Bush's First 100 Days: Linda Chavez interview

Linda Chavez was President Bush's original choice for labor secretary, but she withdrew her name after it emerged that she had given shelter to an illegal immigrant. Chavez had served under President Ronald Reagan as head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Friday, March 9, 2001

Again, looking back to the first third of the 100 days here, a lot of talk early on about President Bush's personal touch, the so-called "charm offensive." How do you think he did with that as an approach in the early days coming out of Florida?

Well, I think that he is a charming man, and I think that his personal touch is probably one of his most effective means of communication. I think he was very smart to, in the very first days when he took office, to invite Democrats in, sort of reach across the party aisle and try to make amends for some of the kinds of harsh rhetoric that I think were apparent during the campaign, and I think that was effective. I think it sort of took people off guard.

It's much more difficult to demonize your opponent when you've broken bread with them, when you've had them in to the White House theater for a movie and eaten popcorn with them. So I think that has been — it's been important to trying to introduce him to the Washington insiders because he is, after all, very much an outsider in Washington.

Weekly Messages

Before we get into to more of the substance of the domestic agenda, staying on style and presentation questions, how do you think this White House did, this president did, in the sort of rollout of these major initiatives? Everything was very organized: Education Week, Tax Week, Military Week. Many people noting the similarities to the Reagan 100-day strategy, very strict unity of message, lot of thought to the visuals and all of that. How do you score that to presentation effort?

Well, I think that, that one of the things that I think anyone who sort of watched this president, compared to the last, would note will be the way in which this presidency really got off to a good start. I mean, you had a sense of people who knew what they were doing.

The irony is, of course, that there are some old hands in this crew, but it really isn't so much the old hands that are in charge. I think there is a kind of corporate image that, that comes across. You've got a CEO who's very much in charge and leading the direction of the nation, and you have people with assigned tasks, and they seem to know what they want to do, and they seem to know how to go about doing it, and there's a kind of seriousness and expertise that comes across.

Whereas, the Clinton folks really seemed to fumble about a bit. They really did seem much more like people out of the nonprofit sector, people who have not had to organize things in the way in which you do in the corporate world, and I think, again, that is something that's worked to President Bush's advantage.

Education President

There was a clear decision to start with education, near and dear to the president's heart.... Overall, how do you think he did in introducing that issue both to the Hill and the to the public at large?

Well, first of all, President Bush cares a lot about education. This is not just having picked this issue because it's going to play well with the public. This is something he cares deeply about. It's something that he tried to have an impact on in his own state in Texas, and it's something that he devoted a lot of time to. It's something he understands well, I think.

So I think the fact that he started with it was good politically, but I also think it's because it came from the heart. It's something he really wanted to do, but it did play well politically.

It also played well to constituencies that are going to be very important to his reelection. It played very well to women. As you know, the Republican Party has not done as well with women as the party would like in the last few elections. And starting with an issue that's going to affect families and is going to be very appealing to women I think was a, was an important decision.

Also, it's a decision to take on an issue that's going to be important in the minority communities. After all, it is public education which is going to most determine the future for black and brown kids in this country. If they don't start doing better in school, if they don't have better education programs available to them, that's going to determine their futures.

Perhaps less success on the faith-based initiative. You know, again, good, good presentation in terms of control of the message, but pretty quickly critiques coming in from both the left and right, maybe resulting in a, in a fuzzier, fuzzier sell of this particular issue.

Well, the faith-based initiative response is an interesting one because I think a lot of people would expect criticism from the left and criticism from those who for a very, very strong separation of church and state. That was perfectly to be expected.

I think what a lot of people weren't expecting was that there was some concern within the religious community that this kind of infusion of money into programs sponsored by churches might tend to water down the religious message of those religious organizations. That, I think, was a surprise to a lot of folks.

And the tax cut plan, which no doubt will come to dominate the 100 days, but it's also a part of those early, those early weeks, didn't really retailor the message very much from the, from the campaign, and people have raised the question, you know, of the election being so close, and the tax plan not seeming to really have caught fire in the public. Do you think he's done a better job, after gaining the White House, of selling it both to the Hill and to the public?

I think the tax issue is a core issue for President Bush. Everybody was telling him that this was not going to be a winning issue in the campaign, and yet he stuck with it, didn't make many revisions throughout the campaign, even though he got criticism for the plan, and I think you're going to see the same thing throughout his, his effort with the Hill.

