Don't say it loud: He's pro-life but not proud.

By Salon Staff
Published April 27, 2001 6:56PM (EDT)

Word play

When the House passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act on Thursday, President Bush was very vocal in his support -- on paper. Though the president didn't open his mouth, the White House quickly released a statement backing the bill after it was approved with the support of 198 Republicans, 53 Democrats and one independent. "America's children represent our greatest hope for the future," the statement read, concluding, "this legislation affirms our commitment to a culture of life, which welcomes and protects children."

The statement, and its distanced delivery, is consistent with Bush's previous handling of the abortion issue since his inauguration -- and well before.

On January 22, his first full working day in office, Bush reimposed the Reagan era "Mexico City Policy" which banned American aid to international organizations that provide abortion services and information. At that time, Bush released a statement declaring "It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad."

That very day, Bush sent another message -- and another messenger -- to give his regards to thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators who had gathered on the Mall to commemorate the 28th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. In that case, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., read the president's statement to the crowd. "We share a great goal: to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law," his statement declared. "We know this will not come easily, or all at once. But the goal leads us onward: to build a culture of life, affirming that every person, at every stage and season of life, is created equally in God's image."

Both these instances represent wary steps toward the embrace of the anti-abortion movement that Bush seemed determined to resist during the campaign. In his first debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush insisted "I am pro-life," but dissembled when moderator Jim Lehrer asked what he would do to stop distribution of RU-486, the so-called abortion pill:

LEHRER: Governor, we'll--we--I'll--we'll go to the Supreme Court question in a moment. But make sure I understand your position on RU-486. If you're elected president, will you not throw appointments to the FDA, you won't support legislation to overturn this?

Gov. BUSH: I don't -- I don't think a president can unilaterally overturn it. I think the FDA's made its decision.

LEHRER: But that means you wouldn't throw appointments to the FDA and ask them to -- to reappraise that ...

Gov. BUSH: No. I -- think once the decision's made, it's been made, now -- unless it's proven to be unsafe to women.

Incidentally, since Bush became president, his secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, has reopened studies into the safety of RU-486.

Abortion didn't come up in the last two presidential debates. And abortion was kept off center stage at the Republican National Convention in August, where there were no floor speeches that were dedicated primarily to the abortion debate. In his nomination acceptance speech, Bush sounded a conciliatory note on abortion. "I will lead our nation toward a culture that values life -- the life of the elderly and sick, the life of the young and the life of the unborn," he said. But he then added, "Good people can disagree on this issue, but surely we can agree on ways to value life by promoting adoption, parental notification. And when Congress sends me a bill against partial-birth abortion, I will sign it into law."

Throughout the campaign, a ban on what opponents term "partial-birth abortions" was Bush's single, solid commitment to those who opposed Roe vs. Wade.

Even before his presidential aspirations asserted themselves, Bush tried to keep his distance from the anti-abortion movement. In his race with Democrat Ann Richards for the governor's seat, Bush said of abortion, "It's not an issue in the 1994 governor's race." Tucked away in some of his campaign literature was this statement: "The United States has settled the abortion issue."

It's understandable that Bush doesn't want to speak aloud about his views on abortion. For one, he didn't always carry the anti-abortion banner as a candidate. In a 1978 Republican congressional primary, Bush told a local reporter that he opposed federally funded abortions, but wouldn't support an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, something his opponent favored. "That does not mean I'm for abortion," he added. Bush lost the race.

But Bushes have a history of getting burned on abortion. Bush No. 1 was in favor of abortion rights when he ran in the 1980 presidential primary, but flipped the script when he signed on as Reagan's second fiddle. But the anti-abortion activists never forgot his 11th-hour conversion. In the 1992 presidential race, distrust of Bush by anti-abortion activists and other social conservatives was considered a major factor in his loss to Clinton.

And the new President Bush isn't about to follow in his father's footsteps on that.

-- Alicia Montgomery

Suck-up watch

Well, that media mystery is solved.

Turns out writers for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the most lock-step conservative print forum in the country, really like the way President Bush has handled his first 100 days in office.

Cable viewers who haven't picked up the paper since January now know that for a fact because last night CNBC handed over an entire hour of prime time for a round-table discussion: "Editorial Board: 'The Wall Street Journal,' Bush @ 100 Days."

That's right: no pesky Democrats or even moderate Republicans to muddy up the analysis. Journal writers and editors, including Robert Bartley, Dan Henninger, John Fund, Susan Lee and Peggy Noonan, were certain Bush was "off to a strong start," "changing Washington in a good way." They emphasized that Bush "doesn't share the whacked-out narcissism of the previous president." "He has dignity." "He has showed he's a leader." "He's reassuring to most." "He's appropriately Reaganesque." "He's taken charge of the government." First-100-days grades of B, B-plus and A-minus -- among others -- were handed out.

This went on for an hour.

Poor CNBC host Stuart Varney. Trying to elicit any real criticism of Bush was like trying to find a fan at Turner Field who'd boo John Rocker.

Not that Varney tried all that hard. Potentially troublesome topics for Bush were mostly avoided. The lead-foot economy? Clearly, it's not his fault. Why the president couldn't win over Senate Republicans for his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut? The subject never came up. When we could expect the Chinese government to return that $80 million spy plane it's still holding? Not a concern. Bush's openly pro-business agenda? Maybe that was considered redundant. Possible rolling blackouts and $2-a-gallon gas prices at the pump this summer? The talkers touched on it briefly, but only to mock the media for blaming big business.

In fact the media came under the most sustained attacks from the Journal's editorial board, mostly for being "totally unfair" to Bush.

Which just goes to show that press-bashing must be an awfully comforting crutch for conservatives -- because the knee-jerk reaction simply ignores the reality of today's media landscape.

With the success of Fox News Channel and the proudly conservative slant it puts on the news, other cable news/talk networks understand who their audience is.

After all, the Wall Street Journal special preempted the nightly "Hardball" featuring Chris Matthews, a host whose Clinton/Gore-hating shtick made him a star in the narrow universe of cable TV politics, where viewers are more often counted in the thousands, rather than the millions.

And the fact that the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which just spent eight years writing fiction about half-baked political conspiracies that never panned out (are WSJ editors still anxiously awaiting the Clinton indictments?), would be ushered onto prime time and given its own show suggests CNBC, among others, will gladly serve up whatever conservatives want to watch.

Why else would a cable outfit air such a colorless exercise in pseudo-civil discourse?

-- Eric Boehlert

This day in Bush history

On April 27, 1997, former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed confirmed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he'd "like, if the time were right and the fit were right, to play some small role" in the 2000 presidential race. That followed an earlier Newsweek story that suggested he had narrowed his choices of whom to support to former Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. John Ashcroft and Gov. George Bush. (He ultimately worked for Bush.)

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

Salon Staff

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