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Like father, like son?


The Bush family has seen this pattern before.

The President of the United States leads the nation to military success and realizes off-the-charts popularity. But after that peak, problems on the home front capture the country’s attention and the president quickly goes from hero to goat in the minds of many. It happened to George Herbert Walker Bush, the nation’s 41st president, and an eerily similar pattern is unfolding for his son, George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president.

The elder Bush saw the highest of the highs for any president. After the U.S.-led coalition made short work of the fabled Republican Guard army of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, his popularity ratings were 91 percent. That meant more than nine out of every 10 U.S. citizens were pleased with his job performance. At that moment in time, it was hard to imagine anyone defeating Bush in the following year’s election, or even coming close, for that matter.

But the economic recession of the early 1990s had a tight grip on the nation’s purse strings, and once the patriotic fervor of the Desert Storm success waned, many Americans were faced with constant reports of the economy’s fragility. They couldn’t make major purchases with confidence, and businesses were less likely to take risks for fear that the economy would get worse quicker than it would get better.

While campaigning for reelection in 1992, the elder Bush focused on his impressive record of military achievements both as a member of the service and as Commander in Chief. But candidate Bill Clinton told the nation and Mr. Bush, “It’s the economy, stupid.“ And the nation agreed. By the time of the 1992 Presidential election, the recession was beginning to ease, but its severity for months and months had led many Americans to conclude that Bush was not the man to right the country’s problems here on the home front. Bush’s Desert Storm momentum was gone, and Clinton and Ross Perot captured the nation’s attention. In an election in which none of the candidates won a majority of votes, Clinton edged Bush, while Perot captured an improbable 20 percent of the vote.

For the Bush clan, George W. Bush’s present situation has to be an unmistakable feeling of déjà vu. In the wake of September 11, “W” provided a strong leadership image. His speech to Congress and the nation a few days later -- the “either you’re with us or you’re against us” address -- was one of the more powerfully delivered and stirring speeches ever. As a result, the younger Bush -- whose victory over Al Gore was dubious in the minds of many -- showed that he had what it took. When a shattered and grief-stricken nation needed someone to restore its faith and confidence in its position as the world’s only superpower, he did.

Like his father, W’s popularity skyrocketed -- not to the heights of his father, but close enough. It was difficult to imagine late last year and early this year that any Democrat would have any chance whatsoever to defeat Bush in 2004. But like his father, W is learning that four years is a long time to ride a wave of a single accomplishment or moment.

The Enron debacle of false profits and executives benefiting from insider information shocked the nation, but it was thought by most that it had to be an isolated case of corporate fraud. Now, as each week passes, it seems that we learn of another huge company which has cooked its books to inflate its financial statements. As this trend has continued, the nation’s confidence in the publicly disclosed value of all companies has been shaken.

In 2002, at least half of the nation’s adults are investors in the stock market, having been drawn in by the prospect of the huge returns on investment which were realized in the 1990s. So the present freefall in stock prices not only affects every person indirectly, but 50 percent or more of us directly. W has spoken publicly, pledging harsh penalties for corporate criminals. But he lacks a credibility factor, since he is pledging to root out the wrongdoers of what essentially is his own social and professional circle. It rings about as true as Yassir Arafat calling upon Palestinian suicide bombers to stop striking in Israel -- a terrorist telling terrorists to stop. Yeah -- wink, wink.

The coming weeks and months are probably the key time frame of W’s presidency. He must do something to convince Americans that he is not just slapping corporate America on the wrist. He must take a very radical step, like personally lobbying Congress to pass the corporate fraud penalty laws he says he is seeking. He must stand before his brethren of the country club set and pursue justice against them every bit as strongly as he led the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Corporate cheaters are more of a threat to W's presidency than international terrorists. He’ll understand that if he learns from what led to his father’s downfall. If W fails to act decisively and effectively, it is very possible that family history will repeat itself.

This column was written July 20, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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