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22 January 2001

Fasten your seat belts, folks, you’re in for a bumpy ride

The US Presidency - Even the more triumphalist Republicans are getting a bit queasy about B

By Andrew Stephen

I last saw Bill Clinton in the flesh on Christmas Day, when we both attended Midnight Communion at Washington’s National Cathedral. I’ve seen a lot of Clinton since I first met him almost a decade ago when he was a little-known southern governor, but he has not changed that much in appearance: his hair has gone completely white, but otherwise he still looks remarkably young and fit for 54 (cf, say, Jimmy Carter, who aged about two decades in his four years in office). And, right to the last, Clinton has managed to retain an astonishing ability to connect and empathise with groups: you could see it, in the first hour of Christmas, when applause actually broke out among fellow communicants in the north transept as he left the cathedral. You’re a liar, a scoundrel and a cheat, Bill – but we’ll miss you, and in comparison with your successor you’re a veritable colossus.

Whether it’s that wistful sense that strikes you when a loveably roguish comedian you had taken for granted suddenly dies – or a genuine realisation that a lightweight 42nd president is being replaced by a flyweight 43rd one – it seems to me that the country is already bored with its 54th presidential inauguration this weekend. Hardly anybody I know is stampeding to get a ticket for one of the countless inaugural balls. Admittedly, I am a curmudgeon about such events – possibly the only man in the world who has been to the town of Niagara Falls, but not bothered to go to see the falls – but I suspect, considering that Republicans claim to be seeing a glorious new dawn of conservativism descending on the country, that this weekend will prove a damp squib, notwithstanding the biggest demonstrations planned since Nixon’s inauguration in 1973.

Even the more triumphalist Republicans, knowing that they are going back to feathering their nests and networking their ways into money and jobs, seem a little queasy about Boy George; his camp have put out that he is now reading John Quincy Adams: a public life, a private life by Paul Nagel, a biography of one of the other three presidential candidates in US history who failed to win a majority of votes and was also the only other occupant of the White House whose father had previously been president. He was thrown out after only one fairly miserable term, having assumed office in 1825. Does Boy George hope to avoid his mistakes, I wonder?

The key to the 43rd presidency, I suspect – and I am not being flippant here – will be the extent to which the Boy Pretender manages to devolve power and day-to-day decisions to Dick Cheney and the other old pros recruited by Cheney. If Dubbya can then manage to conjure up the appearance of running a tight ship, he might – just might – emerge in the history books in the same sympathetic way that poor Adams is now remembered. If not (and it is in the field of foreign policy where fissures and eruptions are most likely to occur, I believe), the next four years are going to be very rocky indeed.

First, domestic policy. Boy George’s people say there are five basic prongs to be tackled: taxation, education reform, social security, Medicare, and refurbishing the military. His electoral claim that he would cut taxes by $1.3trn has already gone the way of his father’s infamous “read my lips – no new taxes” pledge – but the idea is that he will now scale down his proposals but appear to be carrying them out over a ten-year plan, chipping away at the relatively easy targets of the marriage penalty and estate taxes, for example. With a little adroitness between the White House and the moderate Congressional rumps, he could just about get away with appearing to be carrying out this pledge. But with Boy George himself saying that he is “relatively pessimistic” about the economy and a survey by the Chicago Tribune suggesting there is a 50:50 chance of a full recession in 2001, it won’t be easy.

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Education is where Bush may stand the best chance of relative success: much of his policy was taken from the Democrats, and consists of requests for more funds to aid reading for younger children (who is going to oppose that?) and more funds for black colleges (likewise). For Medicare and social security, Bush’s pledges are as amorphous as those on taxation. For Medicare, he says he will spend $110bn over the next eight years for prescriptions for the impoverished elderly, providing another $48bn to states; on social security, he will continue much as before and simply hope things turn out all right. Clinton did the same; after all, the looming problems won’t really hit the fan until both are dead or in their dotages.

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The Boy Pretender, too, has promised a $1bn pay rise to the armed forces. That is achievable, but such ambitious plans in defence will require significant cuts elsewhere: the DD-21 destroyer, the so-called “stealth ship”, may have to be one of the first casualties. But it is Dubbya’s promises to build a new and costly missile defence system – an idea first floated by Reagan – that is likely to prove most difficult to realise.

