By ANN McFEATTERS
It is quieting down here. The politicians are fleeing to their vacation spots or home to campaign for re-election. President Bush is headed for Crawford, Texas, to clear brush. Only the smothering heat and the wilted tourists remain.
August in D.C. for those who endure it year after year, decade after decade, has come to mean a time to take stock of where the nation is going and how we _ and the president _ are dealing with our problems.
This year’s agenda is almost too grim to contemplate. Energy bills are crushing. (Congress remains divided on what to do if anything.) The horrifying carnage in Lebanon continues. (Bush refuses to endorse an immediate ceasefire because Israel is opposed.) The national debt is staggering. (Bush and Congress want more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.) Global warming is becoming serious. (Congress and Bush are not ready to do anything.) The working poor are working harder for less money. (Republicans will back a small increase in the minimum wage if Democrats swallow their antipathy to lowering taxes on inherited wealth.)
Most numbing of all, the violence in Iraq continues to escalate, taking more American and Iraqi lives even as millions of people around the world now hate the United States.
Before Bush went to Texas to deal with brush and ponder with Condi Rice how to get out of incredible messes without changing policy, he went to the White House briefing room to joke with reporters about the renovation of the seedy, dreary, overcrowded, rodent-infested place.
(Reporters and camera crews are being moved to a government conference center across the street for at least nine months. Some cynics think it will be forever _ this White House, even more than most, does not like press scrutiny and tries to shut down press access as much as possible.)
Bush’s demeanor was interesting. Beset with problems that daily get worse, he was as jovial as ever. He laughingly referred to former TV newsman Sam Donaldson as a "has-been." He sparred with the press regulars, prickly disdain mixed with arm’s-length bonhomie.
But what was most striking is how little the world’s most onerous office has changed him. Fresh from his annual physical, Bush is one of the healthiest, fittest presidents we’ve ever had. Sure, his hair is grayer. But he has aged far less than most of his predecessors.
And he remains absolutely convinced he is "the decider" making the right faith-based decisions _ staying in Iraq, supporting Israel even as the world interprets his words and actions as anti-Arab, increasing the budget deficit, keeping Donald Rumsfeld on as defense chief, working to transform the world by spreading democracy or rather his version of it through military force. To Bush, being president means never having to say he’s sorry. To tell him he might be wrong or bring him bad news or cause dissonance in his serene world is to antagonize him and be thought disloyal.
It’s now well acknowledged that Bush is happy in his bubble of self-imposed isolation. He meets with foreigners but without true give-and-take even in crisis conversations. Foreigners visit the White House as they used to go on bended knee to ancient Rome. Bush travels but sees few real people. All is scripted. He talks with advisers but rarely interacts with members of Congress, even senior Republicans.
He seems to care nothing about winning hearts and minds in other countries. Foreign leaders say he lectures but does not listen. He does not have the long telephone conversations late at night that former President Clinton loved to keep him in touch with what others were thinking. He seems indifferent to what experts think.
Bush’s self-proclaimed model was Ronald Reagan, not his own father, George H.W. Bush, who fought against the bubble, learned to compromise and surrounded himself with people who drank with him, squabbled with him and fished and played golf with him. Reagan was a loner, happy spending weekends at Camp David or his California ranch, cutting brush and riding horses. (This Bush does not ride horses but he does drive around his property and clear brush.) But Reagan transformed the world by working hard to persuade others and by compromise.
We’re in one of those periods that will cause future historians to complain that Bush should have spent less time with trees and more time seeing the forest.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)