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Catastrophe in Southern Asia | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush Adapts, but Won't Call It That

Despite a stick-to-his- guns self-image, the president's response to the Asian catastrophe is not the first time he has bent to the public will.

January 03, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, as Congress moved to create a Department of Homeland Security, Bush basically opposed the move. But he reversed himself when such a governmental reorganization became all but inevitable.

Similarly, Bush opposed the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the intelligence failures prior to the terrorist attacks. But he reversed himself amid high-profile lobbying by relatives of those who died on Sept. 11.

The president also had fought legislative efforts to change the campaign finance system, but he acquiesced rather than veto the reform bill that finally emerged from Congress. His imposition of steel tariffs in 2002 collided with his tough language during the 2000 campaign inveighing against protectionism. Bush cast his decision as a response to unfair practices by U.S. trade partners.

Greenstein described the president and his advisors as "expert on damage control and pragmatic about adapting to circumstances -- and shameless about denying that he and they have had to make corrections."

A less substantive but telling glimpse of how the Bush White House operates came on the night of June 5. The president was in France and had gone to bed when news reached Paris that -- as had been rumored for hours -- former President Ronald Reagan had died.

White House aides told reporters to expect only a written statement eulogizing Reagan, but eventually thought better of it and woke the president. After getting dressed, Bush delivered a two-minute statement before television cameras and then went back to bed.

Greenstein surmised that Bush perhaps implicitly sends a "don't bother me" signal to subordinates.

Such an attitude, Cook warned, may prove damaging to Bush.

"They may have won the election, but he has let that precious political capital slip through his fingers by appearing distant and uncaring," he said.

James L. Lindsay, director of research for the Council on Foreign Relations and a former National Security Council official, said Bush last week missed "a great opportunity to put a spotlight on Americans' generosity and compassion."

Buchanan, the historian, agreed, but only to a point: "To be sure, a slow response from an out-of-touch president on vacation in Texas reinforces Mr. Bush's already diminished international reputation.

"That said, it's not too late to recover, and they have been pretty good at rebounding from such mistakes in the past."

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