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Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2000 / 18 Shevat, 5760

Cal Thomas

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George W. Bush: Ready for prime time --
DES MOINES, Iowa -- One year ago I spent an hour with Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of his second inaugural. Then, he seemed a little puzzled that he was already being spoken of as the "leader'' who could retake the White House for Republicans. His answers to questions were cautious, and he seemed more comfortable in his shoes than his skin.

Last Sunday, on the eve of the Iowa primary, I saw a different George Bush. He is confident without being cocky. He is more spontaneous, as when he goes forward at the First Assembly of G-d service, joining scores of men desiring to be better fathers and husbands.

I ask Bush the cause of the nation's moral decline. It isn't solely, or even mainly, President Clinton's fault, he tells me. "I think the current embarrassment over the president's behavior undermined in the short run a cultural shift (back to basics). But renewing the culture is a job that takes more than a president. Parents need to recommit to their families. This will require millions of individual decisions, including decisions about what movies and TV to watch. The president doesn't cause bad fathering or out-of-wedlock births, but a president can help usher in a new culture.''

Bush pledges "the most ethical administration in history.'' Didn't President Clinton promise the same thing? "Yes, but he fell 41 presidents short,'' says Bush.

Bush is a realist when it comes to divisive issues such as abortion. A president can't lead where the people don't want to go, but he says a president can begin to speak and act in ways that promote a life ethic: "I will do my best to lead the country to appreciate life. Until the people understand and appreciate life it is hard to affect legislation.'' He thinks his visible support of centers that assist women with unplanned pregnancies and his emphasis on adoption and abstinence until marriage will help move more of the public in his direction.

Is he ready for political combat from the Democrats? He says he is but believes the people are "fed-up with ugly politics,'' and he intends, if nominated, to run a positive campaign. But he isn't naive: "I'll defend myself if I have to should the opposition resort to the same old slash-and-burn tactics. Politics is like judo, and I intend to use my opponent's punch to my advantage.''

Bush thinks it is to his advantage that his skills are underestimated: "So were Reagan's, who was derided because of his acting background. But he became one of our greatest presidents.''

And what about the concerns over his supposed lack of depth that I heard raised by some Iowans attending a Steve Forbes rally. "I understand there are stages to a campaign,'' he says. "After all, I witnessed a great man (his father) called a `wimp' in 1988. The punditry loves to label people, so my first stage was, `he doesn't believe in anything; he doesn't stand for anything; he never answers a question; he won't give a speech with meaning.' That stage has evaporated because I have been making major policy addresses with substantial back-up. I haven't needed to change my tax and defense plans because these were thought out from the beginning, and it is the foundation from which I am going to lead.'' He says he has no doubt he can handle the job.

Priorities? First, honesty. Then, reforming the military (he says he'll ask the generals to tell him what is good and what needs fixing, including whether imposed civilian social policies are helping or hurting its primary objectives of "(winning) wars and defend(ing) the peace to lessen the chance of wars.''

Next, tax cuts and a streamlining of government agencies. "I won't back away from these,'' he again pledges. He promises "some interesting executive orders'' without saying what they would be. He wants to improve trade, which he thinks is a key to freedom, including in China.

"I look forward to leading our country and lifting the spirit of America. Our great strength lies in the hearts and souls of our citizens, not in the halls of government.''

It sounds like a line from his stump speech. But in a van on the way to the airport, he delivers it with conviction and a smile. His confidence is growing. Maybe it's the judo lessons.

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