He believes that we need a rate tax — tax rate, rather, reductions. He thinks that the way to get tax reform is really to reduce rates, and it has to be across the board, and that means that those changes are going to affect people at all income levels. And I think that he has a very, very strong belief in the efficacy of his plan, and I don't think he's going to budge.

It's going to be interesting to see whether or not that strong belief on his part is going to be enough to convince skeptics on the Hill. Obviously, he's got a selling message to do, but I don't see him veering, and it does remind me a lot of President Reagan when he offered his tax cut proposals in the early 1980s. This was something he believed in. These tax cuts are something that George W. Bush believes in.

Vice President

We also saw, in the very earliest days, the emergence of Vice President Cheney's role, perhaps unique. Vice President Gore certainly had a wide and deep portfolio, but many people are pointing to Cheney having almost a chief operating officer kind of model or prime minister sort of role. Do you agree, disagree?

Well, again, maybe because I saw it a little bit closer at hand, given my short tenure as the Labor secretary designate, I actually did not see Cheney as involved in the process, at least in my own nomination, as press stories would have led me to believe he was involved in all of those decisions. I really saw Bush in charge, and Cheney really a very minor player. Now that doesn't mean that he wasn't major player in the foreign policy decisions, defense issues. I'm sure he was, as he should be. He has expertise in that.

But I think it really underestimates President Bush's role to suggest that Dick Cheney is calling the shots. I don't think that's the case, and I think there's been a little bit too much of that sense.

You talked about in your personal experience —

Yeah, in my personal experience, Bush is very much in charge, at least on the domestic issues, when it's an issue that he knows and cares about. And Dick Cheney obviously is going to have a major role to play in all of the foreign policy and defense issues. That's, in part, why he's on the ticket. I mean, he offers that kind of balance.

But the idea that Dick Cheney is calling all the shots I think is just inaccurate. It certainly was not my personal experience in my short tenure as a, as a nominee for a Cabinet position. Bush clearly made the decision. He was the person in all of the interviews who asked the tough questions, and they were substantive questions. These were not — this wasn't just a "getting to know you" kind of session. This was a policy session.

And while Vice President Cheney was in the room, he was not a major player in, in that particular discussion.

Conventional wisdom also seems to be shifting on the idea that President Bush was inheriting a really weakened White House and that, you know, following the breach of Florida, and that there was such a sense of doom and gloom that Washington was going to be ungovernable and all of that. Do you believe that was the case, and do you believe that he, that President Bush may have benefitted from having those expectations lowered so much?

Well, there clearly were lowered expectations with this president coming in, into office, and he has, conventional wisdom is that he's benefitted over his entire career from, from lowered expectations.

I think Florida, though, I think it actually — that whole long transition period I think made it more difficult to get off to a running start. I think it's, frankly, amazing that they got off to as good a start as they did. There were a lot of hurdles, and the fact that they did it as seamlessly as they did, the fact that they could, in fact, put together a Cabinet as quickly, to get the Cabinet confirmed as quickly was remarkable.

And given the fact that you had all of these expectations of this very overheated political scene in Washington, with lots of animosity left over from the campaign, I think it was really quite stunning that they were able to do what they did and do it with virtually no casualties.

Monday, March 26, 2001

Conservatives, during the administration of Bush, the elder, were, I think it's fair to say, disappointed. During the last couple of weeks there have been sort of these bubblings of euphoria coming from conservative think-tanks, and they're sort of looking at this administration and saying, "You want to know something? This really looks like a conservative administration." You're a conservative.


What do you think?

I think that conservatives are absolutely right and they ought to be delighted. I am surprised that they didn't see this coming, because if you look back, again, at the campaign, even in the initial stages, if you looked at the kind of policy people that Governor Bush had advising him, the teams he put together on important issues, they were heavily loaded with conservative think-tank folks, with veterans of the Reagan administration, far more veterans of the Reagan administration than his own father's administration. He is, I think, to his core, a conservative.

More, more of a Reaganite than a Bushite?

Absolutely. It's interesting. President Bush has always had a softer rhetorical edge. He was not the kind of, of rhetorician that President Reagan was. He did not see Washington and Government as the enemy, did not portray it as such. But he, nonetheless, I think is very conservative in his governing principles and in his philosophy, and I think he understood something I'm not sure [the first] President Bush understood as well, and that is that people are policy. That if you people your administration with people of strong conservative philosophy, it's going to have an impact on the policy, and people drive policy, and I think that's what President Bush is getting high credit for, is having picked fairly conservative folks, not just at the Cabinet level but at some of the sub-Cabinet positions as well....

