Monday, August 09, 2004

Lousy President -- But a Great Talk-Show Host

I can't do better for a headline than my editor did this week, so I'll reuse it.

I haven't posted for a while because of vacation and travel schedules; we always try to put a hold on our papers while out of town, and my electronic subscription to The Tribune hasn't started yet. (Based on my experience with their customer service, I sure hope the editorial page doesn't complain about government inefficiency for a while.) So I've had a couple columns run but don't have copies of what was published (as opposed to what I submitted) and haven't had a chance to go to the public library and get copies.

Anyway, this column--meant as both a protest against the Bush campaign's unparalleled ability to lower expectations of the President of the United States, and as a warning to Democrats--generated more angry email than usual. Part was the expected diatribes from the right wingers, but I also got a couple emails from Democrats who were outraged that anybody could think "well" of Bush as I do in this column.

My editor Bob Schuster called me after getting the column just to make sure I'd actually written it. The block quote in the newspaper version is highlighted below.

The Character Issue

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 8, 2004

Chris Suellentrop of Slate watched President Bush campaign in Ohio last week, and saw first-hand why Bush will be very, very hard to beat. Bush may be a lousy president, but he’s a great talk-show host, revival-tent preacher, and stand-up comic.

In today’s politics, that may be more than enough.

As Suellentrop notes, Bush’s manner explains how people, despite his wealth, his elite education, and his family connections, consider Bush a "regular guy." Nobody -- least of all me -- should count him out until after all votes are counted or the Supreme Court decides, whichever last occurs.

Bush has always been charming, self-deprecating, and funny. In 2000, the media lapped it up, and while reporters may have soured somewhat since, to many voters it’s still a fresh act.

Bush is incredibly quick, not with facts or in-depth knowledge, but with a snappy and disarming joke. He’s the embodiment of prep-school virtues: not too smart, a good conversationalist, completely unthreatening. He’s perfect for a dinner party needing one more male guest. He’s also without peer in believing things that just aren’t true (like WMD, who got the tax cuts, et cetera) so sincerely that it’s somehow not his fault that he’s wrong. It’s both Reaganesque and Clintonian, simultaneously.

These are not necessarily the character traits that make for good presidents. Preppies also are noted for lack of long-term vision, for overemphasizing the superficial, and for loving the status quo. They do know the social graces, though, and if 90 percent of life is just showing up, much of the remaining 10 percent is good manners and breeding -- Bush’s strong suit.

That’s why, as Andrew Tobias noted on his website, President Bush has never lost a debate. He didn’t lose his debate against Ann Richards -- and have you ever not been impressed when Ann Richards speaks? I once had to follow her at a tribute to Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), and I worried for weeks about what I’d done to offend the organizers so grievously. (I eventually figured out that they assumed that of all the other speakers, I had the least to lose.)

President Bush certainly didn’t lose his debates with Al Gore. Gore may have been more knowledgeable and qualified, but it didn’t matter because of Bush’s unique ability to change the terms of debate, as it were, into a contest of likeability and charm. If in today’s America what you say matters less than making people fell comfortable while you’re saying it, then our politics has no better debater than George W. Bush.

Bush also has a masterful touch with religious phrases and themes, which he can weave into his speech in a way that a Jewish guy like me, or even many mainline Protestants, simply can’t. It’s not clear an Eastern Catholic like Kerry can shake his Eastern-ness enough to emphasize the Catholicism, so our guy may not be able to invoke the same familiar and comforting themes with the same expertise as the incumbent.

Finally, Bush’s staff is also world-class at lowering expectations, but nobody should fall for that anymore. Bush has perfected what Tobias calls a "killer aw-shucks debating style." Bush’s well-honed technique makes his opponents look overbearing, over-prepared, and eventually overmatched. Yes, President Bush has never lost a debate; he’s a champion debater, and as skilled as they come in his own way of turning the tables to his advantage.

And after four years experience as president, shouldn’t he do even better this fall? We Democrats just have to hope that John Kerry can just be competitive, especially before the hometown folks at the debate at ASU in Tempe on Oct. 13.

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