I have been working on a theory of George Bush for about three years now. Each of my provisional conclusions has had a shelf life of about two months. After that it becomes apparent to me that I still don't have it. Too much about him is unaccounted for; too many odds and ends are still sticking out of the box; the lid won't close. The president's Gulf-policy speech in the White House pressroom on the morning of Nov. 30 constituted his latest disruption of my thinking. I found the speech not only right in content, but also sure-footed and reassuring. Hey, where did those sentiments come from? And whatever happened to Mr. Read My Hips? It's back to square one.
If you believe, as I do, that it's a cop-out simply to proclaim the existence of a different Bush every few months -- a good one, a bad one, a good one, etc. -- in the hope that no one will notice where you have been, then you have your work cut out for you. The question is: How do all these different performances relate to one another? How can they coexist? My December 1990 theory (use before 2/1/91, as they say at the supermarket) is that Bush has great respect and feeling for one part of his job and something approaching contempt for another. The first is the conduct of foreign policy, the second is the conduct of politics. In between, all murked up, is the conduct of the nation's domestic business, which all too often he subcontracts out to his more politically minded advisers, asking only that they buy him the popular approval he needs to get on with the other part of the job, the part that interests him and which he is schooled in and good at.
At best, Bush is not a word guy. The poetry never scans, and sometimes the sentences can't be parsed; when he reaches for the inspirational, you begin to worry that the final note of exaltation is going to be flat, a clinker or a kind of falling-out-of-the-second-story-window thud. But from time to time he achieves true eloquence and authority -- a capacity to move. And it seems to me this is almost invariably on the subject of international relations, almost never on the subject of domestic policy and absolutely never on politics.
Most of Bush's most infelicitous public statements have been in the political realm and generally they have had an unconvincing, inauthentic tough guy/wise guy edge to them. This has been true from his pokes at Geraldine Ferraro to his "read my hips" silliness, with stops in between for the bravado of the 1988 campaign. When Bush the patrician seeks to identify with the plebeians and speak what he takes to be their language, it sounds embarrassingly like what used to be called slumming and it is a linguistic and cultural disaster, except for the ever-alert writers of the late-night gag shows.
Likewise a certain amount of his domestic agenda seems borrowed and not quite comfortable for him, again part of a political accommodation believed to be necessary to get where he can do the work that really engrosses him. I am one of those -- it may be terminally naive of me -- who still believe that on civil rights and some of the social issues that come before him, Bush's instincts are much better than the policies he eventually espouses. This is not exactly a compliment, since it implies a pretty cynical attitude, but not, I suppose, if you regard it as the unfortunate price of conducting the foreign policy you believe is of paramount importance.
Consider the difference between the Bush who dithered all over the place during the late great deficit-reduction follies of this autumn and the man who knew what he was talking about and what he wanted and why in addressing the Gulf crisis on the 30th. The budget business clearly hurt him politically. I would argue that that was precisely because he began to swerve and dodge and trim on what he actually knew to be necessary and that he did this to appease the political gods who, as usual, repaid this kind of flip-flopping propitiation with a drop in the polls. The trouble began way back when Bush, who has always known what was voodoo economics, signed on as a practitioner for the duration of the Reagan administration and then for his own campaign. The twistings and turnings ever since have been political murder. People don't believe him. This is because he somehow conveys that he doesn't quite believe the voodoo himself.
Contrast all that with the pressroom speech of the 30th. I don't suggest it was the Gettysburg Address, but for me it was Bush at his best. He conveyed self-confidence and mastery of the material. He said the right things. He indicated that he also cared about the right things, not just the large principles or interests at stake in the Gulf, but also the terrible individual anxieties of those with kids, spouses or other family serving in the Gulf. He knew what was at stake on every level and gave the strong impression that he had worked his way through the thicket of competing claims and was prepared to take responsibility for his actions. He was, in short, presidential.
I don't think anybody -- surely not I -- is prepared to take on faith whatever Bush recommends be done in the Gulf, and no one can feel easy about the situation we have got in there. But doubts and anxieties are much greater when a president is unable to convey (because it is not there to be conveyed) that he has command of the material he is dealing with, that he knows what he is doing and believes his own arguments. People can't draw reassurance from him. For a president or any public leader will always betray his uncertainty and lack of conviction. And people will sense these weaknesses, much as animals -- the dog who is growling at your approach, the bear who has decided to visit your campsite -- are said to sense your fear.
You hear that Bush's political gurus, who are so accomplished at getting him in trouble, are now gearing up for an exploitation of the racial tensions that are so prominent, so raw these days. They have something clever planned. It works on paper. I'll bet a dime that after an early success it will blow up in their faces, for it will put Bush in his least convincing role as a ventriloquist for acquired instincts and not quite believed notions -- and all this the public ultimately discerns and rejects. The president's advisers should understand this. The Gulf statement showed him at his most plausible because he was speaking out of conviction -- his, not theirs.
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