Bush Ink: Manufacturing a President

It’s all over but the voting. At least that’s the story of the moment. Despite the fact that (as of mid June, en route from Iowa to New Hampshire) the Governor had only just managed to declare himself a candidate, the p.r. winds of inevitability driving the Bush for President campaign had already been eagerly inhaled by much of the press.

In Austin, the hot air was embodied in the leads to two otherwise very different special Bush issues. The June Texas Monthly swooned, “The time has come to stop thinking about George W. Bush as a governor and start thinking about him as a president.” The May 28 Austin Chronicle newsweekly intoned, “He has outgrown mere governorhood.” Well, maybe. But it’s amusing to agree for once with dogged Bush rival Lamar Alexander, who recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, “The difference between being a good governor and president is approximately the difference between sandlot basketball and the N.B.A. finals.” (Then again, Lamar Alexander ain’t exactly the Republican answer to Tim Duncan.)

Across the state, it has been much the same, with the editorial chorus gathering steam behind the Bush juggernaut, feeding the inertia of brand name and big money. While the formal endorsements are months away, the editorial writers have already begun to gush about Bush’s clear eyes, steady hand, and firm jaw (or is it firm hand and steady jaw?) – the giveaway metaphors signalling that journalists have fallen in love with the prospective boss of all bosses and want to start sucking up as quickly as possible. Under the headline, “Enough niceness to almost be detestable,”Houston Chronicle columnist Jane Ely recently complained at length that the problem with writing about her darling Governor is that there’s nothing bad you can say about him, because he’s just such a “quite nice and awfully likeable fellow.” The following day, Chronicle editorial writer Bill Coulter confessed that he’d been “thinking a lot lately” about a Bush presidency, and “it sounds like a pretty good idea.… George W. Bush strikes me as a regular guy and a straight shooter who is in touch with ordinary people.” This time the headline read, “‘President George W. Bush’ Sounds Good.” In the coming months, Houstonians shouldn’t look for too many hard-hitting Chronicle editorials about the Bush record.

In Austin, the Monthly’s Bush issue made official what has been apparent for many months: Mike Levy’s mag is simply delighted to be the house organ of the George W. Bush campaign. “From the first,” the editors bragged in the intro to a celebratory Bush photo album that vividly recalled Life, Henry B. Luce, and 1955, “Texas Monthly has enjoyed unprecedented access to the nascent campaign, both onstage and off.” That is not the sort of thing journalists normally brag about – particularly when the campaign in question has been known to deny access to reporters it deems “unfriendly.” Earlier this year, that was reportedly the fate of The New York Times’ Fox Butterfield, who got the door slammed in his face when he asked to talk to the Governor about his anti-crime policies. Apparently the press office was concerned Butterfield might not apply the correctly upbeat spin to the Governor’s law-and-order agenda.

The Monthly is unlikely to raise such unseemly matters, let alone ask impertinent questions about them – ergo, “unprecedented access.” Among Texas journalists, none have been quite so abject in their devotion to George the Second as the Monthly’s Paul Burka, who has eagerly assumed the position of the Mansion’s favorite reporter. No longer content simply to provide melodramatic spin (“a complete overhaul of public education!”) to Bush’s conventional conservative agenda, Burka has now taken to reading the Guv’s every twitch and tic as a fateful portent.

An innocent observer might suspect that Bush’s generally rote public delivery, leavened by boy-hearty but awkward joshing, evinces the thinness of his ideas as well as his grasp upon them. Not so, Burka explains from his insider’s perch:

Bush speaks louder with body language than any politician I have ever seen. He slouches in a chair to convey utter confidence. He bobs his head when he talks as if to indicate agreement with his own words. He snaps his fingers to effect a transition in a conversation. And he talks with his eyes. They widen to show sincerity, light up as a prelude to a joke, narrow to show disapproval, and look upward to suggest irony – usually to the accompaniment of a one-syllable guttural chuckle, a “heh” straight out of Beavis and Butt-head.

One can only hope that when he typed that passage, Burka was looking upward and chuckling hysterically.

We have often been told that once he indeed declares, Bush’s “honeymoon is over,” because the national press will not be giving him the free ride he’s enjoyed from the Texas media. The early evidence is not encouraging. The growing refrain of “he’s beginning to look … presidential” is already sounding like a Morning-in-America television campaign in the making – and it hasn’t cost the candidate a dime. The New Yorker’s Joe Klein, for example, made an earnest pilgrimage to Texas and Florida after the November election, and was quick to endorse as self-evident the Bush brothers’ claim to the support of minority voters and to a new face for conservatism. More recently, Klein surveyed the field and declared all the likely candidates, including Bush, “Third Wayfarers: free traders and globalists, foreign-policy activists, defense hawks (even Clinton has proposed a significant increase in defense spending), and people who believe in practical compassion or conservative idealism, or some combination of those four words, when it comes to domestic policy.” Bush as a neo-liberal centrist – on its face that’s not likely to make the candidate happy, but to the extent it makes him less threatening to most New Yorker readers, who will be looking for a more respectable Clinton, it should. Klein is so delighted with the booming economy (he seems to have permanently confused his own burgeoning paycheck with that of the average American), he believes everybody will be just too happy to vote (“a country so successful that politics has almost begun to seem irrelevant”). It seldom seems to occur to the pundits that so many citizens have turned their backs on the electoral process because it has increasingly become a ritualized anointment of the status quo – to which we are all called to pay patriotic homage.

