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First Impressions of a President

A White House Reporter's Diary Traces George W. Bush's Steps from Austin, Texas, to the World Stage

April 08, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times staff writer James Gerstenzang has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor

Dec. 14, 2000, Washington: Al Gore had tried to stir voters by presenting two scenarios for the morning after the election. Either the sun shines on a Gore victory, or:

"You wake up early . . . with a headache and look out the window and there's a cold, driving rain with sleet and hail mixed into it rapping on your window. The clouds have blackened out the dawn and you get out of bed slowly and painfully and walk toward the door . . . The newspaper is soaked through and through and stuck to the front stoop. And you peel it off and hold it up to the light in the gloomy darkness, and through that light you barely make out a headline that says, 'Bush Wins.' "

Last night the election finally ended. Gore's proverbial sleet and ice are the reality. The trees across the capital are coated. The power lines are iced. So, too, the phone lines. The power went out during the night. Clocks need to be reset, and so does the mind-set of Washington. Just what will a George W. Bush presidency be?

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Dec. 19: I spy Bush at the Naval Observatory, the vice president's residence. He has come to see Gore. To let bygones be bygones? I'm not sure. Gore smiles. His greeting is gracious. But the meeting lasts 17 minutes. It can be described only as frosty. Gore apparently gives Bush a rerun of the concession speech. Gore is nothing if not disciplined. Look what it got him.

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Dec. 21, Austin, Texas: I encounter W several times. Reporters are at the governor's mansion listening to statements on education from Bush, House and Senate Republicans and Democrats whom he invited to Texas. Bush is not scheduled to take questions, but a reporter shouts one, asking the president-elect why he is talking down the economy. Bush pivots back to the podium to say: "One of my responsibilities is to anticipate problems and be prepared to act should they occur. I, in all due respect, have said that there are some warning signs on the horizon. I think people are going to find out that when I'm sworn in as the president, I'll be a realist."

Bush is nothing if not programmed. But his impromptu reaction shows a steely confidence. If I may use a metaphor from his past life, perhaps he will step up to the plate.

During a meeting at Stephen F. Austin High School, one man invites Bush back to a town he visited in California where 90% of the population is Latino. Bush says: "Have them fire up the nachos." So, he remembers the town--or just what he ate?

Later, he is in the state Senate chamber for the inauguration of Rick Perry, who is succeeding Bush as governor. I'm in an anteroom. Suddenly I realize Bush is there, too. He entered and just stood, awaiting instructions. Sense of presence? At the moment, none. He is all former and about-to-be. His expression seems to say: OK, now what do I do?

Reagan and Clinton exuded presence and charisma from Day One. That's not Bush. Will he grow into the office--or change the demands of the job?

Dec. 22: What is it about the boy-Republicans who work for Bush? There's a look: Short hair but no buzz or brush cuts or shaved heads--that would attract attention. Suits are pinstripes. They look as though they are wearing their father's clothes. None seems to need a razor more than a couple of times a week--but they probably shave twice a day, just in case someone thinks they look scruffy and mistakes them for Democrats.

Bush is in the ballroom of the Driskill Hotel in Austin. A blue drape forms the backdrop. He announces the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Hours later, in the same room, he announces that Christie Todd Whitman is his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The blue drape has disappeared, revealing a landscape painted on the wall some time ago: an idyllic scene of a river cutting through cliffs and distant hills.

This team learned well from Mike Deaver and the Reagan photo oppers. They've done a lot of this sort of thing already. They're better than Dad's team, perhaps even Clinton's.

Maybe it's the announcements, or the stepped-up Secret Service presence. But occasionally I find myself thinking of Bush as the president.

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Jan. 13, 2001, Washington: For all the polite talk about how the Clinton administration will accept the transition to Bush, the tenor here is one of edginess. The Clinton folks are trying hard to look at their successes over the past eight years, but the denouement of the election battle makes it difficult. A couple of days earlier, Clinton had questioned the Florida results. Bush's response, in so many words: Yeah, well who's going to be sworn in on Jan. 20? But the actual quote is softer, presidential diplo-speak: "When they counted the ballots in the state of Florida, I won. And he can say what he wants to say, but January the 20th I'll be honored to be sworn in as president." He's learning.

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