COLUMBUS, Ohio—“I feel like a talk-show host,” President Bush says midway through Thursday’s first campaign event. He’s standing next to a stool and a lectern, and he paces in circles to address the audience seated on all sides around him. Even from a distance, I can see why Bush charmed the press corps during his 2000 campaign. He’s likable, winning, and self-deprecating. He’s also quick on his feet, not with an instant recall of statistics but with snappy retorts that break up the room. This event was billed as an “Ask President Bush” forum, and although there didn’t turn out to be much time for questions, from the outset the intimate setting made it more interactive than a typical presidential visit.
The president didn’t get it quite right when he called himself a talk-show host. He opens more in the vein of a revival-tent preacher, albeit a subdued one, and he concludes as a standup comic. “I think you have to ask for the vote,” Bush says near the beginning, as he always does. “You got it!” yells someone, the first of many call-and-response moments. Then Bush segues into something that sounds more like a sermon than a stump speech.
“All of you are soldiers in the army of compassion,” the clergyman-in-chief tells the crowd. “And one of the reasons I’m seeking the office for four more years is to call upon our citizens to love your neighbor just like you’d like to be loved yourself.” After his usual endorsement of the Golden Rule, Bush speaks of souls, which also isn’t unusual for him: “We can change America one soul at a time by encouraging people to spread something government cannot spread, which is love.”
Bush goes on to talk about his desire to have the government fund more faith-based initiatives. “If you’re an addict, if you’re hooked on drugs or alcohol, sometimes government counseling can work. But sometimes it requires a change of heart in order to change habit,” he says. “There are people who are empowered to change hearts in our society. Not by government, by a higher calling, and therefore government ought to welcome these words of compassion and healing.”
Bush isn’t a fire-and-brimstone preacher, talking about sinners in the hands of an angry God. He’s a hippie priest, emphasizing the Christian message of brotherly love. I can almost hear the guitars and tambourines. He says, “I know we can change America for the better by calling on those who are change agents, those who are willing to put our arm around someone who needs love and say, ‘I love you, brother. I love you, sister. What can I do to help you have a better life here in America?’”
From there, Bush becomes a teacher, imparting “the lessons of September the 11th, 2001.” “We’ll never forget!” a man seated among the firefighters calls out. Bush’s Lesson 1: “We’re facing an enemy which has no heart, no compassion. And that puts them at an advantage in a way, because we’re a country of heart and compassion.” Lesson 2: “In order to defend the homeland, we got to be on the offense. We must deal with those people overseas, so we don’t have to face them here at home.” Lesson 3: “In order to be able to defend ourselves, we’ve got to say to people who are willing to harbor a terrorist or feed a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorists.” Lesson 4: “When we see threats, we must deal with them before they fully materialize.” Lesson 5 is a corollary of Lesson 4: “We saw a threat in Iraq.”
Even while Bush is in his teaching mode, the whole event has a Sunday-morning air. Bush says of Saddam, “He had used weapons of mass destruction. Remember that? He had used them on his own people.” The crowd murmurs back, “That’s right, that’s right.” When Bush mentions that John Kerry and John Edwards were two of only 12 senators—whom Wednesday he called “a small, out-of-the-mainstream minority”—to vote against the $87 billion for the war in Iraq, someone else yells out, “Shame on them!”
Bush almost gets weepy later, when he tells a story “that touched my heart,” about seven Iraqi men who visited him in the Oval Office. The men’s right hands were chopped off by order of Saddam Hussein, and they had X’s burned into their foreheads. An American organization provided them with prostheses. “A guy took my Sharpie, wrapped his new fingers and wrote, ‘God bless America,’ in Arabic,” Bush says, his voice choking up. “What a contrast,” he says. In America, “We want to heal you, no matter who you are,” his voice catching again.
So, are we going to abandon Iraq? Bush asks the crowd. “Are we going to be a country of our word?” he asks. “Or are we going to go timid and weary and afraid of the barbaric behavior of a few?” The crowd shouts back: “No!”
As the event winds down, Bush gets looser and funnier. He points to a member of the crowd, one of the hand-picked Ohioans intended to represent a particular Bush policy, and says that she can explain it better than he can. Then he turns to another audience member and says, “You didn’t have to agree with her.” When another of the Representative Americans tells Bush that she recently received her associate’s degree, magna cum laude, Bush replies, “That’s better than I did, I want you to know.”
Bush says a CEO in the audience has an interesting idea to share. The man doesn’t say anything. “Flex time,” Bush says. “I’m glad you told me what my interesting idea was,” the CEO says appreciatively. Bush replies, “I’m not a lawyer, but it looks like I’m leading the witness.” “I appreciate that,” the CEO says, and Bush shoots back, “You appreciate the fact that I’m not a lawyer?”
After last week’s Democratic convention, I felt that John Kerry had become the favorite in the presidential race. Now, after only two days with President Bush, I’m not so sure. He’s that good. Unlike many people, I’m not threatened by the president’s religious rhetoric. It must be the Midwestern Catholic in me. Like the people in the audience, I find it familiar and comforting. I can see why so many people believe the president is “one of us,” no matter how rich or how elite his background. And I can see that Kerry will have a tough time besting Bush in all three debates.
Still, not everything goes perfectly. When Bush gets ready to leave, he announces, “I’m off to Saginaw, Michigan,” forgetting what must be a central tenet of Buckeye State politics: Never mention the state that is Ohio State’s biggest rival, especially in Columbus, home to the university. For the first time all day, two men near me boo.