And at the ceremony, the journalists have their appointed roles. Writing about the candidates, especially those most likely to succeed, is an exercise in elevating the mundane into the heroic, in manufacturing a President equal to the illusion of our national mythology: the biggest, the bestest, the most wonderfullest country on earth. Most fascinating about the national Bush coverage has been how much gee-whiz and good-golly have already leaked into the rhetoric, as reporters fall all over themselves to paint George W. Bush by the campaign’s chosen numbers: that is, he’s not an Old Boy, he’s a Good ol’ Boy.

This is most obvious on television – the first day in Iowa heralded Bush’s arrival “like a Texas twister” and dutifully featured close-ups of the Bushean belt buckle and monogrammed cowboy boots. But it has also become one of the main themes of the early print reporting. The national newsmagazines have each dutifully published profiles emphasizing Bush’s Midland background and downplaying his family’s upperclass roots. He’s a Bush, they keep repeating, but he’s not like that other Bush. The most extreme but still representative example was Jeffrey H. Birnbaum in the April Fortune, explaining to the country’s middle management why they should put aside all presumption in judging George the Younger.

A reformed carouser who speaks with the zeal of the converted, George W. is more passionate, more spiritual, more substantive, more charming, more quick-tempered, more wily, more witty, more conservative, and politically more astute than George H.W. ever was. Don’t expect him to tell people to read his lips.

The gist of Birnbaum’s cheerleading message was that Dubya is much more like Reagan than his dad – and by that he meant, quite literally, he will be able to sell reactionary policies much more readily.

Like Reagan, George W. wants to shrink government, cut taxes, spend more on the military, reduce trade restrictions, and promote (critics say impose) family values. With “compassionate conservatism,” he is putting a smiling face on ideas that many Republicans share, but tend to lecture about with a frown. In other words, sunny George W. is to miserly Newt Gingrich what rosy Ronald Reagan was to scary Barry Goldwater: an upbeat communicator of a conservative vision.

Now there’s something to look forward to.

To the extent that reporters have criticized Bush thus far, it has been for not being quite as conservative as he claims to be – echoing a persistent charge from the Republican right. Birnbaum says as much, and it’s a refrain that ran through similar profiles in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News. Such criticisms, of course, are less about skeptical inquiry than they are about making Bush appear safe for the national mainstream. Even the Monthly (in its new boss-stroking sister publication, Biz) gave Burka room to dither over whether Governor Bush had been quite so supportive of Texas business to merit his overwhelming lead in the C.E.O. polls. Some industries, Burka sniffed, were helped more than other industries. So there. Burka also offered additional evidence that the Governor’s conversational pearls on business, as on all other subjects, are truly compelling. “The educated child is more likely to become an employee,” Bush informed his amanuensis. Write that down.

The reporting on Bush has not been uniformly positive. The New York Times has been occasionally skeptical about such matters as Bush’s entrepreneurial résumé and his enthusiasm for tort reform (enabling the Governor to snort with distaste at a recent press conference, “Oh, well, the Times”). But for the most part, the Times has been either laudatory or exculpatory of the Bush record, in the time-honored magisterial manner of the national newspaper of record. The New Republic, Clinton-hating but Gore-daffy, has uttered a few words of neoconservative consternation. But the single best article to appear nationally on Bush and his record was published in the April 26 Nation: “Running on Empty,” by my esteemed colleague, Louis Dubose. If you haven’t already, get it and read it – or check out Lou’s updated editorial in this issue.

Readers of the Observer know we abhor tooting our own horn, but the painful truth is that this pissant journal is far too often the only dissenting voice from Texas cited in the ongoing national media coronation of the Bush Who Would Be President. We’re described in various curmudgeonly terms, as the “liberal Texas Observer,” or the “dissenting Texas Observer,” or my own personal favorite (from the Monthly’s Joe Nick Patoski), one of “the usual suspects.”

Now there’s a role for a proud reporter: Kaiser Sosa to George W. Bush and his thinly disguised con game marketed as compassionate conservatism. We’ll take it.

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Published at 12:00 am CST