TOOTING BUSH'S HORN: IS THIS THE NEXT CLINTON?

"Ladies and gentlemen, the next President Bill Clinton of the United States America, George W. Bush."

That introduction would represent pay dirt for the present governor of Texas, the actor formerly known as "the Bombastic Bushkin," a fellow whose $40 million or so in "fornicate you" money has him anointed as the presumptive Republican nominee to sound-bite us into the next millennium.

It won't be possible any longer to let Bush be Bush. He has to be Clinton — in a neutered Republican form, of course — and he has to hope that the same Teflon magic that saved the presidential privates will bestow amnesty on him for an "irresponsible youth" that he claims ended at the tender age of 40.

Don't be surprised if it works.

Bush has endured quite a drug trip this past month. As recently as the July 25 Washington Post, he was basking in his very public status as a self-cured man, a fellow who drank far too much but swore off it all after waking up with a hangover on his 40th birthday.

Bush showed no reluctance in sharing this slice of personal life from his distant past; nor did it take an intrusive tabloid reporter to get him to recall his 1985 meeting at the family summer retreat in Kennebunkport with the Rev. Billy Graham, a Bush family friend.

"(Graham) planted a seed in my heart and I began to change," Bush said. He proudly added that he hasn't had "a drop of alcohol ... not one drop" since 1986.

This is the part of Bush's private life that is fair game for public consumption: the part that helps him win affection, understanding and (incidentally) votes. It also is the part that indemnifies him for whatever might have happened that is not so admirable — and therefore is none of the public's business — for more than two decades of his adult life.

Unfortunately for Bush, the strategy of selective introspective candor didn't play so well this month, when in an inexplicably non-Clintonesque moment, he declined either to lie or be truthful about past cocaine use. Bush was the only one of 12 presidential hopefuls to refuse to answer a New York Daily News question about the coke thing.

Uh-oh.

Before you could utter, "I never had nasal relations with that drug," members of the mainstream press (it was too easy to be a keeper for the tabloids) pounced on the story with a zeal that had to be the envy of the DEA's K-9 corps. At last, a decent story du jour for the post-Clinton era.

What did he snort and when did he snort it, wondered the U. S. of A., or so the feeding frenzy went. No one actually accused Bush of having snorted cocaine — jokesters suggested a "sniffed-not-snorted" plea in honor of the commander in chief — but even the most sympathetic observer wondered why a front-running presidential candidate who had never done cocaine would decline to say so.

Bush's initial public attempt was a pathetically futile attempt to rise above it all.

"Somebody floats a rumor, and then it causes you to ask a question, and that's the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it," Bush said. "That is a game, and you just fell for the trap. And I refuse to play.

Bush also repeated his aversion to "the politics of personal destruction" — a line heisted, ironically enough, from the George Washington of bad-boy behavior, Mr. Clinton — but unlike 1994, when he successfully ducked a similar drug question from the Houston Post, this time Bush was going to play whether he liked it or not.

This was the same presidential candidate who had volunteered the claim that he had never cheated on his wife of 22 years. This was the same fellow who talked openly about past alcohol problems. This was the governor who won major points advocating more prison time and less treatment for drug offenders, young and old.

And most important for the TV media, this was interesting. Let the games begin.

At this point, Bush probably would have done well with a sound bite along the lines of "Listen, you media rodents, you can all go to hell. I'm not talking to a single one of you for at least six months. Take it up with my new press secretary, Mike Tyson."

Ah, but he didn't. In fact, Bush took the worst possible page out of mentor's Clinton book of bad spin and starting spewing unbelievable hair-splitting responses that caused even the most cynical media observers to get goosebumps harking back to the glory days of "what is is."

Let's see. On Tuesday, Bush won't dignify it all with a response. On Wednesday, Bush tells the Dallas Morning News he hasn't used illegal drugs for the past seven years. On Thursday he tells the Associated Press he hasn't used them for the past 15 years. On Friday, his press spokesperson announces that what he really meant was he hasn't used them for at least 25 years.

At this rate, Bush will be claiming on Election Day that he didn't snort coke with Julius Caesar.

Naturally, it all went over like an ill-timed sneeze on the wrong coffee table. One day after the next, we watched George W. Bush, heretofore Mr. Too-Cool-for-School, whacking himself about the head and shoulders like Bill Clinton at a party for the interns' parents.

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