That brings us to the area of foreign policy, where Boy George simply doesn’t have a clue. He has already made alarmingly isolationist threats – that he will halt financial aid to Russia ($2.3bn under Clinton) until President Putin mends his ways (quite how is not clear – “It’s hard for America to fashion Russia,” he said recently). And he repeated again that he wants Europe “to be the peacekeepers” in Balkans – apparently still unaware that more than 80 per cent of troops in the Balkans already are from Europe. Colin Powell, too, has made similarly isolationist noises – though it is difficult to comprehend exactly what the so-called “Powell Doctrine” actually is. We know that having US troops under UN command – that of a Pakistani officer, say – gives Powell the heeby-jeebies, even though such an arrangement has worked satisfactorily, and quietly, for decades.

Powell will have to contend not just with opposing foreign ministers and the UN but also, inside the foreign-policy troika that Cheney has fashioned for Bush, two possible contrarians in Condoleezza Rice (as national security adviser) and Donald Rumsfeld (as defence secretary).

Rumsfeld was rumbled the other day, on the Watergate tapes with Nixon, as a sycophantic 31-year-old agreeing about the uselessness of American blacks; he is a tough and ruthless fellow, a slippery toad not nearly as malleable as most of his new colleagues. Yet Powell, as a career soldier, expects obedience and brooks no opposition. Can Cheney-Bush Inc hold this board together? We will see.

And so, after noon on Saturday 20 January, Dubbya will have lifted his right hand, sworn the oath over the Bible that Bush I used in 1989 – and become America’s 43rd president. Dad will let his boy have the car keys (the Secret Service are letting him have a brand-new limousine too) and even those of Air Force One. Mum and Dad will stay at the White House the first night- in case their boy is a little nervous – but they will be sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom.

Laura Bush (“When she was five,” the New York Times told us the other day, “she lined up her dolls and pretended to be their teacher”) takes over as First Lady from Hillary (whose Senatorial status seems to be going to her head – but that’s another story).

If they visit the White House over the weekend, the Bushes will find it completely devoid of the merest scrap of paper – a procedure that is now mandated by law. When the Clintons moved in eight years ago, they discovered ancient old Wang computers, typewriters, and a prehistoric phone system – and that was just about it. Bill was furious that he couldn’t pick up the phone himself and dial a number, and it took him weeks to get his own direct-dial phone in the Oval office. Boy George, I suspect, will be content just to rub his hand with wonderment over the leather top of the desk used by JFK – and marvel, quite justifiably, at the miracle of how he somehow managed to get there.

Capitol Curiosities

– The weather was so cold on President Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 that the ceremony was moved into the Rotunda of the Capitol building.

– During the inauguration of Zachary Taylor in 1849, the future president, Abraham Lincoln, lost his now infamous hat. Taylor himself served less than 500 days in the White House, dying in 1850.

– Andrew Jackson (1829-1937), the seventh president of the United States, was forced to flee through a window after a mass of well-wishers flooded into the White House after his inauguration in 1829.

– Thomas Jefferson rode on horseback to his second inauguration amid music and a spontaneous gathering of mechanics from the nearby Navy yard – a procession that has today grown into the traditional inaugural parade.

– William Henry Harrison (4 March 1841 to 4 April 1841) was the shortest-serving president, dying of pneumonia only a month after his inauguration. In one of the longest inaugural addresses ever delivered, Harrison had already promised not to run for a second term.

– Following the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963, Lyndon B Johnson took the oath of office on board the presidential plane, Air Force One, about 112 hours after Kennedy died.

– Some of the most famous snippets from inaugural addresses include JFK’s ” . . . ask not what your country can do for you – ask what can you do for your country”; Lincoln’s call, in the midst of the civil war, to Americans to ” . . . finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds”; and FDR’s encouragement during the Depression that “this great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper”.

– Martin Van Buren was the only president whose mother tongue was not English. He was brought up to speak Dutch better than he did English.

H George W Bush in 2001 and Rutherford B Hayes in 1876 were both inaugurated despite their opponents receiving a majority of the popular vote.

– Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant, Herbert Hoover and Dwight D Eisenhower are the only four men to have been inaugurated president without ever being elected to any other public office.

– During the ball after his inauguration in 1993, President Bill Clinton played the saxophone.