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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 1999/ 8 Teves, 5760


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Bush’s next challenge -- FIRST, LET’S DISPENSE with “The Smirk.” You can shoot a roll of 36 pictures of Gov. George W. Bush, as I did while watching the Arizona GOP town meeting on Dec. 6, and 20 percent of them will capture “The Smirk.”

It can be attractive or not, depending on how you’re disposed toward the Governor, but it’s not something he can control: it’s a tic. It’s more pronounced when he’s nervous, like at a debate when every challenger for the nomination is looking to trip him up; or when he’s defensive, a natural reaction to reporters asking him if he’s dumb. I sympathize with Bush: I’ve had a facial tic since I was a kid, a combo of my eyes moving and nose wrinkling and ears wiggling, usually under stressful conditions. When I was in camp as an eight-year-old my nickname was “Crazy Eyes.” I can’t imagine how I’d cope, tic-wise, with the pressure that Bush is under. But that was his choice.

Still, it’s irritating when candy-behind pundits make fun of “The Smirk,” as if it were a reason to vote for Orrin Hatch instead of Bush. In the Dec. 20 Time (a magnificent issue, by the way, with its “Columbine Tapes” investigation), Margaret Carlson shows her partisanship and lazy writing with the following sentence: “The focus on the smirk may be just one more example of that crazy thing called life, where a once endearing trait suddenly turns sour, a winning smile and blasé demeanor transmogrify overnight into a Cheshire grin and cluelessness.”

Last week, as a New York Times editorial gleefully pointed out, was Gov. Bush’s worst of his campaign. He was ganged up on in Arizona by the other candidates—which is fair, since he’s the frontrunner—abused by the media and saw a flurry of polls in New Hampshire, most of them showing him even or behind Sen. John McCain in that state’s primary. The respected pollster John Zogby even predicted the possibility of a McCain landslide there, which could conceivably alter the course of the Republican contest.

Bush took it from all sides in the press: conservatives like Robert Novak who mooed about his tax plan not being bold enough and, though not said publicly, for having the last name Bush; liberals tut-tutting that the Governor just wasn’t very smart and probably not up to the job. Bush is not “stupid.” His IQ might not match Bill Clinton’s or Richard Berke’s, but I would guess it’s in the top 10 percent of all Americans.

That’s fine. You really do have to be a smug, arrogant horse’s behind to think you’re more intelligent than the governor of Texas (and therefore “better”), but that’s the Washington press corps in action. A charming group of men and women: I’ll bet McCain feels the same way about the Arizona reporters whose calls he won’t return.

The presidential campaign is reaching its most volatile stage—by March, it’s almost certain both candidates will be decided—and both the media and candidates are in a frenzy. Tucker Carlson, an engaging journalist who works for The Weekly Standard and CNN, contradicted himself completely about Bush within the space of 24 hours last week. On Dec. 7, he wrote on CNN’s website: “But as [Bush] continues to exhibit weakness in public forums, Bush’s campaign could turn out to resemble a volatile tech stock: Once investors sense that a company has been wildly overvalued—or that Bush isn’t as capable a candidate as he was thought to be—they flee, one by one at first, then en mbehinde. A panic ensues.”

The next night, on Crossfire, Carlson said in reaction to Bill Press’
snotty complaint about the “niceness” in the GOP debates: “Well, I mean, no matter how many gloves they take off, none of them apart from Bush has a chance of being the nominee, so it’s probably pointless. I mean…your hopes of being appointed head of Amtrak are going to be dashed if you, you know, attack the frontrunner. I can see why they’re not.”

(A short digression. On the same program, Carlson and Salon reporter Jake Tapper were discussing Bill Clinton’s legacy-burnishing press conference that day. Tapper, asked by Mary Matalin whether Clinton, as a relatively young man out of office, should get a grip on his “demon,” replied with a strange answer. He said: “You know, I think if he had a normal ego, then he probably wouldn’t be the president of the United States. I mean, obviously, this guy has some issues, but that’s not really the point.

(“The point is that…the Republicans spend an entire year trying to get him. Now, I happen to agree that I think the President committed perjury. But the point is, he skated on the charge, and the Republicans had basically a loss when it came to the November election. So the question is, you know, do you move on, or do you not? And those in the Congress who decided they want to move on will be able to get something accomplished with the President.”)

But there’s no doubt the Bush campaign’s floundering right now and needs to be reenergized. The Governor should show some of the fury he directed at reporters when they first attempted to pry into his personal life last summer. He was mad that the media tried to portray him as a cokehead when no evidence was provided and no allegations were made (even though newspapers had combed through his past extensively), and his angry retorts were sincere and true. Since then, his strategy has been all about positioning and posturing: it’s a winning formula but lacks drama and engagement. Bush is a much better person than Bill Clinton and more morally serious, but he’s allowed himself to be hemmed into a formulaic campaign.

Bush has presented the groundwork for a successful administration, with excellent speeches on education, and foreign and domestic policy. Now he must show pbehindion: why he wants to be president. What would he do in his first 100 days in the White House besides fumigate it? Peggy Noonan,
a McCain supporter, I gather, wrote a smart piece in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 8 critiquing the last two GOP debates. I’ll leave her praise for McCain alone, since I don’t quite understand it, but she made an excellent point about Bush.

Noonan: “Would he stick with the right but boring or unfashionable thing; would he stand firm if all the polls were going one way but he was certain the county had to go another? Would he dedicate himself to the hard, slow work of changing public opinion? Would he lead and take the knocks and allow himself to be thought less of by the various elites? Or does he deep down want to be friends with them, play tennis with them, be approvingly called a ‘moderate’ by them even when ‘moderate’ is not at the moment what is needed?”

If you judged Bush by his lackluster performances in the two debates he’s participated in (I’m writing before the third tonight in Iowa) I’d ask those questions, too. But, following Bush these past 18 months, I think he’s made it clear that he’s played enough tennis until retirement and that he’s a legitimate Reagan conservative, more so than his father or John McCain.

Finally, if I were advising Bush, I’d get him on the attack with hard questions for his rivals. Say, “Sen. McCain, you’ve worked hard to pbehind legislation against the big tobacco companies. Why haven’t you done the same with the alcohol industry, which peddles a drug, like tobacco, that ruins the lives of countless Americans each year?” Or: “Sen. McCain, the centerpiece of your presidential platform is campaign finance reform. Why? Why would you abridge the First Amendment rights of Americans to participate in our democratic process?”

McCain would answer with rote remarks, but he’d be rattled, and then the media would have someone new to pick on.

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

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©1999, Russ Smith