Newsday
March 6, 2000

Whoops!

At first glance, George W. Bush’s talk now/ apologize later strategy seems maladroit, or at least awkward, even, as some have murmured, the product of a less than stellar intellect.

For instance, long before the recent nasty bit of business–appearing at Bob Jones University despite the school’s ban on interracial dating–George W. Bush wound up in a pickle and found himself having to apologize. Running for governor of Texas in 1994, he had divulged to a Houston Post reporter that he was certain heaven was open only to those who accepted Jesus Christ. This testimony eventuated a contrite “Dear Abe” letter in 1998 to Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, which said in part: “In discussing my own personal faith as a Christian, I in no way meant to imply any disprespect or to denigrate any other religion.”

And of course there was that inconvenient matter of B.J.U.’s flagrant and arrogant anti-Catholic bias. Well, once again Presidential candidate Bush was forced to offer his Methodist mea culpa. So what’s with this guy? Does he have a tin political ear? Could he, this man who couldn’t name the leaders of India, Pakistan or Chechnya, be one of those Dan Quayle-esque Potatoe Heads?

Not at all. True, waiting until South Carolina’s delegates were safely in his pocket before sending off his apology to John Cardinal O’Connor, the spiritual leader of New York’s Catholics, was not a gesture of enormous subtlety. But delaying the apology is the sort of maneuver any fair-to-middling political tactician might suggest.

Once that danger had passed, releasing a remorseful letter (to a prelate who may have been too ill to read it, much less respond) was not a bad idea. New York State is, after all, about forty percent Catholic. True, Governor Bush might have written to any Church official, say the Most Reverend Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Providence. Rhode Island’s Catholics make up a whopping sixty-four percent of its population. Then again, New York has one hundred and one delegates up for grabs to Rhode Island’s fourteen. Tactics.

And Bush is a tactician, trained by one of the best of them, Lee Atwater, that nabob of negativism, the late political op who made furloughed murderer-rapist-kidnaper Willie Horton’s glowering black face pop up on TV screens across America and, by doing so, made Michael Dukakis history. George W. Bush was there as it happened; he had moved his family to Washington and, for eighteen months, worked hand in hand with Atwater and Roger Ailes on the strategy of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. George W’s job description also included acting as the campaign’s point man with Christian conservatives, including Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition and James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

How much of a tactician was W? The Bush family ethos held that kin didn’t put their two cents in when it came to governing. But mixing in when it came to tactics was fine and dandy. Former Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater observed last June to a Dallas Morning News reporter: “I never heard him [George W. Bush] comment on a policy or an issue the whole time he was here.” Now this isn’t to say that even in 1988 George W wasn’t bursting with ideas on matters from German reunification to price supports for soybeans. And clearly, as governor of Texas he has been involved in substantive matters like education as well as such predictable conservative favorites as tax cutting and welfare and tort reform.

But unlike John McCain, George W. Bush does not seem driven by a deep interest in anything except winning. McCain is the Republican who comes off as being principled and spirited, fighting for campaign finance reform, assailing Big Tobacco, having the courage and craziness to repudiate important party constituencies. W, the old political operative, is interested in process, not substance.

The jokes and inferences that W is a few watts short of bright are unfair. Seeing him at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Friday as he participated on a panel on breast cancer, you realized he’s smart enough. But his intellect is in the service of getting to govern, not in actually governing. So he came dressed for success with women, accessoried by a pink breast cancer awareness pin on his lapel and Elizabeth Dole at his side. Despite his assertion at the outset that he was happy to be talking policy, he offered little more than listless campaign clichés: “There’s a responsiblity in our society to support individuals and institutions that change people’s lives.” Good. He wants to see an end to breast cancer. Great. He said if elected he’d favor doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health. Swell. But show me the money. This is a candidate who is running as anti-Beltway. He wants to cut taxes and make the military feel good about itself. What we’d have then is an American pie a lot smaller than it is today–which means what breast cancer sufferers would most likely wind up getting is a lot of compassion and very little research money.

George W. Bush conveys no passion about issues, no true beliefs. All that rouses him is the fact of John McCain, a genuine opponent instead of the decrepit quartet of Keyes-Bauer-Hatch-Forbes he’d expected. In the debates, what comes across is less conviction than the furrow-browed intensity of a too-rehearsed performance by a man who would much rather be someplace else, playing politics or maybe golf.

Campaigning is an exhausting business. But George W. Bush’s complaints of depletion and homesickness in New Hampshire, going from town meeting to town meeting, were the laments of a man under duress, a man who would rather be backstage pulling strings than be on stage performing an act that doesn’t get applause.

He just wants to win. George W. Bush was able to cross from the middle of the road in New Hampshire to the far right in South Carolina and then back again in Michigan, to–abracadabra!–become an environmentalist in New York because he has no true north: His only commitment is to winning. Too bad. Although his biography pales beside McCain’s, in the very beginning of the campaign, he appeared to be awfully likeable–warmer than Bradley, looser than Gore, infinitely more of a regular guy than Hatch, Bauer, Keyes and Forbes.

Actually, as governor of Texas, Bush, the unClinton, seemed to have much of the charm and the retail political skills of the president: the smile, the schmooze, the hearty handshake. But what Clinton can do that W cannot is journey beyond himself to others. The president is the Emperor of Empathy. He is also a policy wonk, perpetually searching for solutions. All a tactician like George W. Bush is offering these days is the listless repetition of the phrases “compassionate conservative” and “real reformer” and the promise of an overly generous tax cut hardly anyone thinks is needed.

Taking a behind-the-scenes guy and putting him up front as a candidate is risky: He might be smart as hell, but nobody wants James Carville for president. George W. Bush, of course, is much smoother, but watching him–losing in New Hampshire, winning in South Carolina and Virginia, sitting up on the stage at Stony Brook–you get the sense of a man who just wants to get on to the next electoral hurdle.

McCain and Gore and Bradley appear to care about leading the country. What George W. Bush seems to care about is what will happen on that first Tuesday in November. His purpose in running the race is not to be president. It is merely to do whatever it takes in order to cross the finish line first.

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