The Booby Pulpit

The Booby Pulpit

The Booby Pulpit

How you look at things.
Jan. 17 2001 3:00 AM

The Booby Pulpit

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In an interview this week, George W. Bush marveled at how Bill Clinton redefined the presidency by time and again spinning his opponents into a jam. "I've learned some lessons from [him]," Bush told Tom Brokaw, "and one of them is how to use the bully pulpit to define relations with Congress." Good luck. The question of the next four years is how a president who can't talk his way out of a paper bag can get anything difficult through a sharply divided Congress. His Cabinet appointees are about to find out.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Last Thursday, as liberal interest groups detailed charges of racism and radicalism against Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton, reporters asked Bush to reply. Here's an excerpt from that news conference.

Reporter: Your secretary of the interior-designate, Gale Norton, made a speech a few years ago in which she lamented the loss in the Civil War [by] the Confederacy, because she said too much was lost, referring to states' rights doctrine. What do you say to citizens who might hear that and are concerned that your nominee's defending the states' rights position of the Confederacy may mean a retreat from federal protection through federal power of minority rights?

Bush: I'd say that's just a ridiculous interpretation of what's in her heart. She's been the attorney general of the state of Colorado. She's a person who upheld the laws of that state. She is—she in no way, shape or form was talking about any value to slavery. …

I picked John Ashcroft because he's a good attorney. He's going to be the attorney general, he's going to be the nation's lawyer, and he'll enforce the laws on the books. And people will get a chance to hear that. This, too, was a person who was elected to public office.

Watching this exchange, I was reminded of what my then future father-in-law said when he learned that his daughter was dating me: "He's Jewish, and he's employed." That's essentially Bush's defense of his nominees. He made it through an entire presidential campaign deflecting questions about his policies and his record by observing that his "heart" was pure, that he had been "elected" to office, and that he had "upheld" his state's laws. Having eked out victory, he thinks these vacuous assurances will suffice for governing. The Cabinet nomination fights, which senators tend to resolve in favor of the president, are likely to bolster his confidence in this approach. But when Democrats put campaign-finance reform on his desk and frame his tax cut as a reckless sop to the rich, Bush will have to do more than remind the public that he's Christian and employed.

To liberals, Bush's inarticulateness is a joke. But for conservatives, it's a problem. Ashcroft and Norton deserve better advocacy. The charge that Norton defended slavery is a cynical slur. What she actually said was that the Confederacy fought for two things—the principle of state sovereignty and the practice of slavery—and that the specific repugnance of the latter obscured the general merits of the former. Clinton would have had the brains and skill to explain this distinction. Bush, however, could only stammer that Norton was nice, had held a political job, and didn't really support slavery.

Republicans can find other spokesmen to defend their nominees and initiatives. But none of those spokesmen carries the weight of the president and each brings liabilities. The best defense of Ashcroft, for example, was presented two days ago on This Week:

He has signed a hate crimes bill. He put in a bill putting a five-year prison penalty on anyone who was convicted of a crime with a handgun. He has put a number of black jurists on the bench in Missouri. The first African-American in the history of Western Missouri went on the appeals court there, and he voted for 26 out of 28 of the African-American nominees to the bench in Washington.

Those words, delivered by the president-elect, might have swayed public opinion in Ashcroft's favor. Instead, they were overshadowed by the speaker, Pat Robertson—exactly the sort of public figure Ashcroft's opponents want to identify him with. This is the predicament Bush was supposed to resolve. Republicans have learned the hard way that control of Congress isn't enough. Without a coherent, authoritative voice, they can't beat the Democrats. For six years, they've waited for that voice. They're still waiting.