TRB JANUARY 15, 2001
Like a Giant Valium descending on Dulles International Airport, the Bush transition has come to Washington. Despite a good-faith effort to get exercised over John "Bob Jones Loves Me" Ashcroft, most of us seem already sedated by the sheer grown-upness of it all. Compared with the Clintonistas, yapping into cell phones at the Dupont Circle Starbucks at all hours of the day and night, the Bushies seem preternaturally calm. Where we once had a permanent campaign, we now have intermittent naps. Where transitions once involved endless ruminations on nannies and gay soldiers, we now get to ponder the unbearable whiteness of Paul O'Neill and Dick Cheney.
It's not as if the Bushies have no style. It's just that it isn't, er, immediately visible. A city once run by twentysomethings has now been surrendered to fat, white, straight guys in their fifties. A town previously mesmerized by definitions of "sexual relations" is now pondering the resume of Donald Rumsfeld. For Stairmasters substitute angioplasty. For Georgetown substitute McLean. For Goldman Sachs substitute Alcoa. To be sure, the Bushies don't quite generate the buzz of lower TriBeCa, but hey, we're in Washington. We don't do buzz here.
There is, of course, the small question of relief. Yes, Madame Rodham will be moving into a $2.85 million house off Embassy Row. And the sexual predations of the philanderer-in-chief are poised, after January 20, to reach truly epic proportions. Have you heard that hit song "Who Let the Dogs Out"? Well, even if you haven't, you get the idea. But, for all their self-parodic efforts to stay forever in the public eye, the era of the Clintons is mercifully drawing to a close.
The first sign is the silence. Listen: The air is no longer quite so filled with the incessant circumlocutions of the blabberer-in-chief. Whatever other qualities he has, the man can surely talk. He's often had very little to say, of course, but that has never deterred him. The sheer volume of verbiage he has expelled over eight years is enough to make John Updike look blocked. Bill Clinton was and is a compulsive logorrheic. There wasn't a problem he couldn't talk his way into and out of, while doing nothing much at all except hiring more lawyers and keeping otherwise innocent people awake at night. There was harely a word he couldn't distort, nary a phrase he couldn't render meaningless by repetition. He was the president who will be remembered as redefining "is" to evade what was.
But now we have the wonderfully in-articulate George W. Bush. As Dianne Wiest whispered to her lover in the movie Bullets Over Broadway, one can only enjoin, "Don't speak! Don't speak!" And this is not merely out of concern for what's left ofthe English language. W.'s inarticulacy is the point. After the interminable blather of Clinton, W.'s verbal void is a balm, an oasis, a spa for the spun soul. Why, there are probably even things Bush doesn't have much of an opinion about and even less of an inclination to explore! When the postelection crisis hit, he went off to his ranch, where he apparently had no cable television, and hung out with his dog. He said fewer words in five weeks than Clinton does in five minutes. After all we have endured over the past eight years, are there words to describe the rapture this relative mute evokes?
Then there's the executive style. We have gone from a Cabinet of yea-saying lawyers to a Cabinet of grown-up CEOs. Apart from you-know-what, the most embarrassing feature of the Clinton administration was its Cabinet. From the very beginning, it was staffed by nobodies. Clinton is a bright but insecure man who surrounded himself (with the exceptions of Robert Rubin and Richard Holbrooke) with appointees who weren't even close to challenging him intellectually or administratively. Exactly what Richard Riley or Donna Shalala actually did for eight years is one of the enduring mysteries of the modern world. Clinton's Cabinet, it turns out, was the longest-serving in recent history—not because it was unusually skilled (it wasn't) but because many of its members had no record of accomplishment in the private sector and didn't know quite what else to do.
Bush has produced something completely opposite: a Cabinet of people so obviously more skilled and experienced than he is that it is pretty close to embarrassing. It either takes an extraordinarily secure man or a completely clueless one to have gathered such an assembly of superiors. My gut tells me it's the former—and that this shrewdness is far more important in politics than any sort of bookish intelligence and may lead to small increments of progress. W.'s Cabinet obviously has a mandate to act rather than to talk, which makes it the most structurally powerful Cabinet since Dwight D. Eisenhower's. Then there is what might be delicately referred to as class. By this I don't mean that the Bushes are the social superiors of the Clintons. I merely mean that it is simply impossible to replicate the tackiness of Bill and Hillary, their hideous sexual embarrassments paraded as high principle, the moral ambience of the likes of Terry McAuliffe and Webb Hubbell, the bottomless pit of the president's self-pity and self-indulgence. After this soap opera, anything feels uplifting. I do not know the names of Bush's daughters, and I hope I never do. I do not know the intricacies of Bush's marriage, and I almost certainly never will. I am pretty sure that Bush will not stick his tongue down his wife's throat in public, or use a sibling's death in a convention speech, or boast about spending the night at David Geffen's. These are small mercies, but we have learned to be more than grateful for them.
Of course, if you believe in the permanent campaign, the conflation of culture and politics, the erosion of the boundaries between public and private, and the resort to lawyers as the first defense against failure, then you will miss the Clintons. And there will surely be plenty of reasons to be irritated by the W. culture soon enough: the sense of entitlement, the narrowness of vision, the stuffiness, the dynastic presumptions, and so on. But for now the new culture of Washington, perhaps because it is also an old one, seems worth celebrating. Politics as tedious but effective management is an ancient conservative doctrine—but, these days, a strikingly fresh one. Such a politics does not need, as the Clintons did, to infiltrate every part of our lives, to mesh the exigencies of statecraft with the tawdriness of Hollywood. It is a politics that does not need to be permanently in the spotlight on the national stage and is often content to operate quietly behind the curtain. The promise of Bush is to make politics boring again, to return it to the prose of government rather than the drama of private life or the poetry of the broader culture. He will succeed, if he does, the way Eisenhower succeeded: by being absent, calm, subtle, careful, self-effacing. And he will succeed because the rest of us, after eight years of ceaseless psychodrama, will be deeply, permanently grateful for the change.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.