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President Bush: The First 100 Days

The NewsHour's panel of historians looks at President Bush's first 100 days and those of his predecessors.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, some perspective on these last hundred days, from NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson; plus two other frequent guests, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University.

    First, Richard, give us a history lesson. Where did this 100-day thing begin?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Actually to put it in perspective, Jim, today as fate would have it is the 212th anniversary of George Washington's first inauguration. I went back and checked the clippings and –believe it or not — journalists did not obsess on his first 100 days.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    When did we begin, Richard?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    1933. It made a lot of sense. There was a real crisis atmosphere gripping the country. There were doubts about the survival of Democratic capitalism and the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt took office, ushered in a great wave of reform, sent bill after bill after bill to Congress, which sometimes passed them without even bothering to read them. And so at the end of the 100 days there was a sense that the country's psychological mood at least had been transformed.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Doris, anything to add or subtract from that?

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    The only thing I would add is that I suspect every president since Franklin Roosevelt wishes that the term "100 days" could be exorcised from the language. I mean, in some ways it's so unfair to compare that extraordinary accomplishment in the time of crisis when the country needed presidential action with ordinary presidents in ordinary times. In fact, the story is told at one point a speech was written for John Kennedy in which he said all these promises I have made will not be accomplished in the next 100 days. And he angrily slashed out the 100 days and made it 1,000 days instead not wanting to be compared to Roosevelt, at which point of course that 1,000 days would end with his own life which he could never have predicted at that time.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure. Roger, it's a tough standard is it not because of the way it began?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Well, Roosevelt had the whole country falling apart and he had this massive demand "do something, do anything." And he had a Congress that was ready to do something. It was producing bills. So it's really not fair to compare anybody to the extraordinary….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But we're not going to let that stand in our way, are we? Michael, what about some more history here — it kind of goes back even further to your theory, does it not?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It goes all the way back to Napoleon. Many things in life do, Jim. This was 1815, 100 days he spent in Paris after escaping from exile and then after the defeat at Waterloo, the king came back. That was the end of his. He wouldn't have gotten great ratings from us. But I think the thing is that….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, wait a minute, Michael. You're not going to get away that cheaply on this. What happened between Napoleon and Franklin Roosevelt?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    There were very few journalistic or historical discussions of Chester Arthur's 100 days or anyone else but there had been a president since then and it's probably not a great way to mark these things because 100 days you see some things about a president that you couldn't have known before they came to the White House. But at the same time, odd things happened.

    If we were doing this in '61 we would have been talking about John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, an important milestone but didn't tell us perhaps the most important thing about his administration. If we were doing the same thing for LBJ in 1965, we would have been talking about Johnson and the war but the war would have been a war in the Dominican Republic, barely remembered nowadays but a big deal at the time. So, I think it's great for us to look at President Bush but to some extent take what we're saying with a grain of salt.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Well, Haynes, when you look back on past 100 days, what do you see?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    I'm very disappointed. I thought it was George Washington all along and then I thought it was Napoleon and here we are today — we're talking about this thing. No, I mean, we've all made the same point. It's a foolish standard to apply to any President. Roosevelt was facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War. The country had 25 percent unemployment. There was no unemployment insurance. If the banks folded, you didn't get federal insurance…. And we were in a desperate state. And he acted almost like a dictator. We haven't seen anything much as we've covered since then.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. All of that aside, Richard, how would you characterize the first 100 days of the George W. Bush presidency?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Well it's been revealing. You know, we've trashed this artificial yardstick but it does actually apply to untested presidents who inspire some uncertainties even after they're elected. As Michael said, JFK in '61, Reagan in '81 tested by a would-be assassin. The tests of George Bush have been much less dramatic. But that may reflect the world we live in and a somewhat down-sized presidency, post Cold War presidency.

    The whole Chinese plane incident was dramatic but it certainly didn't compare with the would-be assassination or the Bay of Pigs. Yet on the other hand there have been some things revealed. The tests I think that Bush have faced have been incremental. For example, a lot of people wondered basically whether this man was up to the job. I think at the end of the 100 days, whatever you think of the policies — there have been some missteps, no doubt, I think the Saturday Night Live caricature has been largely defanged.

