The Usual Suspects 

The president has not been acting very presidential.

The polls are in and the usual suspects are being rounded up. Who is responsible for George W. Bush's low numbers? Could it be Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, or Nicholas E. Calio, the liaison to Congress, or maybe Mary Matalin, who gave up a lucrative television career to devote herself to George Bush and Dick Cheney and all they stand for? Her sanity, if not her competence, has to be questioned.

The answer to the question is, "None of the Above." The person most responsible for the current plight of George W. Bush is -- drumroll, please -- George W. Bush.

He has not been acting presidential. By that I just don't mean that he's been less visible than a president should be or that he has not been adroit in his use of the so-called bully pulpit. Those things can be fixed -- and soon will be.

I am thinking instead of something else, a certain quality Bush has of lampooning himself so that, after all these many months in office, his self-deprecating act seems absolutely convincing. Even those of us, like me, who know Bush is no dummy are beginning to wonder.

I refer you now to the interview Bush recently granted Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal. With the possible exception of his wife, Bush could not have found a more sympathetic, adoring, interviewer. Noonan revealed Bush as virtually Olympian, a regular Churchill, who had lost the "tentativeness" of the campaigner and, instead, has an "even-keeled confidence, even a robust faith, in his own perceptions and judgments" -- in other words, in himself. This confidence, the interview makes clear, is shockingly misplaced.

Bush had just returned from his first European trip as president -- maybe even as a human being. He had met, you will recall, with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader -- a so-called summit where no treaties were signed, no accords initialed, no grand plans discussed. This was a get-acquainted meeting -- not much more -- with the leader of the mess called Russia, not the dictator of the formidable Soviet Union.

And yet, Bush spoke about it as if he had just come back from Yalta or one of the Cold War summits where so much hung in the balance. "It was a big moment," Bush allowed. Noonan, no fool, picked up on the vast, but unstated, importance of what had transpired: "What you're telling me is this meeting with Putin was a kind of breakthrough, it was something special."

"I think it was," said Bush. "I went to Europe a humble leader of a great country, and stood my ground. I wasn't going to yield. I listened, but I made my point." It was for those reasons, Bush said earlier, that Ronald Reagan himself "would have been proud of how I conducted myself."

Reagan nothing. I myself was overwhelmed. Yet it was only by using the utmost intellectual discipline that I was able to remember that the countries Bush had not yielded to, the nations he had confronted and, yes, bested, were not our enemies but our friends -- our allies, for crying out loud. It was as if he was doing a parody of a president returning from an overseas trip. This was the Oval Office as comedy club.

Neither Bush nor his crack staff sensed it, however. When Noonan asked if she could use his remarks for her Journal column, she was given permission. They all thought that Bush had not merely acquitted himself, he had done so splendidly.

I grant you that not all the interview was as inadvertently self-mocking as the parts I chose. But the overall effect was the same as one of Bush's enough-already self-deprecating television appearances or one in which he seems on the thinnest of intellectual ice. He seemed unable to distinguish the exceptional from the mundane, the historic from the pedestrian.

What we're seeing -- both in print and on television -- are essential Bush traits that are probably not amenable to change. In a way that TV emphasizes, he seems smaller than the office he occupies, less the master of his (or our) fate even than he was when he first took office. More and more he reminds me of that old commercial where the actor says, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television."

It is the same with Bush. I, for one, don't think Bush is a dope. But he sure plays one on television.

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and is a frequent contributor to this space.


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