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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 1999/29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760


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Pop Quizzes Are for Naomi Wolf Wonks -- LAST WEEK WAS, without doubt, the worst of Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Not only is Sen. John McCain still snowing the Beltway press and gaining in New Hampshire polls—although the most recent, Newsweek’s, shows a reversal of the Senator’s gains, and puts the contest at 44-27 percent—but Bush got tripped up by Boston television game show host Andy Hiller (WHDH) with a pop quiz on foreign leaders.

Quick: Who’s Finland’s head of state? I don’t know either. I’d also like to know which brilliant Bush campaign staffer allowed the candidate to be interviewed by Hiller, known for his “gotcha” style. Whoever it was ought to be exiled to head up the Wyoming headquarters. But it wasn’t the sleazy tactic used by Hiller—Bill Bradley, given the tip-off of Bush’s goof two days earlier, refused to play the tv reporter’s game—that caused the most serious Bush stumble since the rash of baseless cocaine stories. As an isolated incident, it wouldn’t mean much, and would probably actually run to Bush’s favor, since almost no one, except maybe Al Gore, could answer Hiller’s questions. It’s just that Bush has a history of making foreign relations gaffes (can you say Grecian?).

There’s also the impression, even among the Governor’s supporters, that his Austin cabal is cocky and doesn’t understand, or project, the necessity of “earning” the nomination. That’s why the Times’ Maureen Dowd can get away with the silly and stupid jabs she took last Sunday.

Dowd wrote, referring to the Hiller interview: “The encounter was reminiscent of that famous Roger Mudd interview with an utterly inarticulate Teddy Kennedy. Men who are running largely because of their last name sometimes trip over their entitlement. The Texas governor had the cornered look of a man who has been winging it too long, and hiding behind his advisers’ skirts too long.”

This is nonsense and I suspect Dowd knows it. When Kennedy foolishly granted an interview to Mudd in the fall of 1979, as he was an all-but-announced candidate against the incumbent president of his own party, he was woefully unprepared and couldn’t answer Mudd’s key question: Why do you want to be president?

Bush’s unfortunate experience last week bore no such resemblance to Kennedy’s frequent inarticulate statements. Unlike Teddy in ’79, Bush has raised a record amount of money for his campaign; unlike Bob Dole in ’96 or his own father in ’92, he’s essentially silenced the Christian Coalition, enlisting its former chief Ralph Reed in tamping down the explosive abortion issue; he’s directly challenged his own party, which controls Congress; he’s delivered well-received speeches on education and defense; he’s traveled all over the country to overwhelming crowds who favor his candidacy; and finally, he’s enlisted the support of the GOP machine, something Kennedy never mastered with this party against the hapless Jimmy Carter.

Ultimately, I don’t think this incident will mean much, since the Governor has the uncanny ability to bounce back quickly after a mistake. After all the gas he took on missing that silly town meeting in Hanover, Bush was up in New Hampshire almost immediately, drawing huge crowds and retail politicking with the gusto that no other candidate can match this election cycle. While he defended a decision to skip the “debate” to be by his wife’s side as she received an honor at Southern Methodist University, he also told reporters, including the Times’ Frank Bruni: “[T]his is a state where you have to ask for the vote, and I’m asking, and I’ve been asking since mid-June, and I’m going to keep asking up until election time.”

He also gave another well-received education speech on Nov. 2 in New Hampshire, in which he proved he owns that issue in the Republican contest. “I want to make a case for moral education,” Bush told a Chamber of Commerce crowd. “Teaching is more than training, and learning is more than literacy. Our children must be educated in reading and writing—but also in right and wrong.”

That’s the kind of imperative that voters remember far more than the names of Third World leaders; it’s also the sentiment that Elizabeth Dole, who’ll soon endorse Bush and stump for him in New Hampshire, will ram home in that Oprah-style that might seem less automated now that she’s relieved herself of actually running for president herself.

In addition, my sources say that Steve Forbes may quit his quest for the nomination by the end of the year—relinquishing his majority share of Forbes stock was fairly sobering for his family, I’d imagine—and also cast his lot with Bush. McCain’s tobacco tax hike and “maverick” campaign finance reform stands are poison to a rigid economic conservative like Forbes (and let’s remember that the publisher only embraced this religious baloney in the last two years) and Forbes would probably like a post in Bush’s administration.

(As would McCain: until this recent groundswell, which has pumped up his ego, it was clear the Arizonan was running for secretary of defense. If he doesn’t tick off Bush too severely, I’ll bet he gets his wish.)

And as far as the American voter is concerned, foreign affairs ranks very low. In David Broder’s Washington Post article last Sunday, these were the top three concerns of Republicans and Democrats, respectively: HMOs, school violence, and sex and violence on tv; HMOs, the elderly not getting medicine and losing medical benefits.

Finally, in the believe-it-or-not category comes The New York Times’ slant on the pop quiz Bush failed, in a Nov. 6 editorial. The paper said: “Mr. Bush, whose alpha-male instincts clearly made him consider throttling the reporter, probably fared no better than most ordinary [itals mine] Americans would have... Mr. Bush...despite his poll ratings, is still a newcomer to high-level campaigning. He has time—and a clear need—to master his foreign policy briefings.”

Granted, irony is out of fashion now, but I doubt the man or woman who wrote this stupid editorial even realized the absurdity of the phrase “alpha-male instincts.” Heck, maybe it was the Times who steered Naomi Wolf to Bill Clinton and then Al Gore. I haven’t the time or inclination right now to discuss Gore’s alpha-male moments. I do wonder, however, why Wolf, a perfectly legitimate adviser for a Democratic candidate, was kept under wraps (and compensated in a circuitous manner) while Tony Coelho and Carter Eskew were shown off to the media like they were on a model runway. For a more thorough reading of Wolf and Gore—which symbolizes, I think, the failure of the Veep’s campaign—I recommend my colleague Chris Caldwell’s piece in the Nov. 15 Weekly Standard.

As far as “the John McCain Moment” that the Beltway media is nattering about, he sort of got screwed this week. Not only did he have to share Newsweek’s cover this Monday with Bill Bradley, but the shocking, and dangerous, ruling against Microsoft Friday night bumped him from Time’s cover. (At least that’s what the snipe on the top right corner with McCain’s picture would imply.) In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter gives the Senator his gooey due, writing, “Honor is almost a quaint notion now, associated with a different time. McCain gives it a charming twinkle, and the hope of living on as something more than a platitude.”

McCain’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his “honor” shtick, but Alter, if he were more fair-minded, could’ve written the same about Bush, with this substitution: “Family loyalty is almost a quaint notion now, associated with a different time.” Alter might consider that Bush’s unabashed love of his large family is one of the reasons Americans are rallying behind his candidacy.

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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©1999, Russ Smith