"Who Is George W. Bush?"
The media are about to deliver the answer to that question, posed on the cover of Texas Monthly and percolating through every newsroom in Western civilization. As the Texas governor hits the presidential campaign trail next weekend, journalists are attempting to fill in the blanks of a candidate about whom most Americans know relatively little.
The portrait that emerges in the next few weeks could define W., as he is called, well into the campaign in which he has been such a powerful but largely offstage presence. (The country also will be learning more about the George Bush who made it to the White House, whom we'll hear from in just a moment.)
The governor's problem, like Gov. Bill Clinton's in 1992, is that the great hunt is on for negative material--and that the scrutiny is coming so early in the game. But such baggage comes with being, as the Weekly Standard's cover put it, "The Anointed One."
"I'd be very concerned if I were them about getting this launch right," said GOP consultant Mike Murphy. "They have to do the filling of empty heads so he can get his back story out there of who he is, rather than have it be told by the expectation-crazed national press corps."
Already the New York Times and American Spectator have cast a harsh light on Bush's business dealings (as an oilman and Texas Rangers owner), while a front-page Wall Street Journal piece recycled--and knocked down--some of the drinking-and-drugs rumors from his younger days.
Indeed, Bush himself asked a Texas Monthly writer, "What about the rumors?" and ticked off five or six salacious ones, including that "I bought cocaine at my dad's inauguration." As for the rumor of a revealing saloon photo of him, Bush did not equivocate: "I'm too modest to have danced on a bar naked."
Bush fares pretty well in the 33-page Texas Monthly spread, which pronounces him a "fairly normal" guy who hates meetings, runs three to five miles a day, plays video golf and is no policy wonk. "He lived it up for a while--but maybe not as much as we think," says one headline.
"I didn't think there was much to find, and we didn't find much," said Monthly Editor Gregory Curtis. But, he said, "there is pressure on the correspondents who cover Bush to find things on him."
The magazine's questions are certain to be amplified by the coming flood of profiles: Did Bush get business breaks because of his famous last name? Did family connections smooth his admission to Yale? Did he receive special help to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War? The inquisition has begun. Inevitably the candidate will remind many people of his father--who, as it happens, is publishing a book this fall revealing his private letters over half a century.
"I was never good talking about how I felt personally about family or about my faith, so sharing these letters seemed a good way for me to explain better my heartbeat," the former president said by fax in response to questions. "Also, as you know, I did not exactly have a reputation as a great orator. I was the guy the media used to say English was my second language. But for some reason in the frank, personal letters I would write. . . . I was very comfortable talking about how I felt about things, the good and the bad."
The painstakingly collected letters in "All the Best, George Bush" include one he wrote to his parents after his plane was shot down in World War II, wondering whether he could have done more to save his crew. There is an emotional letter grieving over the death of his 4-year-old daughter from leukemia. There is a letter to George W. and his other kids, expressing his anger and disappointment just before Richard Nixon resigned.
In similar fashion, Bush wrote a soul-baring letter to his kids on New Year's Eve 1990 as he prepared for the imminent Persian Gulf War.
More conventionally, the book includes letters to such heads of state as Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, and one to Saddam Hussein before the war (which then-Secretary of State James Baker hand-delivered, but which Saddam's man left lying on the table). Intriguingly, the book also includes some of Bush's diary entries and present-day commentary.
Bush decided it wouldn't be prudent to write a memoir, in part because his wife, Barbara, has already published one. "Several friends kept pointing out to me that what was missing was a book giving a deeper insight into what my own heartbeat is, what my values are, and what has motivated me in life. . . . Although I was a public figure, I really was a private person. Some of the letters are very frank, both on the humor side and the emotional, and I did stop and think more than once while working on the book, 'Should we include this?' "
Bush promised an "inside look" at "Watergate, Desert Storm, the 1992 election [and] when our sons George and Jeb were elected governors of their states." Said Lisa Drew, Bush's editor at Scribner's: "It's going to be unique because nobody writes letters anymore."
Freelance writer Cathy Young recently had an unpleasant encounter with John Podhoretz, the New York Post's editorial page editor.
Young, who has written for several newspapers, including The Washington Post, did a piece for Podhoretz last year and has pitched a couple of others. But it seems he was not a fan of her recently published book, in which she sharply criticized Podhoretz's father.
In "Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality," Young took issue with a 1986 article by Norman Podhoretz: "It's unconscionable for a leading conservative intellectual like Norman Podhoretz to vilify fathers who take on a 'mothering' role by equating them with men who desert their children."
After she appeared with John Podhoretz on Judith Regan's Fox TV show late last month, Young says he declared her criticism of his father to be "really disgusting." When Young stood her ground, he added: "Well, fine, you can forget about submitting anything to the Post again."
Podhoretz said Young's use of the word "unconscionable" was "an extremely harsh thing to say. There are plenty of people I publish in my pages who have said nasty stuff about my father, and about me." He says he would have had a similar reaction toward such criticism of "someone else I looked at as an intellectual giant.
"I'm a human being. I can't simply say, 'Sure, say whatever you want about my parents.' . . . Access to the op-ed pages of the New York Post is not protected by the 14th Amendment."
Said Young: "There really was something bizarre about this. I think it's pretty outrageous."
The Bright Side
At an alternative newspaper conference last weekend in Memphis, Michael Henningsen, senior editor of Albuquerque's Weekly Alibi, was robbed, carjacked and thrown in the trunk of his rental car by two gunmen.
Still, he told the Associated Press: "Memphis is pretty, and I had great food while I've been here. Aside from the incident Friday, I had a good time."