First Brush with History: He's Been Humble, but Kind of Cocky; Quiet, but Surprisingly Effective-In Short, Lazy like a Fox. Inside George W. Bush's First 100 Days

Article excerpt

It was week one of President George W. Bush's first foreign-policy crisis. The cable-TV news networks were blaring on about "the showdown with China." Talking heads were asking when the 24 American crew members "detained" on Hainan Island were going to be called hostages. The president, meanwhile, was out on the South Lawn, pacing off 60 feet, 6 inches, the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate. Bush was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers' home opener, and he didn't want to put one into the dirt, the way his father, former president George Bush, had done once on opening day at a Houston Astros game. Bush was practicing throwing with a bulky bulletproof vest. At one point, he pretended to keel over backward from the weight of the jacket.

The president's aides were worried that Bush might look a little out of touch and unconcerned with the gravity of the moment if he went to the baseball game. Bush cut them off. "We're going," he announced. On the mound in Milwaukee, President Bush wasn't worrying about bringing the boys home. He was nervous, he later told NEWSWEEK, about how small and far away the catcher looked. He was anxious, too, about getting booed by the fans. "They don't want some politician out there in their midst trying to hog camera time," explained the former major-league team owner. The Milwaukee fans didn't boo, but Bush still threw the pitch into the dirt. But, he recalled with a grin, "it had a lot of steam on it."

Bush was just as humble when his administration's low-key diplomacy paid off and the crew of the U.S. Navy EP-3E was released five days after his junket to Milwaukee. Hearing the news on Air Force One, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice congratulated the president on his steadiness during the crisis. "Well," Bush replied, "I think this is actually what they pay us to do." Remembering this conversation in an interview with NEWSWEEK--and recalling how Bush's father refused to gloat when the Berlin wall fell in 1989--Rice remarked, "These are modest people." Humility is a byword around the Bush White House. Staffers are warned not to get swelled heads. They are supposed to follow the example of the president, who likes to keep it simple and speak plainly.

A little too plainly, sometimes. In a TV interview last week, Bush announced that the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from an attack by China. Some of his foreign-policy advisers cringed. It seemed that the president had, perhaps unwittingly, just undermined two-and-a-half decades of a carefully contrived policy known as strategic ambiguity, which is designed to keep Taiwan and China guessing about the true level of U.S. commitment to Taiwan's defense. White House aides scrambled to say that Bush was not announcing a true change in China policy but rather a "recentering," whatever that means.

The apparent slip-up on Taiwan was a reminder of concerns that Bush is not quite up to the job of chief executive. But such moments have been relatively few and far between, considering that many voters--and pundits--expected him to stumble and fall. Asked to grade himself at the 100-day mark of his presidency, Bush was able to answer, "Doing pretty darn good"--and know that many voters agree. Polls show him with approval ratings around 60 percent. Most presidents experience a drop in their numbers in the first three months. Among modern presidents, only JFK, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have seen theirs go up. Some voters might be surprised by the Bush administration's determined rightward tilt, given Bush's moderate tone during the campaign. But few are questioning his legitimacy, the way many did when he lost the popular vote and squeaked into office in a disputed election. In his first months Bush has not offered the grand dreams or high-flown rhetoric of a Reagan or JFK, but then no one is laughing off the White House's self-conscious comparisons to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who also mangled his sentences while quietly getting things done. …