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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 1999/ 29 Kislev, 5760


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Bush Skates Through Debates -- I’M FINISHING this column on Monday afternoon, hours before the Arizona GOP “debate,” but unless Gov. George Bush calls one of his competitors an offensive name onstage, or can’t remember the capital of Texas, it’s clear that he’ll be the Republican nominee and most likely the next president of the United States. The media is putting up a sickening fight for John McCain—he’s on the cover of Time this week—but slowly, perhaps unconsciously, journalists are starting to realize that the Texan is the man who’ll replace Bill Clinton.

It’s not that Bush blew away the field in last Thursday’s New Hampshire meeting; in fact, he was robotic, cribbing from stump speeches, and aside from complimenting Sen. McCain and zinging Steve Forbes with one of the publisher’s old columns, it was a throwaway performance. But none of his challengers was riveting either. McCain’s self-deprecation shtick about his temper is wearing thin; and if you thought his Weekend at Bernie’s joke about Alan Greenspan was funny, maybe you also believe that Al Gore discovered Love Canal.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times’ Gore-shill Richard Berke wrote that the McCain “joke” was “the most entertaining moment of the evening.” How depressing. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, once again taking the low road, said that Bush was “laughing hysterically” at McCain’s dopey remark, “perhaps recalling the movie from his fraternity days.” Weisberg knows as well as anyone that the stupid Weekend at Bernie’s is a late 80s movie; he just couldn’t resist reminding Slate’s few readers for about the 100th time that Bush was a fratboy drinker in the 60s.

Probably when Weisberg was gunning down gooks in Nam. Forbes never loses me with his talk of dismantling the IRS and instituting a flat tax, but he looked as if he were melting under the stage lights, further reinforcing the notion that Americans won’t elect an unattractive man. He’s also developing an unbecoming petty streak, demonstrated last Friday by his insinuation that Bush was once a cokehead. Skip Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer, and regret, as I do, that Alan Keyes, a brilliant man, is becoming unhinged before our eyes, a reality that was underscored by his charges of racism and “Massa Bush” attack.

Peretz Throws in the Towel

But forget the debates; most people don’t watch them anyway. A rather astonishing sign that the elite media is coming to terms with a Bush presidency was last Friday’s New Republic, which featured a Drew Friedman caricature of Bush next to the headline “Why America Loves Stupid Candidates.” That was sensationalistic, for the two articles inside, by Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan, didn’t exactly conform to that title, but you get TNR owner Marty Peretz’s drift.

In fact, Sullivan’s article was fairly laudatory, comparing Bush’s campaign to JFK’s 40 years ago, and reminding readers that in ’59 Kennedy was considered a lightweight who was only the frontrunner because of his father’s connections and wealth. There’s the suggestion that Bush, like Kennedy, once elected, will alter the political landscape considerably. But Chait’s essay is this issue’s centerpiece (actually headlined “Race to the Bottom: Why, this election year, it’s smart to be dumb”), and is almost an advance obit and apology, for Peretz’s, and the magazine’s, favored candidate, Al Gore.

Mind you, Bush’s enviable position right now troubles Chait, but he explains it away like this: “In fact, Bush’s lightweight persona has the feel of a deliberate strategy. What Bush understands, and the pundits do not, is that he is a brilliant candidate not despite his anti-intellectualism but because of it. He has stumbled upon a fortuitous moment in which the political culture, tired of wonks and pointy-heads [and crooks, I’d add] and ideologues, yearns instead for a candidate unburdened by, or even hostile to, ideas. It is a moment made for the chipper governor from Texas, and he is soaring upward, propelled by his own weightlessness.”

This is typically unfair to Bush, but what do you expect from a magazine whose proprietor’s been waiting for his turn in the kitchen cabinet for some 12 years now? Chait is simply wrong in many parts of his article. For example, he writes: “George W. Bush is something new—a slow-witted candidate parading his campaign’s lack of substance as a virtue.

