The Autumn of a President
F or much of a year, George Bush had drifted on the tides, like a Sunday sailor oblivious to the thunderheads piling high on the far horizon. The country was sliding into what a leading student of our politics called a quiet national crisis -- a loss of faith not merely in the president or the Washington culture he embodied but in that durable vision of progress called the American Dream.
The current of unhappiness ran deeper than the normal ebb and flow of partisan feeling in an election year; it challenged the very order of our politics and the inflated expectations it had encouraged in us after decades of over-promising and underachievement. The engines of economic growth, superheated in the '80s, had stopped turning. The institutions of self-government seemed too corroded by money, vanity, and cynicism to do anything about it. The optimism once regarded as a national birthright had given way to fear of the future and anger at the politicians who had mortgaged it for short-term gain for themselves and their patrons. In another time and another society, an elder of Bush's own party said, the mood could accurately have been called prerevolutionary. And yet the president seemed first blind to and then baffled by the danger, even as it threatened to engulf his presidency.
His polltaker, Fred Steeper, had been among the first of the president's men to see it, and then only faintly, as an odd anomaly in his polling. The numbers didn't add up, Steeper thought, poring over his printouts one chill October afternoon in 1991 like a medical detective first confronting the symptoms of a troubling new disease. On the one hand, his client seemed the picture of political health, with a glowing 70 percent approval rating in the afterlight of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq. On the other, a virus of pessimism -- a queasy feeling that the country was seriously off on the wrong track -- was spreading across Bush's America and had by then infected half the population.
Steeper was an understated man, his imagination tethered firmly to