How do you think the, the nicknames, the arm around the shoulder, the general bonhomie of the man, and he is a very charming man — how long before that is swept aside by what you are describing here as a president with a team at the White House who clearly know where they're going, what they want to achieve, and who, for all the smiles, and general good, good nature, are determined to achieve it?

Well, I guess it depends on who you view the audience as. If it's the American people, my suspicion is they're going to be very pleased with the direction. If you're talking about sort of the Washington insiders, and the media, in particular, they may cool very quickly. Although it's hard to say. You know, again, hearkening back to the Reagan years, the media I think had a lot of, of appreciation for Ronald Reagan, and were, in many respects, won over by his personality, even though I suspect that an awful lot of people in the media were absolutely appalled at some of his policies. They simply did not agree with them.

So I don't know that you're going to — you're ever going to see, you know, total synchronization between the media's views on some of these issues and a conservative Republican administration's. But I think that bonhomie is gonna serve him well. I think it's going to mean that he can talk personally, that he can reach a part — across party lines. There won't always be disagreements, but it'll take some of the rancor that we've seen in Washington over the last several years, I think it will diminish some of that rancor.

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Give us a sense of how you think he's done on the domestic agenda in the first 100 days.

I think one of the things that he's done which was critical, which is to focus on only a few issues, and I think the two things that he's focused most on are the tax cut and education reform. These are two pretty good items. They're obviously items that are very important to the American people, and I think it was good that he didn't try to do too much. I mean, there were a lot of things discussed during the campaign, certainly, Medicare reform, drug benefits for seniors, et cetera.

But to have thrown that all out there at once I think would have been a big mistake, and I think doing it in this more focused way is going to be really to his benefit, and it's going to, I think, first of all, give him a chance of having something real to show, and it's not going to give those who sort of want to take shots at him the chance to do so on a whole variety of issues. This really focuses everybody's attention on two very big items.

Foreign policy. We had China, obviously, taking the spotlight away from a lot of the things he wanted to do on the domestic side. How do you think he did with that? We don't need to get into the minutiae of all the negotiations and the diplomacy, but overall, how do you think he did?

I think the American people are very happy with the way the president handled this situation. First of all, he didn't elevate it to a crisis. I think had he been on the air, had he forced his way into the middle of the negotiations, as President Clinton might have, for example, I think it would have actually been very dangerous. It would have, I think, complicated matters, and I think the way in which he handled it is really the right way, and I think it's a way that the American people can appreciate.

It's also done something else though, and I think something more important for the long haul, and that is, I think it's reawakened the American people about China, and it has, I think, made them realize that China's not just another trading partner to the United States. I mean, that's been the kind of rhetoric that we've seen over the last several years. We keep talking about the big 1.2 billion person market that China represents.

But China is a potential adversary, and their behavior, not just with respect to our planes, but with respect to Taiwan, the way in which they've tried to intimidate Taiwan, and now tried to intimidate the United States, I think makes us have to be much more sober in our appraisal of the Chinese.

It seems to me that fits in nicely with President Bush's own instincts about the Chinese. He is different, I think, with respect to his attitude towards the Chinese than his father was. His father, having been the ambassador, I think was much softer on the Chinese, and I thought it was interesting that the President's initial instinct was a pretty hard line, and ultimately, certainly once we had our troops back, the administration as a whole has, I think, been quite hard line in its rhetoric. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

I think we have to recognize that China can represent a threat in the future, and that we have to deal with them, not just as somebody who represents a market, but somebody who may represent a potential adversary in the not-too-distant future.


There seems to be a lot of talk about the president being more conservative than people thought, perhaps governing to the right of where he campaigned.

I don't think he's more conservative than he campaigned. I think if you listened carefully during the campaign, certainly all of his policy prescriptions he's followed through on. I think the one thing that was a little surprise to some people were some of his early picks. Some of his nominees at the cabinet level were clearly conservative. And I think some people were a little surprised. They were bold choices, and I think maybe they didn't expect that kind of boldness.

But I think he is a conservative, never pretended to be anything else than a conservative, but because of his tone, because of his personality, which is much more moderate, he has a — a softer side to him in one-on-one in his personal interactions, and because of that, I think that was misinterpreted as somehow political softness. It's not. I think he's very hard-nosed, and he is a conservative through and through. He's a West Texas boy. That's where he grew up. Those are the values that helped create the political man, and anybody who knew him, and who watched what he said during the campaign, I don't think should be very surprised by what he's done.