Person of the Week: George W. Bush

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KENNETH LAMBERT/AP

President Bush addresses the nation from his ranch in Crawford, Texas

Vacation or not, this week has been one of the most productive spin cycles of George W. Bush’s political career.

Leaving Washington behind, the President’s team has been more successful than ever at capturing and holding the nation’s attention. Riding last week's streak of legislative victories, Bush riveted the nation (or at least the media) with his announcement Thursday morning that he would make a decision on the controversial issue of federal funding for stem-cell research. Thursday night, President Bush told the nation in a brief televised address that he would support very limited research on embryonic stem cells. Scientists may use an estimated $250 million of federal funds to continue their research, but only using the existing lines of stem cells (the precise quantity of which seems to be a matter of confusion; some put the number at 12, others, including the President, put it at 60). The President, citing the "prospect of saving and improving life at all its stages" encouraged scientists to consider using stem cells culled from adults, animals and placentas.

It’s a firm, and to many in the pro-research corner, suffocating, line: No further stem cells may be extricated from embryos, even those being discarded by fertility clinics. Meanwhile, pro-life advocates, grumbling that Bush had broken his campaign promise to ban research altogether, gave only grudging approval to the President’s decision. It was just as many had predicted: Bush had managed to completely please no one while trying to please everyone and keep peace with his own conscience.

Off to the ranch

Coming as it did near the end of a monumentally slow news week, the surprise announcement drew metric tons of media attention, and kept the vacationing President firmly in the spotlight. Saturday, Bush had left Washington for his ranch in Crawford, Texas on a high in the wake of several legislative triumphs, and his press office made sure each reporter had memorized every detail. In the course of one week, the Bushies noted, the President won over the famously hardheaded Charlie Norwood on the patients’ bill of rights, shepherded his energy bill through the House, and spread new enthusiasm for his education bill. It was a remarkable week, we were reminded, and incredibly efficient.

Still, even with his string of successes, questions arose about a president taking another vacation, this one four weeks long, just six months into his first year on the job. And so, the sojourn evolved each time it was mentioned: First, it was a vacation. Then it was a working vacation. Soon the Bush’s Texas home had been turned into the White House of the high plains, simply a change of scenery for a hard-working guy.

A break in the case

Suddenly, early Thursday morning, Bush made an unexpected announcement: He had reached a decision on the question of stem cell research, and would make a statement at 9 p.m. EST. The toughest decision of his Presidency, one which he had, in spin-room terms, "agonized over" for weeks, had finally been resolved.

It was manna from heaven: By 8 a.m. every major news organization in the country had pounced on the story, while anchors at the cable news networks, drained after weeks of virtually nonexistent news, were practically drooling at the idea of a dramatic break in a dramatic story. All day long, the speculation raged and the three-dimensional graphics spun around our television screens: What would the President do? Would he deny funding altogether? Would he agree to funding with strict limitations?

Why now?

The timing of the announcement provoked widespread conjecture; some members of the White House press corps speculated that the President was just tired of answering the questions about when his decision would come, what factors he was considering, whose advice he was seeking out. That could well be the case. Or, it could be that the White House thought that it was a good idea for the President to keep busy, even on vacation, and make the decision in a very public arena with the attention all to himself.

Ironically, perhaps, the decision itself may in the end signify absolutely nothing: Congress can, and may, override the President’s ruling at any time. Bush’s $250 million budget for research is a tiny increase over previous years’ allotments. And, perhaps most importantly, private research on embryonic stem cells will continue in the U.S. and abroad, as it has for years. But in a slow week, it was certainly good theater.