Consider the chronology of his candidacy. First, Bush decided to run; next, the Republican establishment coalesced around him; and only then were a series of experts dispatched to Austin to help Bush decide what he believes... Indeed, with the Iowa caucuses just two months away, Bush has yet to elucidate opinions on most major topics.”

This theory is so full of holes, so completely misleading, that I’m surprised Chait allowed his byline to be attached to it. First, while the GOP establishment certainly identified Bush as a candidate who could win back the White House—he’s young, telegenic, governor of the country’s second biggest state, the brother of Florida’s governor and son of a now-popular ex-president—it wasn’t until he actually traveled around the country that the groundswell began in earnest. When Republican rainmakers, strategists, officeholders and donors discovered that Bush was the best retail campaigner in the GOP’s recent history, perhaps on a par with Bill Clinton, it was then that the money poured in, breaking every fundraising record, even the Clinton-Gore campaign’s highly suspicious, and probably illegal, effort of 1996.

Second, it’s simply wrong that Bush “has yet to elucidate opinions on most major topics.” He has put forth detailed positions, perhaps not to the liking of Chait or Peretz, but leading conservative media outlets and spokesmen do like what they see. With qualifications, yes, but most agree Bush’s agenda is the most far-reaching since Ronald Reagan’s.

So far, Bush has garnered praise for his education plan (from Bill Bennett, not to mention some Democrats), his defense program (The Weekly Standard called his address last month the most important since Reagan’s presidency) and last week his tax strategy (championed by The Wall Street Journal as finally a step in the right direction from a Republican).

Most conservatives aren’t in lockstep agreement with every facet of Bush’s program—his exclusion of capital gains tax cuts was disappointing, for example—but they realize he’s fashioning a campaign that can win. Can you imagine Bob Dole in ’96 reaching out to Hispanics or speaking about making it easier for single mothers to attain the American dream? Or saying that no child should be left behind? Maybe it’s rhetoric, maybe not, but these are compassionate themes, aimed partly at erasing the Newt Gingrich look of the party. And, for once, the Republicans will be offering a relatively young, good-looking candidate. Don’t laugh at the alarming vacuity of that qualification; that’s one of the major reasons why a scandal-tarred Clinton defeated President Bush and Dole in successive elections.

In fact, I think we know where Bush stands on more issues than McCain or Bill Bradley. Gore, of course, has a 10-point position paper on everything from the treatment of hangnails to life on Mars. The Vice President has somehow, between inventing more stories about his past, figured out that Bush’s tax plan would net the working poor with “one Diet Coke” a week. How Coke got into Gore’s equation I’m not sure; maybe their executives have been promised a monthly barbecue at the Tennessee farm.

And now Chait’s lament for Gore, which conveniently omits the real reasons why the Vice President might not defeat Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination and, if he does, will be an underdog against Bush. Chait doesn’t mention the campaign irregularities of ’96; Gore’s bumbling “no controlling authority” explanation of the fundraising calls he made from the White House; the Buddhist nun scandal; Gore’s humiliating proclamation that Clinton will go down in history as one of the country’s greatest presidents; his questionable hiring of Tony Coelho as campaign manager; or even the gaffe-every-other-week that Gore has provided for the sorry likes of Jay Leno.

Instead, he writes: “The farce of Al Gore’s campaign lies in its frantic efforts to conceal the public-policy rationale for his candidacy. He has the appearance of a man who prepared for a spelling bee and found himself in a swimsuit competition. Not too long ago, Gore’s detailed knowledge of defense, technology, and the environment might have been considered his strongest selling point. Today, he and his advisers treat it as a kind of embarrassment. Instead of emphasizing his knowledge, they have trotted out a succession of vignettes—young Al Gore laboring in the fields of Tennessee, enlisting in Vietnam, crusading as a small-town reporter—all meant to portray the vice president (implausibly) as a folksy man not overly interested in government.”

Not once does Chait concede that it just might be Gore’s hypocrisy (on the tobacco issue and campaign finance reform) and defense of the President that has led voters to desire a clean sweep of the Clinton era and anyone associated with it. If we’re lucky, that means James Carville too.