    The other thing is of course that modern presidents are judged for their ability to set the agenda. You know, who would have predicted a year ago that Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, would claim victory if the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion tax cut? That's no small achievement.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Roger, what would you say about the first 100 days of George W. Bush?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Well, I think the pundits have to be careful. His distant relationship with the English language is used as a proxy for "that guy is not very smart." It's just as Ford's stumbling was a proxy for the same idea. But I don't know whether it's Bush or whether it's the people around him, but they've been pretty smart. They came in; they've managed the White House carefully. They get to meetings on time. They look grown up as opposed to the prior group.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you agree with Richard that they're setting the agenda?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Oh, yeah, they stay on message. And they know something. They know that saying "it's your money" trumps every kind of abstraction that you can throw at it, like "pay down the debt," "protect social security." They just bang on it and bang on it and bang on it. So, I think it has been a pretty impressive first 100 days.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Impressive to you, Haynes?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    Yeah, but I really think there's something here that fascinates me because I think the biggest thing that's happened with George Bush is that there's no doubt that he's the authentic, legitimate President of the United States. And if we think back where we were just 100 days ago with that inauguration and the bitterness and the fraudulency and the anger. We were all watching that and talking with you on that day. He couldn't govern; the country was falling apart. He was the….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Coalition government right here on this program.

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    Absolutely; right on this program. And the idea that he is… There's no doubt in the public mind he's accepted as the president. That is partly their own care. Their careful choices of people, moving very cautiously, and another part it's the antidote to Bill Clinton. The way Clinton left gave him a great gift, he, Bush; it made him look good, he, Bush. And I also think the public wanted to see a president get back to work. I think all of these things have combined to give him a very good beginning. That doesn't mean he solved any problems or he won't have problems later. But I think there's no question that he now has a chance to see what he can govern.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Doris?

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    Well, I agree, there's no question that he's got a smooth transition going. It was much smoother in terms of the appointments than Clinton's was. He's created a loyal team that doesn't seem to have the in-fighting that Reagan's team had. And he certainly didn't screw around with his allies the same way that Carter did in those first days where he tried to undo all the pet projects of his famous Democratic allies.

    On the other hand, I think the one area that he still hasn't made the progress that a president needs to is engaging the public at large in his presidency. I think he's overreacted to Clinton's overexposure and he's kept himself back too much from really using that bully pulpit to make people feel engaged. You don't have the feeling that people at large are banging on Congress's doors to get his own programs passed. You know, it's so interesting if you look at the evaluation of Mr. Bush Sr. at the end of his 100 days, it almost could apply to the son.

    They said that Mr. Bush Sr. was reacting against the theatrics of Ronald Reagan, thought the presidency was too overexposed so he wanted to be more reserved. And yet people said at the time that minimalism is not memorable. And I still think he hasn't found the voice that he needs to, to really make the public feel he's my president and I want to follow him but he's done a remarkably good job in all the management part of the government.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Michael, what do you think about that, good manager but he hasn't gotten people involved yet?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Well, I think that's right, but that doesn't have to happen within the first 100 days. And that's the problem with our rating a president at this moment. Dwight Eisenhower in '53 made a very big effort essentially to say, you know, the country has been through 12, 16 very difficult years — Great Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War — a very bitter time. McCarthyism. The public needs a rest. Its nerves are frayed.

    It didn't mean that later on when he had to go to the public for sacrifice he couldn't do it, he did. Gerald Ford, I think, did the same thing in 1974. He was able to say, look, the country has been through hell with Watergate and the near end of the Vietnam War. The public does not want to go through a period right now where a president is haranguing and asking them for enormous sacrifice. That can come later on. So I think Bush is very much in that tradition.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You think he's adjusted his presidency to the times and the needs of the country rather than to his own psyche, is that it?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Absolutely. Bill Clinton could not have stood even if he thought it was necessary being quiet and not saying much for those first 100 days. He actually said, there's a quote on record, elect me and you'll have 100 days of the most successful congressional record of any president in the 20th century, just setting himself up. It's sort of nice to see the opposite. But my point is that what Eisenhower did in '53, what Ford did in '74 after Nixon's resignation, they were able to restore confidence, give the public a rest. It didn't just happen. There were big political skills. I think the same is true of this President Bush.

