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Jewish World Review Aug. 25, 1999/ 13 Elul, 5759


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Who Has A Glass Jaw?: Bush Weathers his First Stumble

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS I’VE WRITTEN for the past year, unless Gov. George W. Bush is eaten by a bear in the next 15 months—polar, black or brown, Mr. Mfume—he will be the next president of the United States.

There will be no coronation, most likely no electoral landslide, as the most naive of Bush’s supporters believed until last week. In fact, the convergence of multiple elements—the rapid expansion of mass media, Bill Clinton’s sordid legacy of lies, corruption and dirty tricks, and the emergence of a prohibitive Republican frontrunner—is certain to the make the 2000 presidential campaign the ugliest in modern times.

First, let’s backtrack to how Bush attained his dominant position.

Influential Republicans, humiliated and grossly outmaneuvered by Clinton in the ’92 and ’96 contests, alienating much of the country with a hard-line, anachronistic, socially conservative platform, decided to tap a candidate who could win, despite the economic prosperity of the 90s.

Bush was ideal: an extremely popular two-term governor from Texas, brother of the newly elected governor of Florida, son of a former president whose integrity, in the wake of the ongoing Clinton scandals, evoked instant nostalgia among voters. In contrast to previous GOP nominees, Bush is young, charismatic and superb at retail politicking, shaking hands with locals long after the reporters and tv crews have called it a night.

The Bush organization’s decision to postpone a formal announcement of his candidacy until the Texas legislature adjourned last May was brilliant: While the prospective candidate accepted visits from GOP officials, congressmen, policy advisers and reporters in Austin, the other contenders struggled to raise cash and media attention. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive heir to Clinton, was flailing in his own campaign, committing a Quayle-like gaffe a week and facing a surprisingly strong challenge from former Sen. Bill Bradley, the only Democrat smart enough to recognize Gore’s vulnerability. In addition, Clinton, vexed that he couldn’t run for a third term, publicly denigrated Gore in the guise of “offering advice,” while his wife went off to New York to assuage her own damaged ego, teasing Democrats with a possible run for the Senate.

Danny Hellman
When Bush finally made his campaign appearances throughout the country, the fears that he’d be wooden on the stump, diffident like Dole or his father, were allayed. Campaign contributions, from more than 74,000 individuals, couldn’t be counted fast enough; when Bush announced on June 30 that he’d raised more than $36 million in the first half of ’99 the political world was stunned. His poll numbers were, and still are, astounding, leaving his GOP challengers in single and low double digits, and showing that he’d defeat Gore handily. Perhaps more important than the overall lead, the data said that Bush was leading the Vice President among women, thus reversing the gender-gap advantage that elected Clinton two times.

The Ames, IA, straw poll proved the end of Bush’s “honeymoon” with the press. (Let’s remember the double standard the Beltway media practices in regard to the two main political parties. For example, when Bush’s finance report was revealed, the typical cries of “Campaign finance reform!” were heard from left-leaning pundits and The New York Times. No one bothered to mention that Gore had raised more than $18 million in the same time period, which would’ve been a record haul if not for Bush’s total. When the Democratic National Committee announced its intention to raise $200 million in “soft” money donations, the Times didn’t even bother to print an editorial about it.) Most of the media mocked the straw poll, claiming it was a meaningless “sham.” Yet every major news organization was in Iowa that Saturday: If it was a “sham,” then why were the results on the front pages of newspapers and why did CNN provide continuous coverage of the event?

Bush won 31 percent of the vote, which was viewed as a respectable showing but not a knockout punch. Elizabeth Dole took 14 percent, finishing behind the increasingly grotesque Steve Forbes, and was declared the “real winner” of the night. Why, I haven’t a clue. Lamar Alexander, who’d whined for the past six months about the corruption of money in this campaign, dropped out of contention and was immediately praised for his “classy exit.” What stupidity. He told Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood last week that the “rules have changed,” and quipped that in 2004 the dominance of money might result in a race “between Donald Trump and the latest Powerball winner, with Cher as the independent candidate.” The Boston Globe bemoaned Alexander’s withdrawal in an editorial that lamented a man of Alexander’s experience in government being shut out because of the “massive spending” by Bush and Forbes. “The Republican campaign is diminished,” the Globe pronounced.

Funny, if Colin Powell were running for president, I don’t think there would be one single editorialist who’d complain that the retired general has never been elected to a single office.

Then last week the Bush-bashing began in earnest when the candidate foolishly reneged on his pledge not to answer questions about his personal life. The single most important statement Bush has made this year, considering the filth in the current administration, was delivered again at a press conference in Austin last Wednesday: “Somebody floats a rumor and it causes you to ask a question, and that’s the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it. That is a game. You just fell for the trap... [T]he people of America are sick and tired of this kind of politics. And I’m not participating.”

Democrats and Republicans alike claim that Bush is “fuzzy” on the issues, disregarding his very clear record in Texas and policy statements on the military, taxes, immigration, abortion, Supreme Court nominations and government regulation. Yes, his “compassionate conservatism” is a slogan, just as “The New Frontier” and “The Great Society” were; simply words to convey an idea. Bush needs to flesh out his platform in the next several months, and I suspect he will: Before the Iowa caucuses next year, it’ll be very clear where the candidate stands on the issues.

