L fiasco, Bush can’t blame him.

DAVID GERGEN: We’re talking about two different things. I agree with that. I think that stylistically he’s done well in a hundred days. I agree with you, because he believes the country’s doing so well he doesn’t need to do a lot and, therefore, he just hasn’t come up with an agenda and I think because he’s following a president who’s perceived as successful, he looks less successful and daring and bold.

JIM LEHRER: But he is being himself. I mean, he’s being George Bush?

DAVID GERGEN: That’s right. I think we see a man who is terribly comfortable with power and I think the country is growing comfortable with George Bush. I think Barbara Bush has made an extraordinarily good impression and I think George Bush personally has made a good impression as well.

JIM LEHRER: I want to get to this trip that he made last week but, first, where did this whole 100 days thing get started? Why are we even talking about it?
MARK SHIELDS: Franklin Roosevelt.

JIM LEHRER: Franklin Roosevelt.

MARK SHIELDS: Franklin Roosevelt, who was the dominant political presence of the 20th century to whom all subsequent presidents are compared unfavorably. The first hundred days…

JIM LEHRER: Why the first hundred days?

MARK SHIELDS: When Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States, one out of four heads of household was employed in this country, the banking system had collapsed. This, a nation demanding unspecified, unprecedented and really just action from some sort of national leadership and that’s what the hundred days. . .

DAVID GERGEN: In American politics… you know, the real historical original 100 days, of course, go back to Napoleon at the time when he left Albet to Waterloo. That was the original hundred days and that’s why the 100 day comparison grew up with Roosevelt. But I think that Mark is right. Every president since Roosevelt has suffered. I do think that Reagan had a good, successful. . .

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it’s fair to ring a bell after the first hundred days, okay, let’s talk about how a guy’s doing?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim. I’ll tell you, I mean, especially with George Bush has really lost it, and I think 24 months we could look back and say, you know, what was the mistake he made in the first hundred days, and that is that George Bush, my savvy precinct committee woman used to say to anybody who wants to run for office, what do you want your political epitaph to be.

In other words, what do you want people to feel that you stood for, that you made a difference, and George Bush has not communicated that, and the 100 days is the time to communicate it, the 100 days everybody wants a new president to succeed. We all do. We’re not partisans. We’re all patriots in the first hundred days.

DAVID GERGEN: I think he’s right. We’re in the television age and it’s even more relevant than it used to be because you have to seize the country’s attention early. You know, people have a short attention span in this country. They size up politicians quickly just like they size up new television shows quickly and they make snap judgments. And the first 100 days becomes terribly important, when the country makes a judgment about who this man is and where he’s going. I think they made a good judgment about who he is, not where he’s going.

JIM LEHRER: My only question is this though, David, and what I’m trying to get at, is it the American public that’s just doing that, or is it just us?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, it is artificial in a sense, but I think that the hundred days relate to attention span within the country. I might say there’s another way to look at this which I found quite helpful. James David Barbara, the professor from Duke, was in town last night. . .

JIM LEHRER: The political science. . .

DAVID GERGEN: The political science professor. And the leading scholar of the presidency. And we spent so much time watching the way George Bush paddles the boat, whether it’s in circles or straight lines, and what we were not paying attention to is that Niagara Falls was just over the horizon, and it’s in that sense that I think the Bush presidency still has not connected. It’s not looking ahead. It’s getting much better the way it paddles. I think the day to day operations are much sounder and more savvy. There are no more S&L mistakes, you know, of the first kind they made in the first couple of weeks. But they still haven’t looked ahead and said what does the country need by the year 2000. You know, we have 3,000 kids a day dropping out of school. We’re borrowing over $300 million a day, and nobody’s talking about the larger problems. The administration is not focusing on the larger problems.

