Suffering For George W.
The candidate's disarming insouciance masks his preference for a
You haven't suffered enough." that's what George W. Bush said
when I asked what it would take to earn one of his famous
nicknames as we chatted in his chartered plane. He has given them
to reporters who have been faithfully covering his campaign:
"Dulce" is CNN's Candy Crowley; "Stretch" belongs to the very
tall David Gregory of NBC. Unlike them, Bush said, "you're one of
those bigfoots who drop in for a day and then get to spend the
night in your own bed."
Actually, I wasn't that lucky. I spent the night at the Newark
Airport Hilton, sticking around until I could get an
up-close-and-personal look at the candidate.
The up-close part was working out: Bush was leaning on the seat
in front of me. But the personal part was another story. A few
things had changed since I last saw Bush: boxy jackets had been
replaced by tailored ones, the thread count of his shirts had
gone up, the tie was Ferragamo. He was still charming the crowd.
First there's the playful insult: yes, you're a bottom-dwelling
pundit and not a beat reporter, but he lightens that by knowing
who you are and kidding around about it. He admits he's a regular
guy who likes to get his sleep, unlike those macho types boasting
how they get by on four hours a night. Disarmingly, he once
allowed as how he missed his bed, his feather pillow (he carries
one with him), his dog Spot and his cat Ernie. For all his jokes
about suffering, he campaigns at what must be the most leisurely
pace since Eisenhower. Two events a day is not uncommon. On July
13 Bush left Austin, Texas, at 8:30 a.m., gave a half-hour speech
to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pittsburgh, Pa., attended a
dinner at 6:30 p.m. in East Brunswick, N.J., and called it a
night at 8:20. The next day began with a 7 a.m. breakfast, an
hourlong visit to a child-care center at 10 a.m. and a 20-min.
lunch speech to the Conservative Party in Manhattan, after which
he took off for home at 3 p.m. Let the weekend begin!
This easygoing, good-guy manner is not a secondary personality
characteristic. It's the essence of who Bush is and what he
expects others to be. He's asking voters to buy him more than any
agenda. A "uniter, not a divider," he crows over his warm working
relationships with Democrats in the Texas legislature. He keeps
his distance from congressional Republicans because they're all
so nasty and partisan up there in Washington, and he vows to
bring civility to the place. His Big Tent will be the biggest
ever. Why should a little disagreement over abortion make us all
tense and angry with one another? The ideology-lite candidate,
Bush was able to change from compassionate conservative to Bob
Jones conservative and back again inside six weeks with near
impunity, while Al Gore was ripped apart for changing the color
of his clothes.
Bush is so proud of his can't-we-all-get-along politics that when
ABC's George Stephanopoulos gets on the plane in New York City,
he needles him for helping defeat his father but thanks him for
driving him to jogging in order to wash the bitterness over the
loss out of his system. "Getting over any grudge," he says, "was
important because voters can tell if you want the job for the
wrong reason. They can tell if you're dark and brooding, or if
you're optimistic and happy."
After three days of happiness, I had learned enough about Bush to
predict, midday on July 21 (on tape at CNN), that he would pick
Cheney as his running mate. Not only did Cheney have the good-guy
characteristics prized from Kennebunkport to Austin; he was also
the only person on the list to get quality time with Bush, to
become a good guy in his eyes. While the others were busy
submitting to psychological strip searches (tell me the worst
thing about yourself) and submitting personal data for Cheney to
interpret (Gov'ner, I wouldn't worry too much about Congressman
Bloathead's painkiller problem), the vetter was with Bush at the
ranch popping nonalcoholic beverages and rustling up grub.
Cheney's degree of access was rare. Bush is known for having a
minute inner circle--three aides, a handful of friends. For all
his outer amiability, Bush is something of a hermit, "not very
sociable," by his own account. He's seldom out and about evenings
in Austin, likes to fall asleep watching sports stretched out on
the sofa and has no qualms about leaving a roomful of hands
unshaken in favor of downtime. His weekend getaway is 1,600 acres
of dusty, dry prairie in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do
but chop wood and drive a pickup around to visit the heifers. The
nearest outposts of civilization are the remains of the Branch
Davidian compound in Waco and the Dr Pepper museum. The closest
hotel for the press, computer unfriendly with spotty room
service, is 40 miles away. Talk about your suffering.
Once Cheney was Bush's choice, there was no one to vet the
vetter. Even if there had been, the bond had grown so strong Bush
would not have wanted to see that Cheney's record lacks the
compassion Bush spent a year trying to cement to the word
conservative. Like the mild-mannered, nice guy he is, Cheney
smiled when he voted against calling for Nelson Mandela's release
from prison and in favor of cop-killer bullets, against $1
billion for Head Start but for a $870 billion tax cut. Until his
record was parsed this week, a lot of people vaguely remembered
him as a moderate.
For months Bush put so much emphasis on finding "someone who
likes me" that he sounded like Sally Field. He's found that
someone. Now the country must decide if it likes the two of them
as much as they like each other.