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Defining George W. Bush

02/01/02 12:00AM

President Bush's sustained popularity over these last four months reminds me of an axiom of electoral politics: If you don't define yourself, your opponent will do it for you. You benefit by conveying the most positive possible perception to the voters, and your opponent benefits by conveying the opposite.

When President Bush addressed Congress and the nation a year ago, most Americans knew him only through the long campaign and bitter court battle. We were understandably suspicious of paid advertisements and partisan advocates, so to many Americans the character of their new president was still largely unknown.

Who would have thought that only one year later this same man would go into the State of the Union Address with an 83 percent approval rating? Of course, the opportunity for stratospheric popularity came as a result of events beyond his control. But through his handling of the crisis, and his commitment to treat his political adversaries with respect, Bush has earned this public support. And unlike his father, he seems intent upon keeping it.

Over time, the public perception of the president will crystallize. We'll judge the character of George W. Bush through observation; by listening to what he says and watching what he does. We'll judge his judgment from the perspective of hindsight. At some point each of us will come to believe that we know him, and it's at this point that neither the favorable nor unfavorable opinions of others will have much influence. His presidency will have defined him so powerfully that only his future success or failure can affect it.

If this happens in the next year or so and if he retains most of the good will he currently enjoys, it will be extraordinarily difficult for his political adversaries to alter the public's perception.

And this is why so many folks are furiously trying to convert the ENRON collapse into a political liability for the president; they know that time is running out. They started by accusing Bush of doing unspecified favors for ENRON in return for large campaign contributions. When it turned out that the Administration didn't help ENRON, Bush was accused of contributing to the suffering of employees and stockholders because he withheld the unspecified assistance.

Now the battle is over access to last year's meeting notes between the Vice President and ENRON officials, to see whether the Administration's energy policy was 'unduly influenced'. Given that the policy is a public document and those things that would benefit ENRON are pretty easy to figure out, the answer to this question is already available. And since no one has pointed to the policy and yelled "AH HA!" the only purpose of opening these notes is to find something anything that will sully the image of George W. Bush.

Throughout his career, Bush has been underestimated again and again. If and when the ENRON connection falls flat, it might just prove to be the moment when most Americans decide they know this guy.

This is Jeff Wennberg in Rutland.

--Jeff Wennberg is a former Mayor of Rutland.
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