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How Bush should tackle his first 100 days

There is nothing magical about a new president's first 100 days in office, but for George W. Bush it will be a time of extraordinary testing and challenge.

As Lyndon Johnson once said: "You've got to give it all you can that first year. You've got just one year when they treat you right." Mr. Johnson shouldn't have had to worry. He won 61 percent of the vote against Barry Goldwater, and went on to achieve what chroniclers of the presidency generally consider to be one of the most-successful legislative records during his first six months in office.

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By contrast, Mr. Bush has a hair's-breadth mandate to rule, none of the congressional experience of Johnson, not much expertise in foreign affairs, and, until his campaign for the presidency, little exposure as a national leader.

He does, however, have a reputation in Texas for getting Republicans and Democrats to work together. His personal values are in pleasing contrast to those of the president he is succeeding. In the presidential campaign, he seemed to project a persona of sunny integrity. And with his first cabinet selection of Colin Powell, he has begun astutely building a team that will help plug his own areas of lesser knowledge.

As philosopher George Santayana grimly warned: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

For a quick lesson on the mistakes and successes of his presidential predecessors in their first 100 days, President-elect Bush would do well to thumb through an assessment by a blue-ribbon bunch of presidential scholars in a book called "Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: 76 Case Studies in Presidential Leadership," just published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington.

David Abshire, the center's president, says "a bit of modesty and indeed awe is salutary for any president-elect." The scholars go on to emphasize good staff selection, reaching out to Congress, intelligent priority-setting in the initial months, openness with press and public, and trust as the "coin of the realm."

The scholars seem to rate Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, and Ronald Reagan as achieving the best "first 100 days" performance of the modern presidency. Plain-spoken Harry Truman gets high marks for building a cabinet of exceptional talent "with his character as the unifier."

Mr. Abshire pays tribute to such presidents as George Washington and Mr. Truman, "who were comfortable with themselves ..., harbored no inner demons and no jealousies or fears of being overshadowed," and thus were great institution builders.

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In the view of Texas A&M professor George C. Edwards III, Johnson knew "his personal leadership could not sustain congressional support for his policies" after the assassination of President Kennedy. Even after his own landslide victory, he felt it "might be more of a loophole than a mandate." So he moved fast because he "knew the honeymoon wouldn't last."

Mr. Reagan realized that his administration had to "concentrate its focus and move quickly before the environment became less favorable."

John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter are perceived as being slower off the mark. Mr. Nixon feared "the press, the Congress, and the federal bureaucracy were strongly against him." Mr. Carter's White House staff was "loosely organized and lacked coordination and discipline."

The Clinton team gets poor marks from University of Wisconsin emeritus professor Charles O. Jones. Hobbled by a 43 percent win and reduced majorities in Congress, Bill Clinton muffed his priorities and was unable to implement an overly optimistic timetable.

But perhaps the most cheering prospect for President-elect Bush comes from Harvard's Richard E. Neustadt: "In the first weeks after an inaugural, most Americans wish their new president well and want him to succeed. Partisanship is relatively low.... The Congressional instinct is to repress most overt signs of rampant competition until that public mood is seen to fade."

Best wishes, Mr. President.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society