Hey, I said there was time for fresh plot twists!
There still is. I’m not convinced, as William Kristol was on Nightline just now, that the revelation of Bush’s 1976 DUI arrest is the climactic, “decisive moment” of the 2000 campaign. Information gets processed so fast these days that by Saturday night the DUI story may be practically forgotten. There’s probably enough time for two or three more climactic, decisive moments!
That said, the Kausmeter has registered a five-point drop for Bush. The decline does not reflect my reaction to the DUI revelation itself–it’s not that damning an incident, assuming Bush’s account holds up. He drove drunk; he admitted it; he paid his penalty. (The contrast with Clinton, which we’ll probably be hearing a lot about from the right, actually works in Bush’s favor.) Nor has my opinion of Bush fallen because he didn’t reveal the incident earlier–I’ve always assumed there are vast swatches of his early adulthood that he’s not telling us about because they were studded with bouts of debauchery. Bush’s stock price, as it were, already reflects this information.
No, my decreased willingness to vote for Bush is the net product of two opposing sentiments raised by the DUI report:
1) First, the revelation seems likely to demoralize Republicans, meaning that fewer of them will vote, meaning that Republican congressional candidates are likely to suffer, meaning that the Democrats are now likelier to take the House. As discussed previously, this factor makes me more likely to vote for Bush, the better to restrain the unreconstructed Dems.
2) But the DUI minifrenzy also exposed me, at length, to Karen Hughes–Bush’s communications director and a member of his staff’s ruling triumvirate–who attempted to fend off initial press queries about the arrest. It’s often said of Bush that he values loyalty over brilliance, with the result that his staff has more than its fair share of nonbrilliant officials. That would explain Hughes, who almost always comes across as a plodding, slightly belligerent dissembler even when she’s telling the truth. If Bush hadn’t appeared in person to face the press mob and had instead left Hughes’ artless performance as the tape to be played over and over again, the DUI scandal might really be the climactic event Kristol thinks it is.
Al Gore may need to feel he’s the “smartest person in the room,” but at least he achieves this effect through sheer arrogance. He doesn’t stack the deck by limiting admission to the room. And while the prospect of Bush as president doesn’t scare me (he’s not so dumb, “first-class temperament,” we survived Reagan, etc.) the prospect of Hughes as a top adviser to the president does scare me. Bush doesn’t have to be smart, we’re told. He can get smart people. But he’s got Hughes.
The Hughes factor, which reflects a more or less permanent feature of Bush’s leadership style, outweighs the congressional tilt-to-the-Democrats factor, which may be ephemeral. Bush falls five.
Update: On Friday, Hughes dramatically confronted Wayne Slater, the Dallas Morning News reporter who says Bush denied to him in 1998 that he had been arrested after 1968. Hughes tried to get Slater to admit the conversation had been off the record. But who cares at this point if Bush lied on or off the record? Either way it’s a lie. Why even bring up the issue? Then Hughes said she’d cut off the 1998 conversation just as Bush was about to admit the truth (an impression Slater apparently had as well). “He was hinting that something had happened. That’s why I stopped the conversation,” she explained. In retrospect, was that such a smart thing to do? Even if Hughes understandably wanted to hear what Bush was going to say before he said it, why (once she learned it) didn’t she somehow get the truth out, and specifically correct the record with Slater, an influential reporter with an influential Texas paper?
I rest my case!