Bush's vanishing act

Discussion in 'Politics' started by ZZZzzzzzzz, Nov 1, 2008.

  1. October 31, 2008
    On the White House
    A Presidential Vanishing Act, by Design

    WASHINGTON — It’s the week before Election Day. Do you know where your president is?

    Probably not, and that is by design. With Senator John McCain lagging behind in the polls and many other Republicans fighting for their political lives, the nation’s top Republican — President Bush — is intentionally lying low this week, and is likely to do so until after Americans cast their ballots to pick his successor.

    Mr. Bush, an ardent student of politics, knows what it feels like to be down in the polls, and he is keeping a careful eye on the campaign. Earlier this week, he made a surprise visit to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee to offer thanks to those who have served him for the past eight years, and deliver a little pep talk to lift the spirits of beleaguered McCain supporters.

    “He talked about how he was never supposed to win a campaign,” said one person who attended, speaking anonymously because the session was off-the-record. “He talked about how in ’94, 2000, 2004, they always said he had no chance, and he just encouraged us, to say it’s just important to keep doing what we’re doing and keep working hard.”

    The message was not entirely surprising. What was striking is that Mr. Bush chose to deliver it in private. Presidential visits to campaign headquarters are routine business in election years; the day before voters cast their ballots in 2000, President Bill Clinton dropped in on Democratic headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. to buck up campaign volunteers, even as he conceded that he had no idea which way the race between Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Bush, then the governor of Texas, would go.

    Mr. Bush, though, has made himself increasingly scarce as Election Day approaches. His campaign season effectively ended on Oct. 21 — two weeks before the election — when he attended his last political fund-raiser, a $1 million event for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. (His wife, Laura, is still on the stump; on Thursday she headlined a get-out-the-vote rally in Mississippi.)

    With Mr. Bush’s job approval ratings at historic lows, political analysts have long said Republican candidates simply do not want to be seen with him. But now, with the election just days away, it seems that Republican candidates do not want Mr. Bush to be seen, period.

    “One of McCain’s biggest challenges has been how to deal with Bush, and he never quite got it right,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “Now, the best thing is silence.”

    So the president has temporarily dropped out of sight. Until recently, Mr. Bush was giving talks about the battered economy on nearly a daily basis, prompting some Republicans to grumble privately that so much presidential face time was hurting their election chances. This week, Mr. Bush stepped back, holding just four public events, none with real policy implications.

    He hosted two foreign leaders, the presidents of Paraguay and the Kurdistan Regional Government, at the White House, stepping before the cameras for a total of 11 minutes. He gave the graduation speech at the F.B.I. Academy in Quantico, Va. And he and Mrs. Bush hosted a light-hearted celebration in honor of the 150th birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, complete with a bespectacled Roosevelt impersonator who looked about the East Room and commented wryly, “Well, I must say, I like what you’ve done with the place.”

    Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary, said Mr. Bush’s absence from the public stage, though brief, had consequences. “This has an impact,” Mr. Lockhart said. “The world marches on; we’re in an economic crisis. We have tensions at home and abroad, yet I think if you walk down the street and ask people, ‘Has the president already left?’ you’d have a lot of people saying, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ ”

    On Friday, Mr. Bush was to leave Washington at noon to spend the weekend at Camp David. Unlike elections past, he will not travel to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to vote; casting his last ballot as president in person would almost certainly have drawn the sort of news coverage the White House might not want. Instead, the Bushes sought the privacy of absentee ballots this year, casting their votes for Mr. McCain by mail.

    The couple will watch the election returns from the White House; Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said the public would most likely hear from her, and not the president, on Tuesday night. To avoid getting drawn into a discussion about the race, Mr. Bush has steered clear of news conferences all fall; Ms. Perino would not say this week when reporters might get a chance to question the president directly about the outcome.

    If the past is any guide, Mr. Bush will be matter-of-fact about the result. At the Roosevelt event, the president “seemed sort of fatalistic” about Mr. McCain’s chances and his own place in history, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, who was there. Mr. King said his wife grew emotional, telling the president how much she would miss him. Mr. Bush did not grow emotional in return.

    “He just said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ _ he seemed like, what happens, happens,” Mr. King said. “I always feel that he thinks it’s his job to keep everybody’s spirits up.’