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Who Is George Bush? BY DAVE DENISON IT HAS BEEN so long now that George Bush has wanted to be President. Longer than the current election season that began with Bush getting trounced in the Iowa caucuses. Longer than his current term as Vice President, in which he has waited patiently to emerge as heir to the Reagan White House. Longer even than his first Presidential campaign in 1979 and 1980 for he began to plan that race in 1977, one year into the Carter administration. That makes more than ten years living for this moment in political history living for this campaign which is now in its final month. It might be expected that, after all the preparation Bush has put into this race, the question being asked in political circles would be, “Can he be stopped?” But that is not the question being asked. As we move into the final stretch, the more common question is, “Will Bush find a way to blow it?” For all his experience in government, George Bush is still an unknown quantity. You can never be sure what will come out of his mouth next, what pose of toughness or tolerance he will strike next, what stance of hardline conservativism or moderate reasonableness he will take tomorrow. It is not just that he is unpredictable, for many good politicians cultivate an element of surprise. The problem with Bush is that, as a politician, he appears to be unknowable. Soon we will be going to the polls. We have seen George Bush nightly on TV; we have read a hundred profiles. And still we want to grab him by his skinny neck and say, “But George, we hardly know ya!” Are you the stilted and zany character we remember from the 1984 clashes with Geraldine Ferraro? Are you the goofball we’ve seen this year on the campaign trail the candidate who asked patients at a drug rehabilitation center in Newark, “Did you come here and say, ‘The heck with it, I don’t need this darn thing’?” Or are you, as dozens of friends and family members attest, a sincere and thoughtful man, an all-around swell guy who goes out of his way to make others feel good? Are you a man who is simply misunderstood by reporters and whose genuineness doesn’t come across naturally on TV? Or are you something else? Are you a serious, hard-driving politician whose veneer of “niceness” belies a tough right-wing agenda? Are you the man of CIA connections and international intrigue possessed by the same demonology that governed Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy? Is your “out of the loop” image just a cover for a role of deep participation in the events that became known as the Iran-contra scandal? Do you know more than you pretend to know? With time running out, Bush’s imagemakers are creating a candidate who is, of course, none of the above. They have set out to sell Bush as an experienced leader, tough and patriotic, not too different from Reagan but new and improved in a vague, undefinable way. They do not believe that ideas and issues are the determining factor in politics, thus, what Bush once called “the vision thing” is not the problem. It’s the identity thing that matters. GEORGE BUSH, GOOFBALL The day of last month’s debate between Bush and Dukakis, the Vice President told a radio reporter that the purpose of the exercise would be “to let the American people see me for what I think I am.” The debates, he said, “let the American people feel your pulse, your heartbeat. . . .” This is why the debates are undoubtedly the most nerve-wracking moments for Bush’s handlers; their interest is not in letting the public see who Bush thinks he is this always leads into hazy territory. \(Safer to let the public see who the people were thoroughly successful in framing the debates in such a way that if Bush somehow managed to avoid falling on his face he could be said to have done well. The standard he set in his 1984 debate with Ferraro was so low that if he managed to improve upon that he would have won a great victory. And so Bush’s performance against Michael Dukakis on September 25, in which the Vice President made a bumbling and nervous showing, was received by television commentators in polite and respectful tones, simply because he had not said anything patently outrageous or idiotic. One must accept the existence of hardcore Republicans in the audience who would have given the debate to Bush even if he had burbled all night about nothing more than his allegiance to the flag. But how is it possible that the average undecided voter would respond favorably to Bush? Does the Veep win support from the soft-hearted, who simply feel sorry for the guy? His closing statement was vintage Bush the kind of performance that makes you want to avert your eyes so as not to be privy to another person’s embarrassment. “I talked in New Orleans about a gentler and kinder nation,” he began. A moment later he was saying, with contrived offhandedness, “I do favor the death penalty. . . ” “And then it gets down to a question of values,” he said. He imagined the voters asking themselves ‘Who has the values I buhleeve in? Who has the. . .” \(and here he forced a half smile and looked as that we trust? Who has the integrity and the stuhbility to get the job done? My fellow Americans,” he said, smiling eerily, “I am that man.” Was there a soul out there in TV land who went for it? Alas, we know there were some who went for it, perhaps with no more than a shrug and a “Seems like a nice fella.” As conservative columnist Robert Novak said on the Cable News Network after the debate, “I think the American people know George Bush pretty well and they accept him for a little bit of goofiness.” Sure, Bush isn’t able to deliver the lines as well as the natural actor in the White House to whom we have become accustomed. But watching Bush is like watching a television soap opera: bad acting! Unconvincing portrayals! But there’s something weirdly absorbing about it. Disingenuousness has never been a disqualifying factor in American elections; the one thing voters hate most is a candidate who bores them. Most would have to admit that Bush is more interesting to watch than Dukakis. But still there is the identity problem. How to tell the voters “what I think I am”? How to please audiences without giving off that “thin, tinny arf” that George Will wrote about in his famous “lap dog” column? This has been Bush’s vexation since he first campaigned for office as a well-born Connecticut Ivy Leaguer trying to make it as a Texas Republican. 6 OCTOBER 14, 1988