New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crisis performance has not only made President Bush’s look bad–it has also given commentators a way to criticize the president without seeming unpatriotic. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, TV anchors who belittled Bush’s leadership were instantly denounced as disloyal partisans. But the contrast with Giuliani is impossible to ignore: In several appearances each day, New York’s mayor has been informative, accessible, spontaneously human. He answers questions. He’s clearly in control. As Salon’s Joan Walsh notes, Giuliani says what needs to be said, acknowledging the tragedy without being overwhelmed by it, praising the efforts of rescue crews, counseling against anti-Arab vigilantism, sharing credit, avoiding personal grandstanding.
Meanwhile, Bush has appeared for a few moments a day, reading scripts or (as in his visits to the wounded) giving a few rambling impressions. He doesn’t answer questions. On the first day, he sent out an aide, Karen Hughes, to inform the public. She didn’t answer questions either. Even Bush’s friends don’t really dispute the overall verdict on the president. When columnist and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes that “the great leaders in our time of trauma were the reporters and anchors and producers of the networks and news stations,” the negative implication is clear. If Bush had offered any great leadership, Noonan would have mentioned it.
Over the next few days, we’re likely to see various mechanical attempts by Bush’s advisers to correct for his deficiencies as a crisis-performer. Like Jimmy Carter’s various attempts to cure his (admittedly different) flaws, they’re likely to fail or even backfire. (Today, Bush seemed to be “fighting back tears.”) The elaborate second-day campaign to justify Bush’s airport-hopping in the hours immediately after the terrorist attacks, for example, gave the impression that the White House was paying attention to fixing Bush’s own image instead of the nation’s problem. (The “set-it-straight” efforts also made Bush seem like a wimp, unwilling to overrule either his vice president or his own Secret Service.)
What should Bush do? Not listen to the New York Times. The Times editorial page urges Bush to “earn the country’s confidence … by appearing frequently in public, and by not being afraid to answer questions.” In other words, Bush should be more like Giuliani. It’s hard to believe this advice is offered in good faith–if Bush’s staff trusted him to answer questions he would have made a practice of answering them long ago. Bush isn’t Giuliani and won’t become Giuliani. If it’s important that the nation be effectively and constantly reassured, then we shouldn’t pin our hopes on the slim possibility of presidential “growth in office.”
A safer course would be for Bush to implicitly accept his limitations and abandon the traditional FDR model (adopted by Giuliani) in which the chief executive himself is also the chief public confidence-inspirer. True, there’s a certain value in the public being able to see first hand that the man in charge is in fact in charge. But this is no time to hold out for the ideal. Bush has assembled a competent Cabinet capable, with varying degrees of success, of communicating that competence. Let them do the talking, while Bush visits hospitals and is photographed chairing National Security Council meetings.
P.S.: In echoing the media criticism of Bush, I’m under no illusion that a President Gore would have inspired more confidence. Nor do I especially wish Bill Clinton were back in office. Clintonian levels of empathy are not what the current situation calls for. (This isn’t a natural disaster.) And Clinton’s reaction to the last major bout of terrorism–his bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan–does not at this point look like one of his finer moments in office.
Photograph of Rudy Giuliani by Mitchell Gerber/Corbis.