DAVID BRODER: House tests Bush's will; Brokaw retires

WASHINGTON – Anyone who thinks it possible to predict the course of President Bush's second term needs to think again. History says you never know what may happen next.

The last two-term Republican president was Ronald Reagan, and I well remember my astonishment when the start of his second term was marked by massive and successful protests in Washington against the administration's tolerance of apartheid in South Africa.

Anyone who knew that president's general indifference to racial issues in this country – let alone South Africa – would have said the demonstrations were futile. But the picketing of the South African embassy built on its own momentum and produced a change in U.S. policy toward that country, eventually leading to the freeing of Nelson Mandela.

Equally unexpected to anyone covering Washington today is the spectacle of Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill standing up to President Bush on the plan for overhauling the intelligence services.

What began as a rare disagreement inside the normally disciplined House Republican conference has grown into the first full-scale test of the credibility of the second-term administration.

On the Sunday talk shows, those supporting the Senate version of intelligence reform repeatedly invoked the names of President Bush and Vice President Cheney in an effort to cow the critics. One set of opponents claims that the plan would jeopardize the lives of troops in combat by denying their commanders direct control of battlefield intelligence. A second group says it is weak in its safeguards against would-be terrorists crossing the border into the United States.

Senators of both parties said it is unthinkable that the president and vice president could be so misguided as to put the lives of soldiers and the safety of the nation in jeopardy. But instead of withering, Chairmen Duncan Hunter of the House Armed Services Committee and James Sensenbrenner of the Judiciary Committee reiterated their objections, brushing aside the notion that whatever George Bush wants, George Bush should get.

Even if – as some suggest – Bush was initially lukewarm to the intelligence reorganization endorsed by the 9/11 Commission, he now has been put squarely in the middle of this fight.

And the stakes have grown larger. On one side, it has become a test of whether Bush will override the objections of the Pentagon, or allow the White House to be thwarted by the uniformed and civilian bureaucracy of that other building.

On the other hand, it has become an early – and unwanted – test of basic legislative strategy. The plan the president has endorsed and the Senate almost unanimously favors can be passed in the House by combining most Democrats' votes with those of some Republicans. But House Speaker Dennis Hastert does not want to split his own caucus, even to give Bush a victory, so the pressure is on the president to find some way to accommodate Hunter and Sensenbrenner and their allies.

Here we are, just a month beyond Election Day and with Bush's inauguration still weeks away, and already the political plot has taken a totally unexpected turn.

Be prepared for more – and bigger – surprises.

The job of a television network anchor is like nothing else in American journalism. It requires a combination of strong reporting skills, a winning personality and the kind of self-control that can cope with crises and maintain enough calm so that others on that news team can do their jobs as well.

Tom Brokaw, who winds up his career at NBC today, has all those qualities. In addition, he has the kind of innate decency and generosity of spirit the Midwest produces in its people. Despite the celebrity that TV gave him, he never has gotten a swelled head or confused himself with the Voice of Authority.

Over the years, I had the pleasure of his company on many assignments and many dinners. Print reporters are supposed to look on TV stars with a mixture of envy (for their salaries) and scorn (for their show-biz shallowness). Brokaw is much too down-to-earth to allow the first and much too knowledgeable on politics to occasion the second.

Like his predecessor, the late John Chancellor, his only visible weakness was a liking for the companionship of newspaper people. And that flaw is easy to forgive.

David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.