As they prepare for tomorrow's health care reform "summit," President Obama and congressional Republicans could profit from the words of two presidents named George.
(National Gallery of Art)
The annual Senate reading of George Washington's Farewell Address on the anniversary of his birthday earlier this week resonated in today's rancorous atmosphere. The first president wisely told his country, "The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it."
Mr. Washington warned that those "mischiefs" can "agitate the community" and cause "animosity of one part against the other." Put in the context of today's Washington atmosphere, those words are an understatement. Agitation and animosity abound.
House Republican Leader John Boehner set his party's tone for the health reform meeting by warning that President Obama had "crippled the credibility" of the session by proposing "a massive government takeover." House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said the president's proposal meets the definition of insanity. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs fired back, accusing Republicans of "pre-game chatter" with the bravado of "locker room talk." Gibbs insisted the president is "interested in having a balanced conversation and hearing from Republicans and Democrats."
Both sides at the Blair House meeting will try to take the lead in the tough health insurance reform debate. That brings us to the relevant quote from a second president named George, George H.W. Bush. In the biography "The Leadership of George Bush", the 41st president's long time associate Roman Popadiuk writes, "For Bush, a leader is someone who can bring people together to get things done."
Popadiuk, executive director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, chronicles the first President Bush's varying degrees of success in getting things done in Washington. It is a surprisingly frank and objective account by the author who served as a Bush national security aide and as the first U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
Popadiuk provides fascinating details of the Bush administration's internal debate on the many of the same health care issues that confound the current administration and Congress. The book recalls the social and policy challenges posed by uninsured Americans whose numbers have only increased since Mr. Bush's White House days. But a Bush reform plan was not introduced until what would be the president's final months in office. President Obama is attempting the opposite approach, "going for broke" on the issue at the start of his term.
Popadiuk recalls many Bush initiatives were "stymied by (the Democratic-controlled) Congress." Even though President Obama's party is in the majority, he too has often been forced into legislative and policy corners. Just as Mr. Obama has angered many Democrats by abandoning the "public option" for government backed insurance coverage, President Bush split with his core supporters when he agreed to a tax increase. It opened the door for conservatives and Democrats to mock his famous "Read my lips no new taxes" campaign pledge.
The author says the Bush administration "appears to have misplayed opportunities to highlight a domestic agenda." Mr. Obama has hinted at similar challenges as he has complained about communications problems in his first year in office.
As Popadiuk notes, "Communication is probably the most powerful tool in the president's leadership arsenal." He offers a blunt retrospective on George H.W. Bush's own communication shortcomings. The author describes Mr. Bush's sometimes rambling delivery and "faulty syntax." The former president is quoted as saying, "I was not much good at rhetoric."
Veteran reporters who covered Mr. Bush were often frustrated when their pre-written stories had prepared text quotes that were later mangled by the president. But it was also refreshing and even amusing to watch a politician who, as Popadiuk notes, "gave his speeches the way he spoke."
In something of an understatement, the Bush biographer says his former boss is "not obsessed by legacy." To this day, reporters who attempt to question Mr. Bush about his legacy are admonished not to use "the L word" in his presence.
Since the former president adamantly insists he will not write an autobiography, "The Leadership of George Bush" will serve as a definitive record of his White House tenure.
As for the upcoming health care reform summit, it would be fitting to place a sign with George H.W. Bush's guidance on the table for all participants to see: "A leader is someone who can bring people together and get things done."
More Coverage of the Health Care Summit:
GOP Prepares Strategy for Health Care Summit
A War of Words Before the Health Care Summit
Dems, GOP: Summit Will Not Break Logjam On Health
Obama's Health Care Plan Unveiled
Harry Reid Says GOP Should "Stop Crying" About Reconciliation
CBSNews.com Special Report: Health Care
Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent for CBS Radio News. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.