Jewish World ReviewDec. 1, 1999 / 22 Kislev, 5760
Not Ready for Prime Time?
"WOWWEE, CHICKADEE-DEE. He did a television interview!" That was the
Clinton berserker James Carville, expressing the degree to which he had
been not impressed that George W. Bush had not imploded into a
stuttering ball of confusion under questioning by Tim Russert on the Nov.
21 show "Meet the Press." Corporal Cue Ball Carville, as he calls himself,
is not known for excessive fairness toward the enemies of his masters. But
this time his assessment was not unreasonable.
Tomorrow night, in Manchester, N.H., Bush will partake of his first debate
of the Republican primary season. He faces two more debates in the
following 10 days. These encounters come at a time when Bush appears
seriously vulnerable to a New Hampshire defeat at the hands of John
McCain. The steadily encroaching McCain was two points up on Bush in a
Time/CNN poll of 504 likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters
conducted Nov. 19-23.
If Bush cannot perform better in the debates than he did on "Meet the
Press," he is in peril. Bush's performance in his first major television
quizzing received generally, if mildly, positive reviews. But as Carville
notes, this is only because Bush had lowered the bar of expectation to the
point where delusions of adequacy become confused with demonstrations
When a candidate is obliged to give specific answers to specific questions
of substance, a sure sign of weakness may be found in the number of times
he retreats into the boilerplate of a prepared speech.
Two days before his "Meet the Press" performance, Bush had delivered
his first foreign policy address, in the supremely safe confines of the Ronald
Reagan Presidential Library. It was a perfectly fine speech: substantive,
tough-minded but not too much so, right on the big issues and also the little
details. Lots of little details: Bush in the scripted form was a lode of
knowledge. He quoted George Washington; Alexander Hamilton; Edmund
Burke; Dean Rusk; Ronald Reagan; Alexander Solzhenitzyn; and Pericles,
by God. He dropped the names of Sharansky, Havel, Walesa, Mandela,
Lugar, Nunn, the Pearl River Delta, the 38th Parallel and START II.
Questioned by Russert on matters of foreign policy, Bush retreated to this
speech seven times. Russert prompted Bush to this position several of
those times. But Bush clearly would have gone there without the nudge: He
clutched at the remembered text of someone else's words as if it were a
lifesaver, and he was frequently at a loss whenever he could not instantly
bring it to hand.
In his speech, Bush made seemingly knowledgeable mention of nuclear
arms reduction treaties, including START II. But when Russert asked Bush
what number of nuclear weapons he would consider acceptable for the
United States and for Russia, Bush could only reply: "That's going to
depend upon generals helping me make that decision, Tim." When Russert
slipped in a sly follow-up, "What would START II bring us down to?"
Bush said, "I can't remember the exact number." When Russert asked
whether a President Bush would begin negotiating a START III treaty
before the Russians ratified START II, the best that Bush could do was: "I
would consider that, but again, I'm a man of priorities." When Russert
asked if Bush had any views on Russian President Yeltsin's chosen
successor, Prime Minister Putin, Bush responded "I really don't. I will if I'm
the president." When Russert asked if a President Bush would be willing to
sign a START III treaty that would limit the United States to 1,000 nuclear
weapons, Bush riposted, "That depends upon my advisers and the people
who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than I do." No kidding.
There is more to a presidency than foreign policy, and it is only fair to
assume that Bush, as a governor, would fare better with questions on the
domestic side. He did, but not by much. He barely got through a few basic
follow-up questions on Social Security. He ducked entirely a question on
the specific amounts he might spend on defense, Medicare and Social
Security. He flunked an easy political question on whether he would take a
meeting with gay Republicans (the compassionate conservative answer is
yes; Bush's was "probably not"); and he appeared confused ("you're
asking me something I don't know all the details about") when questioned
about a major federal minority set-aside program.
A few weeks ago, Bush was made the fool by a trick interviewer's pop
foreign policy quiz. That was a sandbag job and no test of anything. But
the "Meet the Press" interview was seen long coming. Bush had plenty of
time to prepare, and the questions weren't unfair tests of knowledge in a
man who would be president. And this is the best he can
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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