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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2001 /18 Teves, 5762

Chris Matthews

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The differences between the Bushes -- GEORGE W. BUSH stood with his wife Laura before the giant snow-flaked Christmas tree. The hours passed as one couple after another took their places: man to the First Lady's left, woman to the President's right.

The man himself was in good humor, enduring the tedium, enjoying the endless column of faces made friendly for the holidays.

"Santa Fe!" he said when it came our turn. "Albuquerque," he corrected himself. That was the New Mexico locale of our long one-on-one interview back when he was a mere White House wannabe. His father could do this too: remember on the spot the details, venues and conversation points of past meetings. Like 43, 41 could tune in on that odd connection unique to just he and the other fellow as if it were a confidence uttered in some long-ago locker room.

Once the senior George noted that my father's political views were different from my own, a topic I had introduced months earlier. I was charmed by the fact that he, for whatever reason, still found the father-son discrepancy remarkable.

We can now see, of course, how the two Presidents Bush are unlike each other. George W. can lead with greater authority. It's not because he knows more than his father, or knows more people. The first Bush was immensely well-prepared for the office in both regards.

But the son enjoys a peculiar body of knowledge that was cruelly beyond his father's reach. George W., this warrior president, knows us.

Recall, if you can, that third, decisive debate with Al Gore. All the media, especially those based in New York, gave the victory to Gore. So did the people surveyed in the Gallup Poll that night. Gore, they said, won on points.

What the polls also showed, however, is that people "liked" Bush more, indeed, by 2 to 1. Also, that they "trusted" him more. Not only were they more comfortable with him, but, in other words, they found him more authentic.

The credit Bush has gained in office is testimony not to some great change on his part, but rather to the lack of one. What we saw last year is what we've gotten this year.

Bush seemed to relish the notion of emptying the Texas death row with calm efficiency. He has shown the same focus in tracking down bin Laden, dead or alive. Bush is also still the guy from outside the Washington beltway. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, he was criticized brutally for spending too much time at Camp David and the Crawford ranch. Post-Sept. 11, he has been at his best standing with the firefighters at the World Trade Center rubble and pitching that strike at Yankee stadium.

The man we elected because he didn't seem like a "suit" has been his most inspiring wearing either an accustomed rancher's outfit or an FDNY jacket.

Say this about George W. If you were to select an American commander-in-chief out of the New York phone book -- or out of any other directory in this country, for that matter -- he or she would be doing exactly what George W. is doing: trying to get his hands on the people who did what they did Sept. 11.

Bush is immensely popular today for the basic reason that he is doing, and knows he is doing, what any one of us would be doing in his place.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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