The other Jesse
Chait claims that Americans today are bored with government (as if that’s a brainstorm that hasn’t been advanced by losing campaigns every four years for more than a generation). He uses a snippet of Kurt Andersen’s “Breakfast Table” exchange on Slate as an example: Andersen writes, certainly off the cuff, “And if next November the candidates are George Bush, Al Gore, and Jesse Ventura, it isn’t inconceivable that I would pull the lever for Ventura. And I certainly wouldn’t be upset if Bush won, even if he can’t name a single book he’s ever read.”

This leads Chait, and presumably Peretz (as well as puppet editor Peter Beinart), to conclude that their candidate was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Americans are too fat and sassy for a true intellectual and natural leader like Gore. Taking a swipe at Andersen, and by assumption all the materialistic men and women of a certain age who should be for Gore, Chait writes: “Mostly, yuppies consider politics amusing but fundamentally unimportant, and they prefer leaders who share their unburdened disposition.”

Say It's So, Joe

Even The New York Observer’s Joe Conason, a Clinton supporter all these years, seems to have given into the inevitability of a Bush administration. That’s not so bad, really, for a journalist like Joe; just think of all the material he’ll have to mine each week. Sort of like the “vast right-wing conspiracy” in reverse.

Last month Conason wrote about Bush: “As he travels the country, delivering the same speech over and over again, even his Republican supporters must wonder whether he can cope with issues of national policy. Aside from serving less than two terms as Governor in a state where the Governor doesn’t have much to do, after all, his qualifications are literally nonexistent. Maybe that doesn’t matter, as his Republican supporters are all telling us (and each other) right now. But leaving aside Mr. Bush’s well-known psychological need to emulate his dad, the country might be better off if he had pursued a more modest destiny.”

Do you sense the air of resignation in Conason’s prose? Even this Observer reporter, a jackal when called to duty, can’t get overly vitriolic when discussing Bush. It’s as if he’s given up. Maybe Conason will regain his fighting form, but for now he’s treating the 2000 presidential race, correctly I think, like that of Tony Blair’s certain victory over John Major for prime minister in 1997.

Who can blame Joe if he looks forward to being on the other side of the political spectrum for the next administration? After years of defending creeps like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal and Donna Shalala, it must be invigorating for him to think he’ll be on the offensive.

The establishment media has no interest in Steve Forbes, but it will keep plumping for John McCain until his “moment” has evaporated. Newsweek, in its Dec. 13 issue, was typically snotty in its “Conventional Wisdom” section, writing about Bush’s debate performance: “He clears the expectations bar! Now let’s raise it to two feet.”

Jonathan Alter, in his “Between the Lines” column, is up to nonsensical mischief again, with yet another paean to McCain the Reformer. He writes: “McCain is seen by many Republicans as nothing short of a heretic. In endorsing Steve Forbes last week the conservative Manchester Union Leader wrote that McCain would be a good candidate for second place—in the Democratic primary. That’s a common view in GOP circles—and a sign of how much trouble the party is in. Whatever McCain’s flaws, here’s a candidate whose appeal to Democrats and independents would help Republicans greatly in November were he somehow nominated, and that appeal is being used against him.”

Is Alter nuts? Why in the world would any Democrat vote for McCain over Gore or Bradley? McCain’s pro-life, an ardent free-trader and a tax-cutter. Democrats vote for real Democrats.

The Dec. 13 Time cover story on McCain was warmed-over hagiography, notable only for a sidebar that shows reporter James Carney has become one of the Senator’s pod journalists. Carney, who’s known as Jay, writes about a visit to McCain’s home: “‘Cindy! I’m gonna show Jay the iguana!’ It’s not yet 8 a.m. on Monday morning, and John McCain is marching through the living room of his house in Phoenix, Ariz., headed for the back bedrooms, leading a reporter who is asking about the New Hampshire primary on a tour of his children’s pet collection.”

As McCain puff pieces go, Carney’s isn’t as offensive as, say, earlier pieces by Charles Lane, Richard Cohen and Jacob Weisberg. But maybe I’m just used to it by now.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith