The Breakfast Table

Twitchy Bush; Extraterrestrial Forbes


I was happy to see you refer to a restaurant where “people smoke freely at their tables” as “unsullied,” just as I was discouraged but not surprised to learn that cowboys in Marfa, Texas, are dreaming about easy IPO riches. At least they’re smoking as they do it. Someday even cowboys will be smoke-free and doing Tae-Bo, and America will have lost something.

Pardon me, but I’m in a nostalgic mood. Must be the effect of watching last night’s debate. Bush did a decent job, I thought, but he just didn’t come across the way he did six months ago. He seemed far stiffer and more programmed than I remember. His physical restlessness, which always stuck me as appealingly energetic and vital, all of a sudden seemed twitchy and nervous. Part of it is context. Bush is so much better in person than he is behind a microphone that people who’ve experienced him only through television must be baffled by his endorsements and fund-raising success. But it’s more than that. I think he’s changed.

This spring, for instance, I asked Bush about his reading habits. He was pretty straightforward about preferring page-long briefing memos from his staff and sports on TV. He didn’t pull a Dan Quayle and brag about reading Plato in the original Latin. But last night when Brit Hume asked him what he was reading, Bush boldly claimed to be immersed in “a book on Dean Acheson.”

There’s nothing wrong with not reading books about Dean Acheson. There is something awful about pretending you do. Hume’s a pretty nice guy, so he didn’t hit Bush with the obvious and tempting follow-up questions: A book about Dean Acheson, huh? Quick: What’s the title of the book? Who wrote it? How many terms did Acheson serve as vice president? That’s a trick question, Gov. Gotcha.

But the Acheson phoniness wasn’t Bush’s real problem last night. He did himself the greatest damage when he agreed to appear with the other five candidates in the first place. Yes, I know he had no choice, that the political costs of ditching another debate were too high. Still, it’s hard to maintain a front-runner’s dignity and mystique if you’re sharing a stage with Alan Keyes.

Not to beat up on Keyes. I like him. He seems sincere. He’s a totally compelling orator, one of the few people I’ve ever heard who speaks extemporaneously in flawless, perfectly delineated, ready-to-print paragraphs. And I agree with him on more things than you probably care to know about. In fact, Keyes doesn’t really fall apart until you administer what I think of as the Despot Test. It’s simple: If a candidate had absolute power, how many people would he kill? Keyes doesn’t do well on this part of the exam. At all. There’s something about his eyes.

Speaking of, I had a pretty disturbing X-Files moment toward the end of the debate when I looked too long at Steve Forbes. Mesmerized by his unblinking stare, I suddenly had the feeling he was going to steal my soul. I choked back panic and turned away, probably just in time. Spooky.

I think Bush has had the same experience, which may explain why he was comparatively tough on Forbes, who poses no real threat to him, while he went out of his way to stroke McCain (literally at one point, on the cheek), who has a shot at beating him in New Hampshire. With Bush one gets the sense that a lot of politics is personal. Doesn’t bother me. At least he knows an alien when he sees one.