Fortunately for George W. Bush, the first issue of Talk magazine featured Hillary Clinton blaming her husband's glandular life on his grandmother. The resulting hilarity distracted attention from Tucker Carlson's profile of Bush in the same issue.
Carlson, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, admires Bush, but his article has dismayed some Republicans, who understand how heavily invested their party is in Bush. They are not suffering buyer's remorse, but they are unsettled by what the profile suggests about the candidate's frame of mind and judgment.
Bold type over Carlson's article says: "George W. Bush doesn't give a damn what you think of him. That may be why you'll vote for him for president." But few will think more of Bush after reading the article.
Regarding Carlson's reporting of Bush's several uses of the f-word, Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, who travels with him, says, "I don't remember those words being used." She says Bush agrees with those who say such language is inappropriate. Carlson, who says he remembers the words, quotes a Bush aide who says Bush "used to say `f -- k' a lot more before this all started."
Dwight Eisenhower could turn the air blue with barracks profanity. Ronald Reagan, too, knew the pleasures of salty language. But not in front of the children, meaning the press.
The most disquieting aspect of Carlson's report of Bush's language is not what it says about Bush's ability to dignify politics after Clinton's squalor. Rather, it is that Bush may have been showing off for Carlson, daring to be naughty. He may be proving his independence, which Carlson likes, but it is independence from standards of public taste -- not the sort of independence many voters will be seeking in a successor to Clinton.
Carlson reports asking Bush whether he met with any persons who came to Texas to protest the execution of the murderer Karla Faye Tucker. Bush said no, adding: "I watched [Larry King's] interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like `What would you say to Governor Bush?' " Carlson asked, "What was her answer?" and writes:
" `Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, `don't kill me.' "
Hughes, who says Bush's decision not to commute Tucker's sentence was "very difficult and very emotional," says Carlson's report is "a total misread" of Bush. Carlson, who describes Bush as "smirking," says: "I took it down as he said it."
Nothing remotely resembling the King-Tucker exchange that Bush describes appears in the transcript of King's hour-long Jan. 14, 1998, program. And it is difficult to imagine anything Bush said that Carlson may have "misread" that could do Bush credit.
Again, what is troubling to Republicans who have plighted their troth to this man is not that they think he is a coarse or cruel man. Rather it is that Carlson's profile suggests an atmosphere of adolescence, a lack of gravitas -- a carelessness, even a recklessness, perhaps born of things having gone a bit too easily so far.
Bush has recently referred to Greeks as "Grecians," Kosovars as "Kosovians," East Timorese as "East Timorians," conservatism as "conservativism" and confused Slovenia with Slovakia. Such slips are understandable; none is a flogging offense. However, having committed them, Bush should take care not to exacerbate the suspicion that he has a seriousness deficit. When he was asked by Carlson to name something he isn't good at, he should not have said, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something."
Bush told James Barnes of the National Journal, "I'm a decisive person" who doesn't "read treatises," and he told Carlson, "I'm not interested in process. I want the results. If the process doesn't yield the right results, change the process." All very brusque and hearty.
But process, a k a constitutionalism and the rule of law, has its charms, especially after the Clintons' depredations. And Bush should not advertise any allergy to serious things. A critical mass of lightness in a candidate causes the public mind to snap closed, with the judgment, "Not ready for prime time."
"You get the sense," Carlson writes, "that if Bush had chosen his own campaign slogan he would have printed bumper stickers that read GEORGE W. BUSH: SO SECURE, HE DOESN'T CARE WHAT YOU THINK OF HIM." But Jefferson, who knew something about declaring independence, recommended a "decent respect" for opinion.
Bush is taking a political party along on his ride. He and it will care if on Nov. 7, 2000, people think of Gore or Bradley as an unexciting but serious professor and of him as an amiable fraternity boy, but a boy.