Presidential Transformations — and Regressions

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This is confusing. I thought we had agreed that George W. Bush is an imbecile. Strategerie, Grecians, and all that. Deer in the headlights. President Duh. Alfred W. Neuman. A moron.

What's going on? The other night on "Hardball," John McCain and Chris Matthews agreed, in tones of subdued wonder, that George W. Bush, only days into the job, seemed, well, amazingly "presidential." He seemed smart enough not only to get through the first week of the presidency without being arrested for DWI or moronic diction, but to move into power rather deftly. The papers called it a charm offensive, and they weren't being sarcastic; the charm was working. Ted Kennedy, of all people, said nice things. He warned Democrats not to underestimate the new man.

If this is imbecility, send my generals a case of it.

Bush has made, on the whole, a surprisingly good start, putting distance between himself and 2000's electoral wreckage. He has gotten two unexpected windfalls: 1) the Clintons' shameless Kansas City checkout from the White House (the pardons, the $190,000 trousseau, the most corrupt sale of indulgences since the Reformation) has managed to make Bush look unexpectedly presentable by contrast. And 2) Alan Greenspan, Czar of All the Russias, came forth to say that W.'s tax cut might be a good idea after all. In other words, the frat boy had figured it out even before Greenspan did. W. gets an upgrade from idiot to idiot savant.

"Presidential" is an elusive quality that is much in the eye of the beholder. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. Jimmy Carter, whatever his earnest virtues, was seen to be, on the whole, unpresidential — he never recovered from the killer rabbit and the time he collapsed while jogging in the Catoctin Mountains; on the other hand, Carter is splendidly ex-presidential, a category he invented.

George Bush the First seemed presidential for a time (a quick, successful war makes a man very presidential), but then went unpresidential when he started saying things like "Don't cry for me, Argentina" and vomiting on other heads of state.

Richard Nixon, coming into office in 1969, demonstrated a mildly hilarious phenomenon: the way in which a formerly scruffy and reviled politician may pass through the inaugural looking glass and become transformed. Tricky Dick, the familiar old five o'clock shadow of American politics, suddenly was credited with rebirth as the new New Nixon, a metamorphosis from which he emerged almost regal in manner and body English and even tailoring. Suddenly, his suits seemed to fit better, more presidentially.

Well, power is a great cosmetic and source of endorphins. It gives a man an aura. A woman as well — behold the change in Hillary Clinton, her new radiance. From being a wronged woman and failed bureaucrat (health care), she has been reborn as a senator with all the world before her.

But presidential transformations can be reversed. The presidential Nixon of 1969 ended as the bitter, thuggish ghost of San Clemente. Lyndon Johnson, messiah of the Great Society, finished his life as the King Lear of the Hill Country. And Bill Clinton, the shoeshine and the smile of the '90s, confirms everyone's worst suspicions as he departs.

George W. Bush, take heed.