On Presidents Day, Surveying the Bush Administration

George W. Bush is now a little more than five years into the presidency. On this President's Day, NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving talks about presidential history and whether it's fair to contemporary presidents to the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

On this President's Day, George W. Bush is now a little more than five years into his presidency. Most of the people who work for him have the day off, a federal holiday. But we're joined by working Washingtonian and NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving for a conversation about presidents.

Ron, welcome back. We want to kind of rank and compare presidents. Is it really fair to compare a contemporary person in that office to men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln?

RON ELVING reporting:

No, it's not fair, Alex. I wouldn't say it was fair whoever the current president might have been. Washington and Lincoln now are really more myths than men. We judge them on what they meant to our country's development, pivotal roles they played at probably the two greatest turning points in U.S. history.

So it makes more sense to think in terms of more recent presidents who faced a world more like our own.

CHADWICK: Who's the President, do you think, that President Bush would most like to be associated with?

ELVING: Oddly enough it's not the first President Bush. He may see some parts of his father's unfinished agenda as his own. Certainly Saddam Hussein fit into that category.

But he's made clear many times that his father is not really his model. He has patterned himself more on the man that his father served, Ronald Reagan. That was a presidency dominated by a more idealistic notion or vision of America. Its foreign policy was all about projecting American interests and values in kind of a unilateral fashion, more or less.

Domestic policy was getting back to a previous vision of America, an emphasis on individuals over groups. Big risks, big rewards, minimal government.

CHADWICK: I'm not sure that minimal government has come through, but anyone else?

ELVING: Well, Reagan had a fascination with two of his 20th century predecessors who could not have been more different. That's Presidents Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt. Coolidge for his political philosophy, minimum government again. Roosevelt for his sweep and ability to reach the national spirit, move the people.

I think our current President Bush would like very much to tap into both of those models. When you hear him talk about his ownership society ideas, private sector solutions for pretty much everything, healthcare, pensions, even energy problems and environmental protection, there's also a longing at the same time for Roosevelt's connection with the national spirit.

CHADWICK: Which you see maybe in a comparison between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, for example?

ELVING: You know, that's not a comparison that the White House likes to invoke too often. Maybe it's a little too far in the past for most of the constituency now. But it is the kind of national transformation of attitude that the White House would like to see.

It's really become the President's touchstone phrase, as he said just a few days ago in Florida. 9/11 changed my way of thinking. You hear him say that now just about every time that he's out in public. And the implication is that it really should have changed everyone's way of thinking. And anyone who hasn't come along is stuck in pre-9/11 thinking, not up with the times.

CHADWICK: Well, if George W. Bush would want Ronald Reagan as his model, as his standard and gauge, how's he doing, compared?

ELVING: Well, I'd have to say for some conservatives you might as well compare him to Lincoln or Washington. But the difference is that the Reagan comparison is very much invited and will be made and is relevant.

On the plus side, it appears that the current President Bush will be at least as successful as Reagan in putting profound conservatives on the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan added three justices, but only one of them really pleased conservatives in the long run, Antonin Scalia. And it looks now as though Bush's two so far to get on the Court are likely to vote with Scalia a lot.

On taxes, Bush has been as devoted to cutting taxes as Reagan was. And he is as willing to accept deficits as a cost, at least a temporary cost, of cutting taxes. But in the end I think Reagan is primarily remembered for challenging Communism as a world force and for challenging nuclear weapons as a mortal threat.

And Bush has set the defeat of global terrorism and the control of nuclear weapons proliferation as his corresponding goals. And right now both those battles are very much in the balance. And their outcome will dominate the way we remember this president.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Ron Elving, senior Washington editor. And you can read his column, Watching Washington, at our Web site, npr.org. Ron, Happy President's Day.

ELVING: And the same to you, Alex.

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