Dark Days at the Big House on Pennsylvania Ave.
Thanks," a wan-looking president said, at the end of one of the worst weeks since he took up residence in the White House, "for the chance to get out of Washington." George W. Bush was only 200 miles south of the nation's capital, in a state where he cleaned John Kerry's political clock a year ago. But despite the sunny reception from his audience in Norfolk, Va., late last week, the tough talk and triumphalism of his re-election bid seemed like a dim memory. Whole forests have been felled to produce learned tomes on the disasters that seem to be the ineluctable fate of presidents in their second terms. Only the second president to follow his father to the Oval Office, Bush, no avid student of history, might nevertheless have been expected to take pains to avoid the second-term curse.
The president's promise to privatize Social Security and extend the writ of the "Bush Doctrine" beyond Iraq to the sclerotic autocracies of the Middle East boded well and seemed, at the time, the meat historians would feast on for years. With his majorities in both houses of the Congress, the political stars seemed aligned to afford George Bush an array of opportunities other presidents could only dream of.
Today, astonishingly, it all looks like a false prelude to a calamitous second act that virtually no one could have predicted. It's not just the storm cloud of scandal that fell on the White House last week, or the implosion of the Harriet Miers nomination. For a White House that had seemed so supremely sure-footed after the attacks of September 11 four years ago, there was, about the indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and about the Miers fiasco, something that would have seemed unthinkable just a few short months ago: clutziness. For a president who spoke so loftily such a short time ago about the wad of political capital he had accumulated and how he planned a lavish second-term spending spree with it, it must seem as if fate has suddenly picked his pocket and emptied his cookie jar. But fate, as we know, has a funny way of doing that sometimes.
This story appears in the November 7, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.