President George W. Bush:
The First 100 Days

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February 5

Mr. Bush, Meet Mr. Madison

by William Lasser

Forget partisan wrangling, political infighting, and all other forms of us-against-them politics. President George Bush, who promised to "change the tone" in Washington, has spent his first two weeks in office mounting a full-scale "charm offensive"-wooing Democrats and Republicans alike with handshakes, humor, and humility.

In the past week the charm offensive moved into high gear. Here are some of the highlights:

  • First lady Laura Bush made a point of delivering a birthday cake to House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.
  • Bush moved to mend fences with the African American community by meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, praising Martin Luther King, and embracing the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement. After the meeting, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York announced that Bush was trying to create a "much more civil" atmosphere in the capital.
  • The first couple invited members of the Kennedy family-including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy-to a White House showing of the new movie "Thirteen Days," which features Kevin Costner as an aid to President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Over the weekend, the president took the unprecedented step of meeting with House and Senate Democrats at their normally private retreats. Bush vowed to "rid the system of rancor."
  • In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Bush has made a point of being on time; he jokes with friends and foes alike; and he bestows his own nicknames (Democratic Congressman George Miller is "Big George"; Republican Congressman Fred Upton is "Freddy Boy"). Bush has banned "Hail to the Chief" as too imperious for everyday use; it hasn't been played in his presence since inauguration day.
Bush's outreach efforts will not automatically translate into political victories. In the midst of the charm offensive, for example, 42 Democratic senators voted against Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft to be attorney general. And even as they have praised the president's personal touch, Democrats have been careful to emphasize that Bush has generally avoided talking about divisive issues.

But Bush's symbolic moves and his personal touches have already made a difference. After last fall's bitter election controversy, many pundits thought Bush and the Democrats would barely be speaking to one another. And the president's approach has blunted the feelings among some Democrats that Bush's presidency was tainted and illegitimate.

Ever since James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that "ambition must be made to counteract ambition," presidents and members of Congress have been expected to fight with one another. Madison believed that tyranny could be prevented by making sure that all three branches of the government were well-stocked with ambition politicians, who would jealously guard the power of their by blocking the encroachments of the other two branches.

In symbolic terms, at least, President Bush has made friends with his political opponents by refusing to play the game this way. The ambitious politicians who comprise the U.S. Congress are naturally jealous of presidential power, and naturally resentful when the president flaunts that power. But past presidents-by showing up late, playing "Hail to the Chief," and summoning members of Congress to the White House-have found such practices hard to resist.

Bush's approach has been designed to do precisely the opposite. What was perhaps most striking about his meetings with House and Senate Democrats was that he went to them, showed up on time, and treated them with the respect due to political and social equals. The members of Congress responded favorably, just as James Madison might have predicted.

When it comes to the real fights over controversial policies, Bush's charm offensive may be a forgotten memory. But there is just a chance that those fights will take place in a more civilized manner. And Bush may win a few more victories as a result.




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