James Pinkerton quips,

Ronald Reagan had three sons: Michael, Ron, and George W. Bush. That became clear yesterday when the 43rd president landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Why did he do it? Because it looked cool on TV. But while W. might be Reaganesque in style, he has yet to prove that he is Reaganesque in substance.

It’s a cliché that Bush 43 models himself more on Reagan than he does on his own father. And why not? The Gipper was a two-termer, while the elder Bush, having mostly inherited the presidency from his popular predecessor, managed to lose the White House after just four years.

One of Reagan’s political strengths was that he was always surrounded by imagery that appealed to most Americans. Not everyone in this country likes straight-shootin’ and plain-talkin’ cowboys, but most do. And so Reagan, born in Illinois, remade himself into a Westerner. By contrast, the elder Bush, who flew combat missions in the Pacific while Reagan was making training movies in Hollywood, was betwixt and between image-wise, a little bit country and too much preppy.

And now the younger Bush, who might have landed on carriers 35 years ago had he not sought refuge in the National Guard, is the one decked out like a combat ace. Poor John McCain. He walked the walk in Vietnam, and now he sits on the sidelines as Bush talks the talk off the coast of California.

Like it or not, image is a huge part of the job of President, who is not only the head of the executive branch but the symbolic leader of the nation. The Bush team, in some ways even more than Reagan’s, is amazingly disciplined in staying on message.

I see nothing wrong with that, so long as there is substance to which that style is directed. Pinkerton seems to think there is not; I think there is. Bush annoys me sometimes, because he is not passionately ideological about most issues. Indeed, he seems not to care at all about most issues and is content to let his aides and Congress hash them out. But the handful of issues about which he is passionate seem to be getting done. Whereas Clinton, who was an even better showman than Reagan, let alone either Bush, seemed to be driven only by his poll numbers on virtually* everything, Bush 43 has a strong sense of mission on the handful of issues he cares about: the war on terrorism, taxes, and some social issues.

*The sole exception, for which I always credit Clinton, was his core belief in the value of free trade, for which he took considerable flack from his own base. Indeed, I wish Bush was a little more committed to it.

(Hat tip: RealClear Politics)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eric Dunn says:

    Excellent commentary. I too believe Bush has some core issues he sticks with. I’d add some tertiary issues he pays close attention to: abortion and keeping God in our government.

    I’m certainly far from the first to say it, but if 9/11 hadn’t happened, foreign policy would have been a total afterthought in this presidency.

    I used to get annoyed by Pres. Bush, though not any more. I sometimes wince when he repeats the same phrase, four different ways in the middle of a speech, but at least he’s a guy I can respect. It’s easy to trust the man, and I never trusted Clinton.

  2. Nick says:

    However, let’s not forget that Clinton sharply rebuked Bush 41 in the 1992 presidential debates for his support of Nafta, only to turn around and immediately co-opt the issue upon his election. Bush 41 deserves all of the credit for Nafta- after all, it was pretty much the same democratic congress that denied it to him but gave it to Clinton.

  3. jen says:

    I’m glad someone pointed out that NAFTA was really Bush 41’s deal and not Clinton’s. That’s what I was going to point out. Thanks, Nick.

    On Bush’s seeming passivity on issues – think it’s more a result of his champion delegating skills. I think he probably feels strongly on more issues that we see because he delegates the battle to those he feels are better equipped to fight for them. What I’ve most appreciated about this Bush is his mastery at delegation. But that may also be a weakness on his part, he delegates a little to much in some policy areas. I don’t know.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Nick and Jen: I agree that Bush 41 negotiated NAFTA (or his team did). He even signed it. But Clinton got it through the Senate by putting his own capital on the line and summoning the support of all the living former presidents, getting the Republicans behind him, and getting enough Democrat votes to muster the necessary 2/3 vote. I’m not sure Bush 41 could have gotten it passed.

    Clinton was fairly ideological on this issue and, really, it was the most significant achievement of the two terms–if not the only one.

  5. Nick says:


    None of that changes the fact that Clinton railed against Bush on NAFTA during the campaign. Obviously, Bush never even had a chance of getting NAFTA through the congress with which he was faced.

    I specifically remember watching Clinton on TV lambasting Bush over NAFTA. Even if Clinton did expend some political capital on getting the thing passed, history certainly must record the deviousness of his 1992 campaign. Bush deserves at least equal credit with Clinton just for that alone.

  6. James Joyner says:


    I agree that Clinton is/was a sleazebag, that he often took credit for things he didn’t do, and that Bush 41 should get a lot of credit for NAFTA. I just think Clinton gets credit, too.

    I don’t know if he saw the writing on the wall, if Rubin or Bentson or Reich or somebody talked him into it, or what. But he took a gamble on the NAFTA issue since those most opposed to it were labor voters, a core Democrat constituentcy.