The Courage of Restraint
By Hugh Sidey
(TIME, August 14, 1989) -- He cut short a cross-country speaking tour in Chicago, grunting to his staff, "I just know it is the right thing to do," and hurried home to Washington to confront his first hostage crisis as President. He jumped off his helicopter Marine One onto the South Lawn of the White House. Walking in the fetid summer air toward the Oval Office, he kicked an acorn lying on the drive, a small sign of George Bush's frustration at finding himself caught in the terrorist web that humiliated his predecessors. That was about his only display of raw anger.
He was facing the classic problem of men at the top: whether to heed the heart or the head. So far, he has taken the cerebral approach. That has pleased many leaders, who have praised the President for "the courage of restraint." But at home Bush heard Pennsylvania's Republican Senator Arlen Specter call the U.S. response "pitiful."
Our measure of a leader's courage, which in the end can raise a President to greatness or terminate his political life, is far more complicated than it used to be. "Most of the Presidents we eulogize are those who acted dramatically in crisis," said Roger Porter last week. Porter is a Harvard scholar on the presidency, on loan as the President's economic-and-domestic-policy adviser, thus being granted a rare chance to witness the chemistry of leadership. "We have tended to equate success and action. We sometimes confuse action with accomplishment. A President is instantly under enormous pressure to 'do something.' It is vitally important for him to have his emotions under control."
Bush's approach is certainly not rooted in scholarship but in a remarkable range of close-in experience with dozens of terrorist acts over the past two decades. Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, between lengthy jousting with the alerted journalists, recalled being with Vice President Bush in Paris in 1985, when the TWA Flight 847 hostages were being driven from Lebanon to Syria to be released. "Now, Marlin," said Bush in a cool and level voice, "tell me once again why I should appear on Face the Nation just at this moment. And remember, if that caravan turns and goes back to Beirut, your career is finished." Bush was restrained and cautious on TV. The vehicles, after a heart-stopping pause, came through.
The President deliberately held his crisis meetings in the Cabinet Room, not the Situation Room, known for its combat decisions. "Remember, Jim Baker and Admiral Crowe and I have sat through a lot of these situations in the past years," Bush told the others around the table. He kept to his schedule, including an outdoor barbecue for members of Congress and their spouses. He best defined his approach when the congressional leaders flanked him one evening. "We are not going to heighten anticipation about what the United States response may be," he said. "Rather, we want to take a prudent approach."
Whether deliberate or not, Bush seems to have developed a new pattern of reaction for these events. His calls to a dozen heads of state and his orders to ambassadors and military commanders set in motion literally hundreds of probes and pressures to pinch off the terrorist acts, perhaps the most comprehensive network ever stitched together so quickly and so quietly. That is much harder work than going to war, and the returns are not yet in. The use of force may still be the only effective answer. Bush's exercise of power is another experiment in the new world that he inherited and that continues to evolve before our eyes.
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