A time of tributes and muted politics
When President Bush paid tribute to Ronald Reagan early yesterday in Paris, the words he used echoed his own reelection ads. Bush spoke of ''the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character."
So strongly does Bush emulate Reagan -- from his conservative ideology, to his intense loyalty to political allies, to the Western ranch to which he retreats -- that political analysts say there is little doubt that the 43d president will be at the center of a week of ceremonies commemorating the 40th. Remembrance and mourning for Reagan not only emphasizes the links between Bush and Reagan, but it also creates a firebreak in a campaign that has seen Bush's popularity plummeting, the public questioning his war in Iraq, and criticism spring up from his fellow conservatives.
Ceremonies in California and Washington this week will offer Bush a worldwide stage to highlight Reagan's political and personal qualities, and to receive whatever sympathy traditionally accrues to a president at a time of national tragedy.
By contrast, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry will be pushed off the stage.
He has canceled all campaign events, including two star-studded fund-raisers scheduled for tomorrow and Thursday in Los Angeles and New York, and will play a secondary role during the events for Reagan.
''The country always rallies around a president at a time of mourning like this," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. While that will benefit Bush at least temporarily, it also carries a risk if the memorials take on a political air, as they did following the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, in 2002. Wellstone's Republican opponent won a seat that was expected to narrowly remain Democratic.
''If it becomes overt in any way, it could backfire," said Schneider. ''All it will take at one of theses ceremonies is someone saying, 'Let's win one more for the Gipper,' and it will be trouble for the president."
Bush's embrace of Reagan was evident in the nature of his response upon learning of his death. When he was notified just moments after he went to bed at the Paris residence of the US ambassador to France on Saturday night, the famously early-to-bed president did something rarely done during his nearly four years in office: He got up, dressed, and came out to address reporters. He and his wife, Laura, also placed a call to Reagan's widow, Nancy.
''During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt," Bush said in a four-paragraph statement. ''And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny. Now, in laying our leader to rest, we say thank you."
Comparisons between Reagan and Bush are often made.
It is Reagan whom the younger Bush cited when he declared upon being sworn in that no one would enter the Oval Office without wearing a suit jacket and tie. It was Reagan, the president often notes to visitors, who previously used his desk, even though former White House occupants such as his father, President George H.W. Bush, used it as well. And it is Reagan's persona that Bush evokes as he heads to his Western ranch for breaks from Washington.
Bush prefers mountain bikes, four-wheelers, and a pickup to the late president's horseback riding, but the two shared a passion for clearing brush, as is recounted in nearly every press briefing from Crawford, Texas.
''I think he had nothing but the highest regard for President Reagan," said Ron Kaufman, the Massachusetts Republican who served as political director to Bush's father.
''And the thing that is so similar about both President Reagan and President Bush is they both exude that same sunnyside optimism that endears them to the electorate. Also, they share a sense of purpose and direction and a belief they were doing the right thing, regardless of polling data or political niceties."
The campaign theme chosen by the Bush-Cheney reelection committee, ''Steady Leadership in Times of Change," evokes the image of Reagan as he sought reelection 20 years ago.
''I know exactly where I want to lead this country. I know what we need to do to make the world more free and more peaceful. I know what we need to do to make sure every person has a chance of realizing the American Dream," Bush said in his first reelection ad, filmed alongside his wife in the sunny family quarters of the White House.
A second ad, titled, ''Safer, Stronger," evoked Reagan's famous ''Morning in America" commercial from the 1984 campaign, which showed the sun coming up over the horizon, children playing, and Reagan outlining his vision for the country. ''Today, America is turning the corner, rising to the challenge, safer, stronger," says Bush's ad. ''President Bush: steady leadership in times of change."
The ads, like others that have followed, are aimed not only at swing voters and all-important ''Reagan Democrats," but also at a conservative base that has grown disenchanted with the administration's rampant spending.
Although the deeply conservative Reagan -- like any politician -- remains controversial to a significant segment of the population, his supporters have energetically sought to lionize him, naming an aircraft carrier after him, pushing to build a national monument in Washington, in his honor, and advocating putting his face on a coin.
Bush will lead the nation's mourning of Reagan, but Kaufman scoffed at any assertion he would try to benefit politically from commemorative events.
''I just don't think that, as great as the celebration will be," Kaufman said. ''People will think about the Reagan years a lot, and there's a lot to celebrate and a lot to give credit to, but the election this year is about the Bush years . . . Elections are about 'What can you do for me now?' "
Inside the Kerry campaign, the prospect of Reagan's death was viewed as one of the election-year intangibles out of their control.
Kerry expressed his respect for Reagan, and he and his staff pledged to join the nation in mourning his death.
''Even when he was breaking Democrats' hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate," Kerry said in a statement. ''The differences were real, but because of the way President Reagan led, he taught us that there is a big difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship."
A top adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added: ''We're going to deal with this in a very straightforward, nonpolitical way. Reagan now sort of belongs to the country and has for some long time. I don't think that he's seen as a partisan figure, sort of like what happened with [John F.] Kennedy."
Yet it was Kerry himself, during an interview last year with Vogue magazine, who highlighted parallels between Bush, his opponent in the upcoming general election, and Reagan, who was the sitting president when Kerry joined the Senate in 1985.
''They have managed him the same way they managed Ronald Reagan," Kerry contended at the time. ''They send him out to the press for one event a day. They put him in a brown jacket and jeans and get him to move some hay or drive a truck, and all of a sudden, he's the Marlboro Man."
Kerry is expected to be in attendance this week at the National Cathedral in Washington as Bush delivers the keynote address at the funeral service for Reagan.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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