Does George W. Bush Compare to Ronald Reagan?

Bush has a lot in common with Reagan, but can’t live up to the Gipper’s TV presence.

By SHARE

Finally, Bush portrays himself as a straight-talking westerner and a Washington outsider, just as Reagan did. Even their vacation preferences are comparable. Reagan spent nearly a full year of his two-term presidency at his ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., riding horses, clearing brush, and relaxing with Nancy. Bush tours his 1,600 acres in Crawford, Texas, in a pickup, but he also clears brush and spends a lot of private time with his wife, Laura. If he is re-elected and keeps up his pace, Bush could match Reagan's total number of days at the ranch.

All this is remarkable because, while Bush met Reagan socially a few times during his father's vice presidency, he didn't consider him a mentor. Once he became commander in chief, however, Bush began to relish the similarities and call public attention to them, partly because he hopes to tap into Reagan's popularity among conservative Democrats.

Still, there are many differences between Reagan and Bush. One of the most striking is the 40th president's triumphant use of the bully pulpit. Reagan's 1984 speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, most observers agree, was far more compelling than Bush's 60th-anniversary remarks last week. This is part of a larger critique—that Reagan was much more adept at the stage management of the presidency, as orchestrated by his handlers. This was clear in the meticulous arrangements for his funeral, which gave the nation so many indelible images.

Bush, by contrast, is not in Reagan's league as a TV performer. He resists being "stage managed," a trait he shares with his father. Without a script to constantly guide his performance, Bush is susceptible to the kind of mangled locutions that have become reliable grist for the late-night talk shows.

Bush, his opponents contend, is more divisive than Reagan, who worked with congressional Democrats and tried to avoid making enemies. Bush, critics say, is too much of an ideologue in appealing to his conservative base, unable to make the pragmatic adjustments that served Reagan so well. This is most clearly seen in the current administration's policy toward Iraq. If the transition to a civilian government does not go well there, Bush may face a choice between admitting error, which he is loath to do, and sticking with a troubled policy that Americans increasingly oppose.

Partisan Democrats go further. "The difference between Reagan's re-election [bid] in '84 and Bush's in '04 is that Reagan was in some ways the master of the landscape," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "He was a president who inspired confidence and made people feel better about the direction of the country. President Bush doesn't inspire personal confidence in the same way." Bush, Garin adds, lacks the self-deprecating wit and the "sense of humility" that Reagan showed.

That humility may be more important than ever now that the rosy glow of the Reagan retrospectives is beginning to fade. Americans will begin to turn increasingly back to their current problems—especially the rising casualties in Iraq and the difficulty of transferring power to an indigenous government in Baghdad. The question is whether Bush will stay the course or demonstrate Reagan's ability to seize the moment when circumstances change. It was, after all, Reagan, the lifelong cold warrior, who formed a partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and helped to dismantle the "evil empire."

As was true in the Reagan era, the risks are enormous, and Bush is facing them without the panache or communications skills that Reagan possessed. But if Bush manages to somehow create a real democracy in Iraq and win the war on terrorism, he might be celebrated as a figure of historic importance—just like Ronald Reagan.

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