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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 1999/3 Kislev, 5760

Tony Snow

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Dubyah is told to act his age -- The most surprising thing about the campaign of George W. Bush is how many of his friends, supporters and staff are encouraging outsiders to tell their man: Act Your Age.

Bush remains the prohibitive favorite to secure the Republican presidential nod, with his oodles of money, legion of supporters and nonpareil political network. Yet he doesn’t appear to take the quest seriously. He behaves as if he were in an amusement park, pursuing a hobby rather than a calling.

The key indicator is The Smirk. It pops out indiscriminately -- in times of peril as well as moments of mirth. It gives bystanders the sense they’re dealing not with a political heir to Lincoln, Reagan or George Bush, but with an exhibitionistic frat boy who has poked a hole in the bottom of a beer can and wants an audience to watch him pop the top.

I sympathize with Bush’s malady because I have a smirk of my own. When I see tapes of television performances, I understand why viewers say they would like to bash my face. The Smirk can make one look like a jerk.

Bush’s attempt to play Carmen San Diego with Boston television reporter Andy Hiller has prompted just such a reaction. Hiller was a snot when he asked the names of Chechnya’s prime minister and the recently installed heads of Pakistan and India. Plenty of diplomats would flunk that quiz -- and the Texas governor at least described the new leaders with a fair degree of accuracy.

Nevertheless, Bush handled the exchange as if Hiller were a peer he wanted to impress. Rather than telling the youngster to grow up and ask serious questions, he chose to joust -- and with each pass looked more and more like the fool.

It makes one wonder how he might react when tested by more formidable foes -- a Speaker Gephardt or a President Zyuganov. Those men wouldn’t find The Smirk endearing. They would take one look and try to rip the man’s lungs out.

Every candidate bears a distinguishing flaw. In Dubya’s case, it’s the Alfred E. Newman Factor (“What, Me Worry?). When Bill Clinton first ran for president, nobody doubted his devotion to issues or penchant for plunging into the vagaries of public policy. Nor did the public question his political skill. We merely wondered whether he was a reprobate. (Now we know.)

In the case of Bush the Younger, we’re not sure whether he’s a reprobate, but a growing number also harbor the fear that he’s a lightweight, blithely unconcerned about the gravity of the situation. He inhabits a political Oz, where the colors are happy and the tough decisions can wait until the oracle speaks. When he stumbles over abstruse matters of foreign policy, for instance, he actually jokes about his cluelessness.

This is how frat boys behave when they know the class nerd is going to take their exams for them. But come next month, Dubya will have to take the stage alone -- and answer his opponents using his own wits rather than those borrowed from outside sages.

A good fight will help him and his party, for almost as interesting as the fact that his backers want someone to practice tough love is the fact that even his GOP opponents fear his demise. One Republican candidate says a Bush meltdown would cost Republicans the White House and the House. Another has expressed open astonishment of shabby staff work by the Bush team, warning that Bush’s fate could shape GOP fortunes for the next decade or more.

Bill Clinton will leave his successor a veritable landfill of litter, from foreign-policy entanglements to the impending collapses of Medicare and Social Security to freshly heightened tensions between people of different sexes, ages and races. Voters are apt to forgive candidates who are trying hard to prepare for those challenges -- and to dismiss would-be presidents who say they can take or leave the job.

Granted, the campaign is young. Granted, it’s easy to second-guess the way another person responds to a puerile ambuscade. But if Bush doesn’t start looking like a president -- a man of firm beliefs, dependable character and insatiable desire to hold the most famous and tortuous job on earth -- many of today’s supporters will slink away.

After all, Republicans want to restore the White House’s majesty by replacing a precocious brat with a grown-up; not by supplanting a snide Democrat with a cocky Republican.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate