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Suffering For George W.

The candidate's disarming insouciance masks his preference for a trusted few

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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 A few things had changed since I last saw Bush: boxy jackets had been replaced by tailored ones, the thread count of his shirts had gone up, the tie was Ferragamo.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.


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Cover Date: July 31, 2000

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