Who Is George W. Bush?

How conservative is George W. Bush? How capable? This week, the staff of Texas Monthlymagazine allows Slate readers to eavesdrop as they discuss what kind of president Bush would make.

We’ve talked about how we see George W.; now let’s talk about how the rest of the country sees him. The words that we keep hearing from the talking heads are: lightweight (scripted, not spontaneous), arrogant (that smirk), right-wing (Bob Jones U.), and lazy (the feather pillow he carries on the road). After nine months of campaigning, Bush’s character and his ideology remain unresolved.

Obviously, Texans have a different view of him. But which view is right? Or are both views right?—he dominates Texas but is diminished by the much larger national stage This is an old, old story in Texas, and one that is as familiar as the memory of Lyndon Johnson’s thick accent: We think we’re big-time, but the arbitrators of taste and culture and spin decree that we’re not.

So, what do you think about his character now? The most damaging charge against Bush is that he seems to want a coronation, not a campaign. It provides a single explanation for so many of Bush’s perceived shortcomings: his unpreparedness on issues, hence the need for scripting; his lament in January—January!—about being tired and wanting to sleep in his own bed; his preference for formal speeches over town meetings; his inaccessibility to the media. The coronation metaphor can even be expanded to his earlier life, lending credibility to the criticism that everything he has achieved has been the result of his name and connections: getting into Yale, getting into the National Guard, the sweetheart sale of his oil company, his participation in the purchase of the Texas Rangers ball club, the governorship of Texas, and, finally, the Republican nomination. Character ought to be Bush’s strength. His personal qualities are beyond reproach and so is his record of running the government without a whiff of scandal or favoritism. He is the son of parents we admire as people. And yet, just as his other strengths—money, endorsements, family—have been turned against him, so has character.

As for ideology, the question that even his close friends in Texas are asking is, What happened to the compassionate conservative? That phrase fit perfectly last fall, when Bush reached the apex of his popularity by telling the Republican Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. But it seemed hollow when he showed up at Bob Jones University. The truth is, Bush’s record of compassion is very mixed. Even in education, the one area where it is most apparent, he sends mixed signals. His literacy program, which he now wants to carry to the national level, began as a hard-line plan to end social promotion by flunking kids if necessary. Only when his Democratic opponent in 1998 started talking about how many millions of kids would flunk in 10 years did Bush start to talk about the kinder, gentler elements of the program (teacher training, second-chance tests).

Many of Bush’s friends here in Texas blame his handlers for not letting Bush be himself. But these issues of character and ideology raise a deeper question: that it’s not so clear what being himself really means. Remember, we’re talking about someone who has been a politician for only six years, who never liked Washington or the national media in the first place, and who chose to be with his wife when she received an award instead of appearing in a presidential debate in New Hampshire. To the political world, he was making a mistake by ducking that confrontation, but in the real world outside of politics, he was doing the right thing. Maybe an ambivalence about national electoral politics really is being himself—and not such a bad trait at that, even for someone running for president. Especially for someone running for president.