Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge? President Bush ran in 2000 pledging to be a uniter, not a divider — and pointing to his track record as Texas governor. Some say that background may help him navigate legislative priorities with the newly Democratic Congress.
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Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge?

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Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge?

Can Bush Now Fulfill His 'Uniter' Pledge?

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. In his State of the Union speech this week, President Bush will emphasize the need for cooperation between the parties, making a virtue of necessity after Democrats captured both chambers of Congress last November. This comes as Americans tell pollsters they expect their politicians to work together and transcend their differences.

This morning, we're kicking off a special, week-long series, Crossing the Divide.

(Soundbite of music)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm a uniter, not a divider.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California) Partnership, not partisanship.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Democrat, Ohio): Disagree without being disagreeable to each other.

YDSTIE: Running on all NPR broadcasts, we'll be looking at some of the ways we work together and don't across the racial, religious and political divide. We begin with President Bush, who often refers to his time as Texas governor, when he and his political adversaries managed to find common ground. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Ask President Bush how he can work with a newly Democratic Congress, and he has a ready answer.

President BUSH: I was the governor of Texas with Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and we were able to get a lot of constructive things done for the state of Texas, and I believe it's going to be possible here to do so here in the country.

GONYEA: Governor Bush did have close relationships with Democrats. In fact, on the night he officially became president-elect in 2000, it was the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, Pete Laney, who introduced him at the State House with these warm words.

Mr. PETE LANEY (Former Texas House Speaker): It's my honor to introduce to you a man who has earned my trust and respect, the governor of Texas, my friend, the president-elect of the United States, the Honorable George W. Bush.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Today, Laney is retired and living back in his old district near the Texas panhandle. He recalls how he and Governor Bush often found common ground on issues ranging from education to juvenile justice to tort reform. As for Mr. Bush's style...

Mr. LANEY: He would not be bashful about going down to members' offices and meeting with members in their office, be that Democrat or Republican.

GONYEA: In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, Governor Bush made it a point to mention another top Texas Democrat, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who had died the previous year.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: Bob was a Democrat, a crusty veteran of Texas politics and my great friend.

GONYEA: Journalist Ken Herman covered Governor Bush as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman Newspaper. He says the governor put on a charm offensive aimed at winning Bullock over.

Mr. KEN HERMAN (Austin American-Statesman Newspaper): And it worked. Bullock thought the world of Bush, and Bullock was among the first to say this boy ought to be president someday, and he was a Democrat who endorsed Bush for reelection as governor in '98 over a Democratic candidate whose children were Bob Bullock's godchildren. So this was a big deal.

GONYEA: But Herman, who now covers the White House for Cox Newspapers, also notes that Republican Governor Bush had few differences with the conservative Democrats who ran Austin at the time, nor was there that much responsibility resting on the governor. In Texas, the office is relatively weak. Again, former Speaker Pete Laney.

Mr. LANEY: There's an old joke about the governor of Texas has three constitutional abilities and that one of them is to make appointments, which the Senate can bust; veto legislation, which the legislature can override; and call special sessions, and we don't have to show up. And so it was very imperative that the governor work with the legislative process.

GONYEA: And Governor Bush did that, creating a narrative of success for his run for the White House.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

President BUSH: to be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide. Now is the time to do the hard things.

GONYEA: In his earliest White House days, President Bush showed signs of charming key Democrats as he had in Texas. He wooed Senator Edward Kennedy, at one point inviting him into the Oval Office to show him he was using the same desk once used by the senator's brother, John.

And there was the time in February of 2001 when press secretary Ari Fleischer had this to say about a large number of Democrats at the White House that day for meetings and social events.

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (Former Press Secretary): I noticed that people were referring to this as the hug-a-Democrat-a-day administration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEISCHER: And I think, if you recall, I reminded people the president also has friends who aren't Democrats.

GONYEA: A nice mood that didn't last. In 2001, the White House did win over enough Democrats to push new public education standards through Congress, along with huge tax cuts. After 9/11, the whole Congress united behind the president. But in 2002, the White House campaigned aggressively against targeted Democrats, suggesting some didn't care about fighting terrorism.

In 2003, as the war in Iraq dragged on and no weapons of mass destruction were found, the relationship deteriorated further. Soon, even Democrats who had been friendly were calling the education programs flawed and the tax cuts too generous to the rich; and as Iraq grew more chaotic, Democrats turned on the administration in fury.

By late 2006, the parties were as far apart as ever, and polls showed the public viewed President Bush as a divider, not a uniter. Mr. Bush says he can work with Democrats as he has in the past, but he's a long way from Texas.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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