JIM LEHRER: Well, but President Bush says he is and his trips out into the country this week were meant to demonstrate that. What do you think of that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David’s right. I think. . .this was a great opportunity for him. People are ready, the American people are ready to listen to him. A new chairman in both the House and Senate Budget Committee and if you really want to do something about the budget deficit, this was the time to do it. If you really want to do something dramatic on entitlements, if you really want to do something in the question of saying this is a serious problem and I want to present it to the nation, he’s had a great advantage though, the Democrats. I mean, the Democrats have been passive, inert and unorganized, so there’s really, in spite of his own stumbling he hasn’t really paid a price for it.

DAVID GERGEN: That’s right. But see in the next hundred days, in the next year, it’s harder to do tough things, because the country is not as generous, it’s not as charitable.

JIM LEHRER: And the Democrats will have their act together.

DAVID GERGEN: I don’t think they will.

JIM LEHRER: They might.

DAVID GERGEN: There is a remote possibility that once every ten years one of the parties gets organized in this country.

MARK SHIELDS: But divisible by two we have elections. That was the advantage we had, was at that point we were 21 months away from election.

JIM LEHRER: Two other quick things, gentlemen. The abortion issue, of course, has been raised in a major way this week. It’s back before the Supreme Court. How does that land, politically, David?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think the country is extremely ambivalent. I was quite struck by this New York Times/CBS poll that came out this week. It said 48 percent of the people in this country think that abortion is murder, a child, and yet one out of every six people, people who even think it’s murder, say it’s okay to go ahead and do it. People are basically on the side of abortion.

JIM LEHRER: You mean choice.

DAVID GERGEN: Choice, pro choice. But as this issue becomes politicized, there are major dangers for the Republican Party, it could spit apart the Republican Party, because the Democratic Party is fairly united around a pro-choice position. The Republican Party, the majority are pro-life but there is a significant minority within the party that’s pro-choice.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, your reading.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t share that as good news for the Democrats. I think that the movement or political ascendancy in the country is the pro-life or anti-abortion forces.

DAVID GERGEN: You think that?

MARK SHIELDS: I really do.

DAVID GERGEN: They’re better organized. I don’t think their numbers are larger.

MARK SHIELDS: I think their numbers are growing. I think the very fact that abortion is now, that the pro-choice people find themselves on the defensive and they are saying and find themselves forced to say that when it’s a matter of gender I don’t want it and we get overwhelming numbers in the population on that issue. The second thing I think James Cargill, who’s a political manager who managed successful statewide campaigns in Pennsylvania for governor in ’86, Kentucky for governor in ’87, and New Jersey for the Senate in ’88, said if it goes back to the states politically, that we will never see another governor in any of the 50 states with a job approval rating above 60 percent, that it will be such a polarizing issue politically.

DAVID GERGEN: I do think technology is changing the politics of it. As technology gets better and you can save a fetus earlier, it gets harder to be in a pro-choice field. But I would disagree with Mark. I think the pro-life forces are much better organized. There’s much more passion. I think there are more people on the other side.

JIM LEHRER: Quick thing finally. The Wyoming election, the Republican won, anything special about that?

DAVID GERGEN: What was special was the. . .if the Democrats had won, we would be talking about this endlessly as an avalanche, a hemorrhage and so forth. It’s not so important except the Republicans stopped the hemorrhage.

MARK SHIELDS: When your side wins a special election, it has cosmic implications. When your side loses, it’s for local reasons. This was decided because of local reasons.

JIM LEHRER: I see, but it wasn’t really in doubt, was it?

DAVID GERGEN: Yes, it was.

MARK SHIELDS: It was in doubt until the last week, and quite frankly the negativism and the fallacy of it, it was a very negative, hostile campaign, and the Democrat, John Vinich’s campaign, used a spot which on its face was so manifestly untrue, charging his opponent with. . .

DAVID GERGEN: Because the Republicans won this, they’re going to be much tougher. They won with a tough race and it will come back. . .

JIM LEHRER: We’re talking about the Wyoming House race to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Gentlemen, thank you again very much.