With subdued good humor on his first day as President-elect, George Bush gave his due to aides and supporters--and to Martin Van Buren, the last American Chief Executive to succeed directly from the vice presidency to the Oval Office. “It’s been a long time, Marty,” Bush said.
As a matter of fact, Bush had best not look to Van Buren as a role model. The former New York governor barely had taken over from Andrew Jackson in 1837 when the nation was seized by financial panic and plunged into four years of depression and deficit spending.
But if one day is any example, the incipient Bush Administration-in-waiting is off to a good start. There was no gloating over his defeat of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. He had conciliatory words for his political opponents and the enhanced Democratic majorities in Congress with which he must work. He was duly respectful of the Reagan Administration, which remains in authority until noon on Jan. 20, but not overly so.
At the same time, Bush set his own Administration on course by naming leaders of his transition team and announcing that he will nominate his old friend James A. Baker III as secretary of state. The Baker selection was no surprise, but the briskness of the action was a startling reminder that within the span of a short night’s sleep the campaign is over and the work of governing is under way.
As White House chief of staff, Jim Baker was instrumental to the success of Ronald Reagan’s first term and then served ably as secretary of the Treasury. Baker will be a strong anchor for the Bush Administration, not just in setting foreign policy but as an influential adviser to Bush on all matters.
The Republican Bush will be succeeding the Republican Reagan, whom Bush has servedloyally and without the slightest disparaging word. But the tone of Bush’s first press conference as President-elect on Wednesday was different from what has emanated from the White House during the past eight years. Reagan still pictures the government as the foe. He had little interest in governance beyond a limited agenda of cutting taxes and reining in the federal Establishment.
Bush, a former congressman, always has been more involved in the process and interested in using it for public improvement. That experience and bent of mind showed on Wednesday as he deftly handled questions about transforming his programs into action and reconciling differences with his political adversaries. There even was a hint of a possible crack in the door about raising new revenues. And while the more pragmatic new Bush broom may not sweep away all old Reagan appointees, there will be a preponderance of new faces in Washington’s executive offices. This will provide a contrast with so many of the early Reagan ideologues, who seemed more intent on undermining the duties of their offices than in performing them.
Up in Boston, Democrat Dukakis was candid and gracious in defeat--a defeat that was broad in terms of electoral votes but not nearly as deep and humiliating as those suffered by predecessors Walter F. Mondale and Jimmy Carter. Dukakis has experienced painful political loss before, and knows that the dedicated public servant toils on. Don’t be discouraged, he told the young people who worked in his campaign. Go into public service. It is a noble profession.
One day cannot eradicate the bitter taste of a demeaning and dispiriting election campaign.But Wednesday provided an excellent start.