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Bush presidencies: two men, two roads

WASHINGTON -- Every couple of weeks, President George W. Bush's close adviser, Karl Rove, takes a phone call from the president's father, former President George H. W. Bush.

The senior Bush, whom Rove refers to as an "insatiable political gossip," talks about the latest polls and the president's reelection campaign. "It is not a conversation he has with his son," Rove said.

Yet the reelection campaign is in some ways a study in the contrasts between the president and former president who are both named George Bush. With commentators last week focusing on how President Bush wants to follow President Reagan's legacy, the unspoken suggestion was that Bush does not put as high a value on his own father's legacy, which, after all, made possible the career of the junior Bush.

In fact, the legacy of the senior Bush is ever-present at the White House, partly due to the lessons learned from his disastrous 1992 reelection bid, which followed the breaking of the "no new taxes" pledge. Rove and other presidential advisers stress that the president holds his father in the highest admiration and shares many of his father's principles, but they leave little doubt about the regard in which they hold the senior Bush's reelection campaign.

Bush "can look at 1992 and say, 'My dad had no plan. My dad took it for granted,' " Rove said in an interview in his White House office. Then Rove amended his statement somewhat, saying, "Not his dad, but the people around the president. There was no plan, there was no early activity." It is Rove's job, among many others, to make sure those mistakes are not repeated, which explains why President Bush has authorized such an early and aggressive advertising attack on the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

But it is not just President Bush's campaign strategy that differs dramatically from his father's. On policies ranging from federal spending to diplomacy to the waging of war, the two presidencies contrast sharply.

The senior Bush, who turned 80 yesterday, presided over one of the largest deficit reduction plans in American history; the junior Bush, who is 57, has overseen one of the fastest deficit increases. The senior Bush refused entreaties to remove Saddam Hussein from power because Iraq was a sovereign nation and he would lose the international coalition that backed the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait; the junior Bush invaded Iraq with only Britain as his major international partner.

To be sure, there are many areas where President Bush is implementing his father's legacy. Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill set testing standards similar to those suggested by his father. The president has also backed efforts to uphold one of his father's most cherished domestic accomplishments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids discrimination against people with disabilities.

In many other areas, however, there are large differences. For example, while the senior Bush was lauded even by the most liberal environmental groups for signing the Clean Air Act, his son has been given an F by the League of Conservation Voters, partly for undoing some of his father's environmental legislation. The White House rebuts the poor grade, saying its environmental plans cut regulation and protect the environment.

But the most pronounced differences between the father who was turned out of office and the son battling to be reelected are in areas likely to be key parts of the 2004 campaign -- the deficit, tax cuts, and Iraq.

Former President Bush famously vowed in 1988, "Read my lips: No new taxes." But he became so alarmed at the rise of the deficit that he broke his vow and enacted a budget deal that raised taxes mostly on the wealthiest Americans and enacted strict spending caps -- a deal that probably cost him reelection.

It is perhaps the clearest difference between father and son. In his book, "All My Best," a collection of letters and diary entries, the senior Bush wrote that "If I didn't have this budget deficit problem hanging over my head, I would be loving this job." Yet he wrote later: "I'm willing to eat crow. I have to yield on 'Read My Lips,' " because it was best for the long-term economic health of the country.

Bush wrote that he felt "vindicated" that some observers believed his budget compromise provided the "beginning of the end of our deficit problem," with surpluses appearing later in the 1990s.

But today, the deficit is higher than it was at any time during the elder Bush's presidency.

"Bush One was a reluctant but major architect of the successful effort to balance the budget, eliminate deficits, and create surpluses," said Robert Reischauer, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who worked closely on the 1990 budget deal under the senior Bush. "Bush Two has taken surpluses and transformed them into large and persistent deficits that represent a more serious threat to our economy than did the deficits faced by his father."

The deficit hit a peak of $341 billion in 1992 under the senior Bush, was replaced by surpluses during the Clinton administration, but soared back to $353 billion in 2003 under the junior Bush, said Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Those figures are adjusted for inflation, providing what economists consider to be the fairest comparison. In actual dollars, the comparison is even more stark: The deficit reached a peak of $269 billion under the senior Bush and a peak of $521 billion under his son, Reischauer said.

Some have attributed the revival of the deficit to a political determination by the White House that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," as Vice President Dick Cheney is quoted as saying in the book "The Price of Loyalty" by Ron Suskind. White House officials insist, however, that deficits do matter and that Bush has a plan to cut them in half over five years.

Rove bounded out of his chair to check the budget figures when asked why the son has strayed so far from the antideficit position of the father. An aide later provided data that he said put the comparison in a better perspective: At its height under the senior Bush, the deficit was 4.7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1992, compared with 4.5 percent of the GDP under the junior Bush this year.

The White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., insisted the president is concerned about the deficit. "We inherited a recession, revenues to the federal government dropped dramatically . . . then we had the attack of Sept. 11," Card said. A White House spokesman estimated that half of the deficit is the result of the inherited recession, one-fourth is due to the tax cuts, and one-fourth is related to the costs of the war on terrorism and Iraq.

"There are two ways you can reduce the deficit," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said. "One is shared sacrifice. The other is growing the economy, and we believe in the growing-the-economy approach."

In their 1998 book, "A World Transformed," former President Bush and his coauthor, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, laid out the reasons not to invade Iraq and try to remove Hussein. "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land," the authors wrote. "It would have been a dramatically different -- and perhaps barren -- outcome."

In August 2002, Scowcroft directly addressed the question of whether the junior Bush should order the invasion of Iraq. In a Wall Street Journal article titled "Don't Attack Saddam," Scowcroft wrote what now reads like a prescient warning.

An attack "is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism . . . there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time," he wrote. "It would require the US to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq.

"The most serious cost, however, would be to the war on terrorism . . . [an invasion puts] at risk our campaign against terrorism as well as stability and security in a vital region of the world."

Given Scowcroft's very close relationship with the senior Bush, the piece was widely viewed as a tacit statement by President Bush's father against the war. Indeed, as the pair's book makes clear, the senior Bush viewed the Gulf War not just as the ouster of Iraqis from Kuwait, but also as a turning point in history in which it would be shown that international coalitions would work together to stop such invasions. It was a central element of what the senior Bush envisioned to be a new world order -- an element that some critics say has come undone as a result of the current war in Iraq.

President Bush is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack" that he sought advice before the war not from his father, but from a "higher father."

Mary Matalin, who played a major role in the senior Bush's reelection bid and is an adviser to President Bush's campaign, said the difference in foreign policy between the two Bushes stems from their views about the impact of stability in the Middle East. The senior Bush, Matalin said, wanted stability as the post-Cold War era began and didn't want to rattle the international coalition he assembled to kick Iraq out of Kuwait. President Bush, by contrast, "does not want to go to stability, because the stability philosophy in that region has spawned all these terrorists, created these failed states." Thus, President Bush describes his prodemocracy policy for the Middle East as an effort to "change the world," a more dramatic desire than his father had.

The senior Bush has long anticipated that people will try to contrast him and his children. In 1998, he wrote to sons George and Jeb, telling the governors of Texas and Florida, respectively, that they shouldn't be concerned about comparisons.

"At some point both of you may want to say, 'Well, I don't agree with my Dad on that point,' or 'Frankly, I think Dad was wrong on that,' " he wrote. "Do it."

"Chart your own course, not just on the issues, but on defining yourselves. No one will ever question your love of family . . . nothing can ever be written that will drive a wedge between us -- nothing at all."

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. 

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