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Kenneth Duberstein: What Bush Needs to do to Save His Presidency

IN the depths of the Iran-contra fallout in early 1987, President Ronald Reagan was at 37 percent approval in some polls, lower than President Bush is today. Many viewed him as not just a lame duck but a dead duck. Pundits and politicians predicted that the country would drift aimlessly for the last two years of his term. The Soviet Union would become more adventurous abroad. And a Democrat would next win the presidency.

Obviously, none of those things happened. And if George W. Bush is going to change his presidential momentum, he might take a few lessons from the Reagan playbook.

First, every second term needs new blood. Reagan's initial move was to change his inner circle: he dismissed old hands like Donald Regan, John Poindexter and Oliver North, and brought former Senator Howard Baker as chief of staff, me as his deputy, Frank Carlucci as national security adviser, and a little-known general, Colin Powell, as Mr. Carlucci's second in command. Not only were we experienced managers and not tainted by Iran-contra, but Senator Baker gave the operation an instant dose of integrity: it was he, as a Republican legislator during Watergate, who demanded, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Together, we made an important structural change, ending the historical antagonism between the National Security Council, which wants the president's ear, and the White House staff, which wants to control all information going into the Oval Office. We decided to reach agreement among ourselves on policies before we presented them to the president.

Stopping the infighting was vital to the success of our biggest issue: the summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987 and June 1988. The national security team made clear to Senator Baker and me what they felt was necessary in terms of international affairs, while we impressed on them that foreign policy always has domestic and political ramifications as well. The result was a treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles that improved security and played well with the American public.

We felt it was vital that the public see the administration as being politically effective. Some steps were symbolic: we made sure that whenever there was good economic news to report, the president always did it himself, whether it was a few lines added to a speech or an informal drop-by with the White House press corps.

More significantly, we had to find some victories on Capitol Hill, even if it meant rethinking past policies. For example, until 1987 the White House had opposed a bill to pay some reparations for the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. We revisited the issue, and Reagan became convinced that not only was the bill a decent thing to do, but money for it could be found in existing budgets and that it would be passed overwhelmingly in Congress. ...
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