By Jarrett Murphy,
"Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system," one president said in his inaugural, "which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity."
"And we will reduce taxes," the other president said at his swearing-in, "to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans."
The first president was Ronald Reagan. The second was George W. Bush. Two decades separated their inaugurations, but the similarities in the speeches are among several common threads of their presidencies.
Some of the similarities are superficial, like the fact that Reagan and Mr. Bush were both governors before becoming president. As Brookings Institute historian Stephen Hess notes, "You can draw parallels between any two presidents."
But in matters of style and substance, there is much common ground.
Both men carry themselves with swagger, projecting a masculinity closely tied to images of the American frontier, and reflected in tough talk like Reagan's "make my day" to tax-raisers and Mr. Bush's "bring 'em on" to Iraqi insurgents.
Both bore strong ideological agendas of supply-side tax cuts and increased defense spending, and depicted the world in stark terms like "the evil empire" and "the axis of evil." Each delegated heavily to key aides, even surrounding themselves with some the same people, like Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte, two Reagan-era veterans now serving Mr. Bush.
Both men have consistently defied critics who dismissed them as lightweights. Those critics still hector them: The ever-contrary Christopher Hitchens this week penned for Slate.com a piece titled "The Stupidity of Ronald Reagan," and opponents of Mr. Bush have been known to disparage his intelligence, too.
What's more, both presidents share more in common with one another than with the
first President Bush.
"I think that Ronald Reagan created the modern Republican Party, so obviously (the current President Bush) is a legatee of Reagan's and would be more similar than dissimilar," said Hess. "It is interesting of course that he really is closer and style and even in ideology to Reagan than to his father."
"Partly that's because of his family's own experience," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. In the 1992 election, when George H.W. Bush had to fight off a right-wing challenge from Pat Buchanan, "the Bush family learned if you get out of sorts with the conservatives in the party, pretty soon you aren't president any more.
The first President Bush brought a managerial style to office, often having to fend off criticism that he lacked, in his words, "the vision thing." His son is dubbed an ideologue, by friend and foe. The first President Bush battled "the wimp factor," while his son pilots his own plane to aircraft carriers and pumps iron.
And while Bush I evoked an air of patrician New England, his Texas-dwelling son and the Californian Reagan exude the egalitarianism of the new West: The 41st president was not known to sport cowboy hats, but both Reagan and Bush II favor Stetsons.
There are linguistic links as well. Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, sees the "evil empire" and "axis of evil" references as a sign of "the very visible attempt of Mr. Bush to use some of the same rhetoric that Ronald Reagan used so very, very effectively."
Like Reagan, "this President Bush is not particularly good at press conferences, is not highly articulate," notes Sabato. But like Reagan, he also "manages with a wink and a nod and a joke to get his point across."
"The major difference is Reagan was much better at it," Sabato said. Hess agrees: "No one would call President Bush a 'Great Communicator.'"
Of course, other differences abound. Edwards wrote this week that Reagan fought communism by aiding armed movements in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere, not by dispatching "hundreds of airplanes and tens of thousands of troops around the world" — which, of course, is what Mr. Bush has done. Edwards won't say if he was referring to Iraq.
Paul Boller, a presidential historian, said the two presidents have exhibited different approaches to putting their shared ideology into action.
"Despite Reagan's outlook he was pragmatic in many respects," Boller said. "He ended up raising taxes at one point when he saw that it seemed necessary. Then when he got to know Gorbachev and Gorbachev was changing Russia, Reagan opened up to that."
"I think Bush is more of an ideologue," Boller said. "Whatever similarities there are, I'd say Bush carries them much further."
What also separates the men, quite simply, is time. One major change in the 20 years between Reagan's landslide and Mr. Bush's much-disputed election in 2000 is the role of religion in politics.
Both presidents espoused faith and, as on taxes, used similar language. In 1985, at his second inaugural, Reagan referred to "God who is the Author of this most tender music." In 2001, Mr. Bush paid homage to "this story's author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose."
But Reagan "was less overt," Hess said. "Religion was not a template of his presidency the same way it is for President Bush."
"I think Reagan came of a generation where you did not show your faith openly," Edwards said.
Mr. Bush and Reagan are the only two recent presidents to refer to both God and taxes in their inaugural addresses.
But at least eight earlier presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt, did the same — an illustration of the historical details that underlie and differentiate all presidencies, and a sign that what joins Bush II and Reagan at present may not link them in history.
"All presidencies are known by broad strokes – that's the way of history and human memory," Sabato said. "Even the greatest presidents only get a page. Many presidents only get a paragraph."
By Jarrett Murphy
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