Ballot Box

George W.: Like Father, Like Son

Comparisons between George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush often dwell on their significant differences. Where the father was awkward and reserved as a politician, the son is emotional and expressive. Where H.W. was a Connecticut Yankee who played a Texan on TV, W. qualifies as the real thing. And so on. Yet watching W.’s performance on Meet the Press this Sunday, what struck me was how alike the two of them are.

Like father, son is prone to read his cue cards verbatim. “Message: I care,” was his dad’s classic line, uttered in New Hampshire in 1992. W. has an eerily similar, and similarly comical way of telling you what he wants to do, instead of actually doing it. “I’ve got a reason for running and I’m sharing it with the people of South Carolina right now,” W. told Tim Russert, without ever mentioning what that reason was. Throughout the program, W. complained about the way he had been “defined” in the campaign, using the term in the way political consultants habitually do, and that politicians don’t. “I got defined as someone who wasn’t going to be able to stand up and fight for campaign-funding reform. I got defined as someone who was an insider in Washington, D.C. And it’s not going to happen anymore to me. It’s not going to happen anymore to me,” Bush told Russert. Like father, son can get a bit whiny when he feels he’s been wronged.

Both Bushes have a tendency to become hilariously inarticulate, though in different ways. Dad dispenses with pronouns, tempers expressions of feeling with words like “stuff” and “thing” (as in “the vision thing”), and has a tendency to go into what my colleague Tim Noah famously described as “call-waiting mode,” as in his great campaign trail riff:

Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for–don’t cry for me Argentina. We’ve got problems out there and I am blessed by good health, strong health. Jeez, you get the flu, and they make it into a federal case. Anyway, that goes with the territory.

Son, by contrast, suffers from a speech problem that may be a genetic disorder known as Specific Language Impairment, which causes him to use singular verbs with plural nouns and vice versa. He also commits malapropisms and solecisms of Archie Bunker-esque proportions. “I do not agree with this notion that somehow if I go to try to attract votes and to lead people toward a better tomorrow somehow I get subscribed to some–some doctrine gets subscribed to me,” he told Russert. Later in the program Bush did what his father was a genius at: He fused the stage-direction reading with a verbal pratfall into what can only be called a Bushism. “I’ve changed my style somewhat, as you know. I’m less–I pontificate less, although it may be hard to tell it from this show. And I’m more interacting with people.”

Son, like father, has a tendency to wiggle out of tight spots by reminding everyone that politics is a sport. H.W. would deflect personal or probing questions by saying that a reporter was tying put him “on the couch.” W. answers any question for which he doesn’t have an intelligent response ready by noting that the journalist is playing “gotcha.” A fine example of this was W.’s response to Russert’s question about how it was that gays were serving openly in the militaries of our allies without causing any problems. “Interesting angle. I haven’t thought of that,” W. smirked. “That’s a very interesting way to look at it. I’m not changing my position, though.” The governor thinks that he can play a “get out of jail free” card simply by pointing out that the adversary relationship between the president and the press in some ways resembles a game.

Of possibly greater significance is the tendency of both Bushes to rebut charges of bias and insensitivity with claims about their good intentions. Because both Bushes are politicians stronger in form than in content, they traffic heavily in symbolic politics. Yet they maintain that symbols are only meaningful when and in the way that they want them to be. The most heated moments on Meet the Press came when Russert grilled W. about his recent appearance at Bob Jones University, a school where an apartheid-style prohibition on race-mixing and anti-Catholic bigotry is enshrined as policy. Bush’s answer was that he wasn’t affirming these views, but rather “giving affirmation to somebody who’s going to unite our country”–i.e., himself. This is a version of the answer he gave repeatedly when he was taken to task for refusing to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans and for failing to oppose flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol in Columbia, S.C. The perception of intolerance was irrelevant, W. said, because he’s a uniter, not a divider. The Bushes aren’t the sort of people who would associate with bigots, so never mind that they do.

This plays into another political trait that W. may have inherited from the old man, which is a split personality when it comes to politics and governing. Bushes view running for office as nasty but necessary. They view serving in office as an elevated, entirely separate realm. For help with the former, you hire a no-holds-barred attack dog like Lee Atwater. For the latter, you hire elder statesmen like Brent Scowcroft. This mental dissociation was what enabled the H.W. to run a vicious, demagogic, and racially charged campaign in 1988 and then declare himself ready to lead a “kinder, gentler” nation as president. “The American people are wonderful when it comes to understanding when a campaign ends and the world of business begins,” he once said.

W. understands this bifurcation very well. In Texas, he has governed in an inclusive and conciliatory way. He promises to embody this attitude if elected president. But to get to the White House, he knows he may have to detour through a swamp or two. There was a hint of this in an exchange overheard on C-SPAN, when a South Carolina state senator said that Bush hadn’t hit McCain’s “soft spots” yet. “I’m going to, but I’m not going to do it on TV,” Bush responded, suggesting that the push-polling calls are going to intensify in hours before Saturday’s primary. When Russert asked why Bush wouldn’t follow John McCain in pulling his negative ads off the air in South Carolina, W. answered that McCain’s ads had already damaged him. “I came up in Texas politics. I understand,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Russert asked.

“Well, it means I understand the rough and tumble of politics,” Bush responded. “And I understand how to defend myself, and I’m going to do so.”

If his bare-knuckled “defense” works, W. can be expected to do what H.W. did when it was all over in 1988: tell us all to forget about it–at least for another four years.