So Far, Bush is Only Play-Acting as President

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It's early yet. But not that early.

George W. Bush's term is one-eighth gone, and there remains a curious lifelessness at the heart of his administration, a quality of grumpy somnambulism. Or something.

What movie is screening itself in the Bushies' heads, what visions project themselves there? None that I can make out. There's no plot, no clarity. The script needs work. Bush is indulging in WASP Zen, that reticence that is the sound of one hand clapping, a self-confident smirk meant to signal a resolute and maybe cunning refusal to be ingratiating to the rest of the world, about Kyoto or anything else.

That approach might be the beginning of something admirable or original — if the man at the center, who gives the administration its name, were really at the center. But we don't see him there, we don't feel him, we don't hear him. He has an agenda, but it is not sufficiently articulated, not persuasively proclaimed.

What our heat-sensors pick up at the center is Dick Cheney. The vice presidency, historically a vacuum and nonentity — not worth a pitcher of warm spit, as John Nance Garner said (actually, he mentioned a liquid slightly more colorful) — has become, by an odd default, the engine room, even as Cheney ferries his ticker in and out of the Coronary Care Unit.

The narrative line of the Bush administration may crystallize. The president's virtues may manifest themselves by and by. Or perhaps a theme will be thrust upon him, the way that "crises" used to be thrust upon Richard Nixon, and maybe W. will rise to an occasion we do not yet see. Perhaps, like Mr. Toad, he will be magnificent.

But the 2002 elections are already kicking up dust on the horizon. And now, for the first time, Bush's poll numbers have dropped below 50 . If I were Karen Hughes or Karl Rove, I would have trouble sleeping.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. Polls rise and fall. Public opinion blows this way or that from month to month. The Bush problem runs deeper. George W. Bush has failed to connect with the American people. It begins to seem possible — probable — that he is incapable of making the connection.

During the campaign, Bush kept up a line of brave talk that went like this: "I'm a leader...that's what a leader does...a leader leads!" No: Leading means doing something that George W. Bush has failed to do. Sometimes when I see him in the White House, there pops into my mind the image of the sixties student radical puffing on a cigar, with his feet propped on the Columbia University president's desk. I have the disconcerted sense that the President of the United State is play-acting.

Play-acting is part of a president's game, of course, but he had better be wonderful at it. The presidency is the world's most powerful theater. I don't think that George W. Bush, as a performer, will be rated with Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt.

Strange. What is Bush waiting for? Why does he not talk to the American people? Why does he not explain himself, his policies, his direction? Much of what he has to offer makes sense, and may be handsomely saleable.

Bush came into the White House counting too much on a prissy moral contrast between his way of conducting himself, and Bill Clinton's. It was slightly hilarious the other day to see Clinton — easy and shameless and smart as the devil himself — presenting the gaudy carnival of Bubba to his new neighbors in Harlem.

Clinton was — is — almost corruptly articulate. He can sell anything. No WASP Zen there. A policy of well bred, conspiratorial inarticulation works only in a society of like-minded gentlemen. In the diverse and noisily media-driven United States, a nation accustomed to theatrical politics, George W. Bush needs, first, to get both hands clapping, and, second, to figure out what they are clapping for.