MANNCHESTER, N.H.–Teflon is back. The Republican candidate who appears to have inherited this invisible armor from Ronald Reagan is George W. Bush, who finally entered the fray tonight in a Republican Presidential Forum sponsored by WMUR and Fox television. The two press questioners, Karen Brown and Brit Hume, planted various mines in his path. None detonated. Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes lobbed grenades at him. They all bounced harmlessly off.
Bush’s effectiveness didn’t have much to do with the quality of his answers. These were merely adequate, giving off in some cases a Quaylean whiff of heavy pre-programming, especially on foreign policy topics. Rather, Bush’s appeal derived from his demeanor. He seemed not only at ease in the confrontational setting but to be enjoying himself–savoring the pleasure of being shot at and missed. Bush wore a jaunty grin through most of the debate, grasping the podium as if it were the steering wheel of a sports car. When one of the Republican pygmies attacked him, his grin would turn into a smirk. The smirk turned into a cackle when Forbes went after him for considering the possibility of raising the Social Security retirement age. Bush was armed with the perfect comeback: a column Forbes once wrote advocating exactly the same thing. He read it aloud, with gusto. When Bauer demanded that he commit to choosing a pro-life running mate, Bush felt no compulsion to respond to him at all.
Nor was Bush set off balance by questions designed to expose him as a lightweight. When Hume asked him what sort of thing he liked to read, he didn’t come back with an insecure person’s list of big books (the way Quayle once responded to this question by saying he was reading Plato’s Republic). Bush answered, “I read the newspaper.” He subsequently mentioned “a book about Dean Acheson.” It would have been interesting to quiz him further about the contents of this work, but the format didn’t permit it.
If Bush seemed Teflon-coated, Forbes–the chief aggressor against him tonight–was pure Velcro. Whenever someone criticized him, Forbes looked sheepish and guilty, like a kid caught stealing cookies. Forbes was mainly a target for Bauer, who is running against him in a separate, unofficial campaign for headman of the religious right. Bauer landed blows against Forbes for wanting to privatize Social Security and for proposing tax cuts that would mainly benefit the rich and corporations. Forbes grimaced at every blow and didn’t defend his positions.
John McCain, who came across as well as Bush did, spent most of the evening doing stand-up comedy. After Forbes said Alan Greenspan shouldn’t be reappointed as chairman of the Fed if he persists in raising interest rates, McCain volunteered that he thinks Greenspan is doing a great job. “Not only would I reappoint Mr. Greenspan, if Mr. Greenspan should happen to die, I would do like they did in the movie Weekend at Bernie’s,” McCain said. “I’d prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him.” If you were watching at home, you saw Bush laughing hysterically at this, perhaps recalling his fraternity days. McCain also kept up a running gag about his supposedly fierce temper, which robbed the charge of any possible force. Orrin Hatch took a dig at him on the issue anyhow. When Hume asked Hatch about McCain’s behavior in the Senate, Hatch responded: “He does have a temper and sometimes it’s terrible to be on the other side of it.” This prompted Bush to defend McCain, sincerely but somewhat patronizingly, as “a good man.”
Keyes did not disappoint those who missed his antics last time. Asked about his allegation that the media treat him in a racist fashion, he stuck to his guns, saying he wasn’t covered by the press, despite his obvious appeal to GOP voters, because “blackout means black out.” At one point Keyes attacked Bush’s proposed tax cuts as insufficient by saying that we shouldn’t “get down on our knees and thank Massa Bush for letting us keep more of our own money,” describing that as “thinking like slaves.” After the debate, Keyes once again came into the media filing center and repeated his nutty performance from the last New Hampshire debate virtually word for word. “You ignore my successes, just as you ignored my ancestors’ successes,” he exploded at a harmless question. “And then you want to tell me you’re not a racist! You better think about it, my friend! You better think about what you’re doing!”
Nobody called Keyes on the most outrageous thing he said in the debate, that atrocities in Kosovo were mostly “propaganda” devised by the Clinton administration in order to manipulate the American public into supporting a war. It was something Noam Chomsky might have said–or Pat Buchanan.