Was George Bush mortified when a long-armed microphone picked up a loutish remark he made the morning after his debate with Geraldine A. Ferraro? Not so you'd notice it.
Maybe it was the sea air at the Elizabeth, N.J., docks, or the sight of so many tattoos, scars and missing front teeth among the longshoremen, that went to his head and made him forget all he had learned at his mother's knee and prep school about how to speak of an opponent, or any woman for that matter.
The vice president arrived in his best dark funeral suit on the deck of the tugboat Jane McAllister, surrounded by union officials. On the short voyage to the scene, with pool reporters, he had been the soul of diffidence. He didn't want to talk about the debate -- "I gave it my best shot, and we'll let the people decide . . . . I want to say something nice about it."
He was introduced by International Longshoremen's Association President Teddy Gleason, presented with a pair of boxing gloves and embraced by two former heavyweight champs, Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier.
Bush was still being humble about the debate: "Phew," he said, "I am glad that thing is over."
He effusively hailed the audience, which was attending on company time, as "America's A-Team for peace."
Then he stepped down from the flag-draped platform for a little mingling with the masses and showed that underneath the Ivy League veneer, in the bosom of Ronald Reagan's happy slave, beats the heart of a secret male chauvinist -- the kind that cusses the television and glares at his wife when Ferraro, even under wraps as she was in the debate, appears on the home screen.
"We tried to kick a little ass last night," he confided to the ILA official walking with him.
The remark was caught by a boom microphone from New York's WNEW-TV, and the son of Andover and Yale seemed aghast. "Whoops!" he exclaimed. "Oh God, he heard me!"
An alert member of the pool got the verbatim account, and on the trip south to Alabama, the press plane reverberated with raucous laughter at the thought of genteel George Bush being confronted with his oafish swagger.
But when he faced them in Birmingham, he was standing tall. He had not committed a breach of chivalry. He had struck a blow for the Gipper -- and himself. "Where's the wimp?" he seemed to be asking.
Had he said he had "kicked a little ass last night"? No, he said, correctly, he had not. On the other hand, he coyly declared that he did not want to repeat his line in public. Somehow, he seemed to be charging his questioners with lacking that sweaty male spirit that had made him, however fleetingly, one of the guys.
He had no fear, of course, that virile verbiage directed at Ferraro would get him in trouble with the family-oriented, but macho, White House. He understands and shares the continuing frustration felt by the president's handlers in coping with a woman on the opposing ticket. He knows the polls show that while women are thrilled by the phenomenon, men in general regard Ferraro as an uppity chick badly in need of being put in her place.
Spot polls after the debate showed that men much preferred Bush. Actually, it was a disputed decision. Ferraro had been so trained out of potential stridency that she looked down like a timid schoolgirl taking her orals, and so "brutalized" against brassiness that she was dull. She was also vague on foreign policy. Bush overdid his Reaganesque raptures and was downright silly in some of his asides: "I gotta be careful here," he said, displaying his bizarre habit of talking to himself in public.
But he wasn't sorry about anything.
"An old Texas football expression . . . . Anyone who is involved in Texas athletics knows what I said . . . a way of expressing victory, and she would understand."
He said, in a sly escalation of the raciness of it all: "I stand behind it."
Amid the semantic din -- many shouting at once and Bush saying, "That's the way I talk, that's the way my kids talk" -- Peter Teeley, his press secretary, who last week called Ferraro "bitchy," stood up to intervene.
Bush, the cool crisis manager, waved him away, saying, "I can handle this."
Then somebody put a question that no crisis manager -- or longshoreman feeling his oats -- ever faces. "Will your mother be upset?"
Yes," Bush sighed. "She'll be disappointed in her son."
But the vulgar crowing was no accident. When John Sasso, Ferraro's campaign manager, objected, Teeley said snidely: "Sasso probably never played sports."
George Bush has been born-again as the anti-sissy candidate.