Friday, August 20, 2004

BUSH PUNKITUDE, CONT'D: The July/August issue of The Atlantic has an interesting article contrasting Bush's and Kerry's styles as political debaters. James Fallows looked at a lot of video of past performances, such as Bush vs. Ann Richards 1994, and Kerry vs. William Weld 1996. He discusses Kerry's erudition and mastery of details, and Bush's skill at staying on message and turning questions to his advantage. Fallows also relates his surprise at seeing Dubya in action ten years ago: he was articulate, smooth, not at all awkward or over his head. It seems Bush has been deliberately cultivating his swaggering John Wayne persona since about 1998, when the Presidency began to seem within his reach.

But the most memorable part, to me, was a description of Bush's '98 debate against Garry Mauro, his Texas gubernatorial opponent. I offer it as a little-known prime example of Bush being a punk.

GWB was on his way to being re-elected resoundingly. The challenger Mauro had no bargaining strength on debates; he wanted several, but Bush and Karl Rove stonewalled and wound up agreeing to only one, very late in the race.

It was on a Friday night in mid-October, head-to-head against high school football games, for minimal statewide viewership. The location was in El Paso, so remote from the rest of the state it is in a different time zone, and with a heavily Hispanic, Democratic electorate. Bush thought that if he could become the first Republican in memory to carry El Paso—as he ultimately did—he might demonstrate the potential breadth of his nationwide appeal.

As a result, Mauro and the entire debate were essentially props for a Bush campaign blitz in West Texas. The debate was held in a tiny basement room on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso. The candidates' families and a few local officials sat on metal folding chairs in the room; everyone else, including reporters, watched TV monitors elsewhere. Laura Bush sat a few feet away from Mauro's children, whom she knew but (according to Mauro) did not speak to or acknowledge. According to the rules of this debate, insisted on by Bush's team, the screen had to show only whichever candidate was speaking—that is, no cutaway or reaction shots were allowed.

Therefore no one outside the room saw the miniature drama inside. Bush was halfway toward his presidential style, speaking more slowly and less gracefully than four years earlier, and with a more dismissive air toward his opponent. While Mauro was speaking, Bush would sigh, grimace, and send body-language messages of boredom or contempt. "It was incredible," Mauro told me recently. "I almost can't believe it in retelling it. Because the press was upstairs, they didn't realize how aggressive he was on the stage—pulling the sleeve of the moderator, staring or winking at Laura in the crowd." The moderator of the debate, Bob Moore, of the El Paso Times, told me that Bush actually grabbed him just before the debate: "In the hallway, Bush did grab me by the lapels, pull me close to his face, and say, 'Bobby, you clean up real good.' Typical Bush." When Bush was on stage but off camera, Moore said, "there was that Bush smirk, rolling his eyes, all of which Bush is very good at."

So to sum up: Bush used the power of his incumbency to stage the debate in a way that enabled him to taunt his opponent without any voters finding out. Classy guy, our President.

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