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The Ghost of Administrations Past

George W. Bush will not be the second coming of Gerald Ford

Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By DAVID FRUM
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That's one answer to the question, Where are the Reaganites? But there's another, and it is one that conservatives ought to keep in mind before getting unduly optimistic or unduly pessimistic about the staffing of the incoming administration: The Reagan service medal is not necessarily a badge of merit. That administration contained its fair share of duds: anti-free-enterprise businessmen like the protectionist transportation secretary Drew Lewis; concessions to the liberal wing of the Republican party like health and human services secretary Richard Schweiker; people of self-destructive temperaments like Ed Meese and Al Haig. And sometimes it was the establishment Republicans whom conservatives most distrusted who served Reagan and conservatism best: George Shultz, for instance, and, yes, James Baker.

That may also prove true this time around. It's the Ford legacies, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who are likely to be the most robust members of the Bush foreign policy team; it's the Reaganite Powell who has in the past been most cautious. On spending, Paul O'Neill may yet turn out to have a stiffer spine than some of the supply-siders who mistrust him.

There's a Washington saying that personnel is policy. But that cynical wisdom can also be an excuse: Personnel will adapt to policy, if there is a policy to adapt to. It was the unclear intentions and weak will of the first President Bush, as much as the squishy political backgrounds of his aides, that undid that administration. It's the philosophy of the president, the themes of his campaign, the mandate he won, as much as the backgrounds of his staff and officials, that determine the character of his administration. In those respects, Bush offers a complex and unique mix of reasons for hope and for worry.

Reagan's legacy isn't found in the resumes of the people who served him. It is, as Christopher Wren said of his own legacy, all around us. As for Ford, if everyone in his administration had served the nation as redoubtably as Rumsfeld and Cheney, that administration would have bequeathed a record of which conservatives and Americans could be more proud.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.