But first he had to establish that he’d bring integrity and character back to the White House, and refusing to acquiesce to a hostile press was a good way to start. Unfortunately, he got tripped up by a clever question from a Dallas Morning News reporter and then the cocaine “question” snowballed for a couple of days. Now it’s over, as far as the public’s concerned. In fact, according to a Time/CNN poll, 84 percent of the respondents said that if Bush used cocaine in his 20s it should not disqualify him from being president. In the same poll, 58 percent said that reporters shouldn’t even be asking him the question.

Any observer close to the Bush campaign knew that a rough patch would occur; it did, and better sooner than later. Now he should just shut his trap or talk about his vision for the country.

Not that the press will let up. Politics isn’t fair, and Bush knows that as a front-running Republican candidate he’ll be the recipient of more media inquisition than a Democrat. After all, not a single person has even alleged that they’ve seen Bush snort cocaine; whether or not he did a generation ago certainly isn’t relevant to the person he is today.

Contrast the media’s handling of the coke rumors to the actual allegations made, on national television, by Juanita Broaddrick that she was raped by Bill Clinton. Barely caused a ripple in the media; The New York Times didn’t even report the story for days after The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post had covered it, and that was weeks after Broaddrick had told her story to NBC’s Lisa Myers. Clinton simply referred questions to his lawyers, they had no comment and the story disappeared.

Alan Dershowitz, friend and defender of President Clinton, had harsh words for Bush in a Times op-ed piece last Saturday. Writing that Bush, “[M]ore than any other Presidential candidate…is running a law-and-order campaign” (I think that would be news to Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer), Dershowitz says Bush’s tough stand on drugs in Texas demands that he answer unsubstantiated questions about his own drug use. “Unlike adultery,” he writes, “cocaine use is a serious crime.”

Dershowitz makes no mention of Gennifer Flowers’ allegation last week on Fox News Network’s Hannity & Colmes that Clinton boasted to her that he could procure cocaine any time he wanted. Flowers, as has been borne out by Clinton’s own testimony, is hardly a stranger to the President.

Other reporters have echoed Dershowitz’s partisanship: If Bush used coke, how can he call for the incarceration of Texans who violate that law? Fine. Both Clinton and Gore have admitted to using marijuana (Clinton even said on MTV in ’96 that he wished he had “inhaled”); do Dershowitz and others believe that the Clinton administration should pardon all people convicted of marijuana use now in prison?

Newsweek’s Aug. 30 “Conventional Wisdom” summed up the silliness of the past week. The item read: “Furious George snorts at press—and offers Clintonian snow jobs. Fess up.” This barrage of questioning must be a little odd for the media, the pack journalism that was admirably criticized by The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz on Crossfire last week, considering that a sizable percentage of the inquisitors has more than dabbled with illegal substances. As I’ve said, I don’t care if Bush did or didn’t smoke pot or snort a line in his 20s. Despite many critics who’ve called him “stupid” (Crossfire’s Bill Press and Newsday’s Robert Reno, brother of the Democratic Attorney General) and a “frat boy” who needs to grow up (George Will and, talk about ingrates, Marilyn Quayle), and an “empty head” (Martin Peretz in the Sept. 6 New Republic, mourning Gore’s difficulties, and wondering, “When will the rest of the press pay heed” to his former pupil’s virtues?), Bush is clearly a man who’s matured and left youthful excesses behind. He couldn’t have defeated the popular Gov. Ann Richards in ’94 if he had a scurrilous personal life; he couldn’t have withstood exhaustive examinations by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, which came up with nothing on cocaine, if he had something to hide.

Bush and his organization, I assume, will learn their lessons from this past week. More ugliness is on the way and they had better be prepared. Steve Forbes, who’s suddenly not as financially liquid as everyone thought, is a master of the attack ad, and he’ll spend freely in the primaries. Sen. Orrin Hatch, in a self-aggrandizing appearance on last Sunday’s Meet the Press, urged Bush to answer the coke question. “We’re making some headway in the battle against drugs,” Hatch said. “We’ve passed a number of Hatch bills that are literally starting to make a dent in it, but if we don’t have the top leaders living right and doing right and setting an example, then the kids say ‘Well they did it, why shouldn’t we?’”

Even more ominous is the certainty of the Clinton White House’s gutter strategy in the general election. (However, if Bradley defeats Gore for the nomination, who knows what disarray it’ll cause in their “War Room” slimefest plans? Not to mention who ends up as the Reform Party’s nominee.) Last Wednesday night, on MSNBC’s Internight, New York Observer columnist Joe Conason, a Clinton loyalist, engaged in a lively discussion with Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister.

Conason: Bay, how many people are in prison for cocaine possession in Texas?

Buchanan: You know, Joe...let’s not pound our chest about this kind of stuff.

Conason: No, I’m not pounding my chest. I just wonder where the justice in that would be.

Buchanan: How many people are in prison for perjury, and we have the president of the United States that you defended...

Conason: Now you want to change the subject. [Then Conason gets to the red meat.]

Conason: For example, if George W. Bush starts to be attacked on the abortion issue by candidates to his right, which is actually starting to happen already, I think it’s a legitimate question to ask him and all the other Republican candidates who are so anti-abortion, have you ever caused an abortion to be had by a girlfriend, you know, when you were young and irresponsible? And if so, how can you say that that should be illegal now, and people should potentially go to prison for that?”

Buchanan: You know, Joe, what a ridiculous argument you’re making.

Ridiculous, yes. But it’s just the start of a brutal 15 months in the democratic process. In the end, I believe Bush will persevere, emerge stronger for the experience and finally rid the White House of its current stench.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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