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The Heart-Full Dodger

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, July 4, 2001; Page A19

More than one observer of George W. Bush's developing political style has noticed his striking use of rhetoric that touches on matters of heart and soul. National Review Editor Rich Lowry, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post [Outlook], was only the latest to remark on the 43rd president's "essentially Clintonian" tendency to drag into various policy debates his assessments of others' good natures -- or his own.

The president's most recent and controversial excursion into the touchy-feely sciences was his confident inventory of Russian President Vladimir Putin's character. "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," the president reported, to the alarm of his conservative mates. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Pundits offer various reasonable explanations for Bush's reliance on the language of feeling and spirituality: On a political level, he is said to be trying to soften his party's sometimes flinty public image; on a personal level, he is speaking as a deeply religious man, in a vernacular that borrows from both his church and his victory over alcohol, and as someone whose own strength lies in one-on-one charm and persuasion.

And all of these explanations seem to hold some partial truth. But the Putin episode -- because it finally brought his dewy philosophy to a subject where its application seemed so wildly inappropriate -- opens the door to a further explanation: Isn't it possible that Bush's resort to protestations of feeling is also a form of camouflage, a way of ducking intimidating questions?

This is a bit of stonewalling wisdom known to C students since time immemorial: When a tough question presents itself, there are few more effective ways to evade it than to answer a different question entirely. And in an age whose politics are steeped in bathos, in the importance of the personal, there is no more socially acceptable form of evasion than a display of manly vulnerability. What Bush's supporters like to see as the terse, Gary Cooper-esque sentiments of a plain-spoken man may in fact be the terse, Eddie Haskell-ish evasions of an unreflective one.

Think back: Bush's talk of the heart does tend to crop up in moments that put him on the spot. Asked in a Republican primary debate what philosopher had influenced him most, Bush replied, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Full stop. And while this answer kicked off a furious debate over whether this was an inappropriate injection of religion into the campaign, it did get him past the perilous topic of whether he had read anything in his life that had stuck to him.

In last fall's debates with Vice President Al Gore, Bush constantly fell back on assurances of his own good intentions and purity of motive. When Gore attacked his record, as governor of Texas, in providing health insurance for women and children, Bush protested, "You can quote all the numbers you want, but I'm telling you, we care about our people in Texas. . . . If he's trying to allege that I'm a hardhearted person and I don't care about children, he's absolutely wrong." Here, again, was the invitation to admire his heart in lieu of examining his head.

In a long interview with Peggy Noonan after his encounter with Putin, Bush recounted his meeting with the Russian president: He had told Putin, he said, that "It's negative to think about blowing each other up. That's not a positive thought. That's a Cold War thought. That's a thought when people were enemies with each other." This level of geopolitical analysis seems to point to the possibility that Bush's soul-talk, in his joint news conference with Putin, was designed to steer him past the more challenging shoals of discussing bilateral diplomacy.

Conservatives love to decry the mushy, "values-oriented," standards-free educational habits that the '60s supposedly loosed upon the land. So it is a delicious irony that they have elected a president who is so inclined to fall back on the marshy counsels of emotion. In so many other ways -- his scorn for the protesters who surrounded him at Yale, his coat-and-tie-in-the-Oval-Office ethos of respect -- Bush is a man consciously at odds with his own generation.

But in this one way, in his easy claims for the primacy of the heart, he is the genial boomer personified, ever ready to flash a feeling in place of a fact.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company