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    I'm not sure that I agree with that. I'm not sure that this 100 days hasn't shown that this man has yet to develop the personal qualities that permit him to impose himself on the American people's consciousness. Eisenhower….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Doris' point.

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Eisenhower had the command presence and this glittering war resume. Kennedy got right around the Bay of Pigs because he was so adroit with the press, so….

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    But actually made a big mistake, if I might say for a second.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Kennedy rolled out a program he had vetoed earlier to land a man on the moon by 1970. That was just as a quick fix to shore up his credibility, just the kind of mistake a president can make, not that the program was a mistake, but when it gets he gets too spooked by these ratings.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Richard, when you look back at the relevance of a 100-day mark, what do you see? In other words, was the first 100 days of the boom, boom presidency that revealing about the presidency when it finally ended four years later, eight years later? Has it been relevant?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    It certainly was in the case of FDR, who was a great experimenter, a great improviser. The New Deal was very made up as he went along. I mean, literally at one point he would meet with the secretary of treasury every morning in his bedroom and over scrambled eggs they would set the price of gold that day. That was characteristic of FDR; try something. That was the mood of the country as well. But, you know, speaking of FDR, we almost have to go to pre-New Deal, pre-Roosevelt to find a comparison.

    Calvin Coolidge of all people once said that it is a great advantage to a president and a major source of safety to the country for him to know that he's not a great man. And one senses some of that personal modesty –even institutional modesty — about this president. But that should not be confused with the agenda. Anyone who thought George Bush was going to be chastened by the lack of a mandate last November, I mean, again this tax cut is more about restricting public spending than it is about encouraging private investment.

    I think that's one reason, to take Doris' point, it's hard to sell because I think it's not a stimulative tax cut, and I don't think the White House wants to say the real purpose of this tax cut is to put a straitjacket on the federal government.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I'm sure Doris would love to comment, but unfortunately we have a technical problem and we've lost audio to Boston so she's not going to be able to. We saw her… We saw her just now but we cannot hear her. Yes, Haynes.

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    I was going to pick up on Doris' point. But I do think there's one thing about Mr. Bush so far. The country doesn't quite know who he is yet. And I think that's a problem he's going to have. There's no imprint on the public of him. He's moderate. Or he's conservative. Or he's this or he's that. You're not quite sure where he's going. And he's handled himself very well in the way he now speaks. He's much more comfortable in the forums in which he appears but I don't think you still have a picture of exactly who he is. And down the road that's going to be important. He's got time to do it. But you don't have the sense of the voice of the president as he speaks out. And I think that's been missing so far.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Roger, how do you look at the relevancy, in other words, what the first 100 days of a presidency tells us about a president in the long run?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Not much except in these traits that we're trying to tease out in this conversation. The traits or lack of them, I think, turn out to be important.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In other words, if Haynes is right and George W. Bush still has this problem two years from now or three years from now, then it could be a problem if, in fact, you agree with Haynes?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Right. And there's another… well, there's another trait that I'd like to throw in the mix that maybe helps us. The guy who hated fuzzy math also hates fuzzy policy. You know? I'm not going to fool around with those North Koreans. I mean just bing. And he does it time and time again. Kyoto Treaty. All that stuff. He just bing, bing, bing. The other day in his 100-day interview with The Washington Post, he was asked about the representational rights of a half million people who live in the District of Columbia… said, "I'm against senators." They said well, what about representation in the House? I guess I'm against senators; I'm against House vote too. Well, there's something dismissive about the way he approaches, I mean, that's a serious issue. Kyoto is a serious issue. So I think these are traits that will come back to haunt him if he doesn't fix them.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Well, we have to leave it there. Doris, if you can read a transcript, I'm now going to say good night to you and to your four male companions. Sorry we didn't get back to you.

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