It was more coronation than campaign event. There was theatrical lighting, blue curtains, lots of flags, and dozens of TV cameras. Whatever you think of George W. Bush, you’ve got to hand it to his handlers: they know how to choreograph an event. And they know how to make Bush look presidential. Indeed, the national presentation of Bush’s “exploratory committee” in early March (Bush held a “Texas-press only” event a few days earlier) looked like it was staged at the U.S. State Department, instead of a cavernous ballroom in the Austin Convention Center.
It was indeed an impressive collection. And while it was clear that Bush’s handlers are running things in a hyper-professional style, another thing was clear: Bush is good. Very good. He called many of the members of the press by their first names, and the reporters from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and other papers were clearly impressed. He didn’t say anything dumb (and at times, that appeared to be his chief concern). His speech, long on rhetoric and short on specifics, was certainly not electrifying. “I want the party of Lincoln to be the party that makes sure no one gets left behind … I am convinced a conservative philosophy is a compassionate philosophy, that frees individuals to achieve their highest potential. It is conservative to cut taxes, and it is compassionate to give people more money to spend.” The speech was well-rehearsed and carefully delivered (with the help of two TelePrompTers).
Bush’s exploratory committee includes some of the GOP’s heavy hitters, including former GOP National Chairman Barbour, former Secretary of State George Schultz, U.S. Representatives Henry Bonilla, J.C. Watts, Roy Blunt, Jennifer Dunn, and Anne Northrup, U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, Stanford Provost Condoleeza Rice, and Michigan Governor John Engler. Each of the committee members took turns trying to outdo the others in their praise of Bush. Engler said the GOP is proud of its legacy: “Lincoln, Reagan – and now George W. Bush.” Watts said Bush has “the vision to see all Americans as they can be and not as they are.”
after the glowing intros, reporters peppered Bush with questions about his family, Russian-American relations, the Japanese economic crisis, and predictably, abortion. Questions about family were happily received and solemnly platitudinized; questions about policies, foreign or otherwise, were taken under indefinite advisement. Bush was clearly waiting to be asked about the issue that has become the litmus test for the GOP, and he deftly sidestepped it: “Abortion ought to be rare.” He added that he approves of abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger.
The event provided Bush’s campaign committee an opportunity to tout their candidate’s backers. (At press time, the list included thirteen governors, six U.S. Senators, and eighty-six U.S. Representatives.) It also allowed the committee to announce that its web site, www.georgewbush.com, is up and running. And it particularly served notice to Bush’s would-be Republican competitors that the Texas Guv is getting all his ducks – and his funders – in a row.
As the weeks pass, it appears that Bush isn’t so much running for the presidency as he is seducing the country into believing he’s already got the job. As his well-tuned spin machine would have it, he’s not just another contender in a crowded field of GOP candidates – he’s being drafted into a job that he’s not really sure he wants. While the coy attitude is wearing thin (Bush mused, “Should I decide to run for the President…”) his campaign has taken on an air of inevitability, the air that Our-Man-Bush can’t lose. Barbour bolstered that sentiment when he told reporters after the event that he couldn’t “remember there being such a widespread interest in a candidacy that hasn’t even been decided or announced yet.” A few days later came the news that Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove, has sold his political consulting business, presumably so he can focus on putting Bush in the White House.
The first primaries are less than a year away, and Bush has emerged as the one to beat. If the March 7 show was any indication of things to come, doing that will be difficult indeed.
Austin writer and frequent Observer contributor Robert Bryce is a staff writer for the Austin Chronicle.