The Test of His Life: President Bush: He's Headed for the White House, but Now He'll Have to Transcend the Carnage of Winning. How the Rules of Texas and B School Will Play in D.C

Newsweek, December 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Test of His Life: President Bush: He's Headed for the White House, but Now He'll Have to Transcend the Carnage of Winning. How the Rules of Texas and B School Will Play in D.C


Al Gore's aides had passed the word to Austin earlier in the day: The Call would come that night at 7:45 Texas time--precisely 15 minutes before the vice president's concession speech. George W. Bush planned his evening accordingly. For the last meal before his transformation into a president-elect, he chose comfort food and quiet. In a small dining room on the first floor of the governor's mansion, he joined his wife, Laura, and aide-de-camp Karen Hughes (and her son, Robert, 13) for a supper of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. His aides had told Gore's people to call the mansion switchboard, not the private quarters upstairs, where the single line was always in use. "We were afraid he'd get a busy signal," a Bush aide said later, mostly in jest.

As the appointed time approached, others joined Bush by the phone in the study: Don Evans, Texas First Friend and campaign chairman; Andy Card, White House chief-of-staff-to-be. They waited. No call. A few more agonizing minutes ticked by. No call. No one dared say what he was thinking. Finally, at 7:53, the phone rang. It was Gore. "I'm calling to congratulate the 43d president," he said. "And I promise not to call again." Bush laughed politely. They commiserated over the torture of it all, and agreed to meet in Washington. "All the best to you and your family," Bush said, then hung up, smiled--and breathed a sigh of relief. One of the longest, weirdest and most bitterly controversial elections in American history was over.

Campaign 2000 abruptly ended last week after one last vote count--not in Florida, but in the U.S. Supreme Court. A harshly divided high court, issuing a 5-4 ruling, locked down any further recounts in the Sunshine State. In so doing, the court sanctified earlier tallies that had given the state, a micron-thin Electoral College majority, to Bush. After a uniquely grueling 36 days, he had finally won the election on a TKO in the latest available round, outlasting Prince Al the Indefatigable. Now comes the hard part. The question isn't merely how President Bush will govern, but whether he'll be able to govern at all. He won, but does he have the wherewithal--and the running room--to rise above the carnage of winning?

Bush rides to Washington weaker than Superman in a Suburban full of kryptonite--all name and no mandate. He is the son of a president, of course (only the second to win the White House), and the first president in history with an M.B.A. Yet 29 percent of voters in the new NEWSWEEK Poll regard him as illegitimate, his victory the result of an outrageous judicial fiat. He lost the popular vote (only the fourth president to have done so) and won an Electoral College majority by two votes. The Florida results are the Grassy Knoll of electoral politics; reporters and researchers soon will be pawing through ballots there in search of proof that Gore was the real winner. Bush's fellow Republicans will control Congress, but by such small margins that he may be a prisoner of his party, not master of it. As for Democrats, they're promising an Era of Good Feeling--and sharpening their knives in the alleyways of the abattoir.

And that's just what awaits Bush in Washington. The rest of the country could be an even bigger problem. While the world is at peace, more or less, the economy beyond the Beltway is flagging after the longest run of sustained growth in history. As voters return to their regularly scheduled programming--business channels on TV and stock tickers on their PCs--they are seeing more red numbers than green. President-elect Bush may be facing his father's bad macroeconomic luck. Bush the Elder followed Reagan's boom, and paid for it with a recession in 1990 and a loss at the polls in 1992. Bush the Younger is following the Clinton boom (which his father's budget deal helped create). He must pray that the sweeping tax cut he favors makes sense to Congress and Alan Greenspan--and, more important, that his economic policy works. …

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