WASHINGTON — When George Bush wins on Nov. 8, it's going to be the biggest political comeback since the presidential election of 1948, when another man who'd been vice president to a giant had the effrontery to ask for the support of a nation that seemed more interested in making fun of him--his flat, irritating voice, his uninspired style--than it was in supporting him against the little, dark-haired governor from the Northeast who everyone knew would win because of his reputation for competence, his cool intelligence, his personal rectitude, and anyway after all these years it's time for a change.
Before that, Bush is going to hit bottom. His friends think he already has. I think they're wrong. Like Harry S. Truman, Bush won't find his rhythm--won't find himself and his candidacy's true meaning--until the waning days of autumn.
The odd thing about Bush is he's been famous for 20 years and the American people don't really know him. His friends say if they could get every American to sit down with him in the kitchen and watch him live his life, he'd win in a walk. They'd see how kind he is, how funny and unpretentious.
I think they're right--Bush is going to come through as the campaign progresses. And on TV, not in the kitchen--because his kitchen isn't that big. Sheer exhaustion will wear down his self-consciousness (I actually think he's shy on TV) and, as he gets close to the big day, the imminence of defeat will liberate him; he'll soar from the abyss.
This is who Bush is: During the New Hampshire primary, he's the man who stayed calm and philosophical when he was 10 points down and the tracking polls were saying his position was eroding more each day. What I remember is Bush sprawled out on a couch with his hands behind his head, saying, "We've done a good job, we've run a good campaign, we've done what we could do. I'm not going to turn this thing upside down. I'm fatalistic. And I'm comfortable." And then minutes later, matter of fact, "But we're going to win. That's what I think."
No scramble, no second-guessing: Re-adjust strategy to meet altered circumstances but don't panic--and keep on keepin' on. During the campaign Bush was told of a candidate who boasted, as he left the race, that he'd done as much damage to Bush as he could. He took the news without changing his expression and looked out the car window. Then he said softly, to no one, "What's wrong with a person like that, to think in those terms." He shook his head. "That's sick," he said. He wasn't angry or surprised--he was disappointed.
There's the Bush who gets upset when he finds out the spouse of an aide was too shy to come into the residence when there was a meeting, and who comes out and tries to coax him in. Pat Buchanan once told me how, after Watergate, he returned to Washington to find that ex-Nixon aides weren't exactly in demand. The first neighbors to come welcome him with a bottle of wine and a pep talk were George and Barbara Bush.
Bush's natural manner is soft-spoken. He's always leaning forward on TV, but not in person; and he doesn't jab the air, he is laid back and thoughtful. The first time I met with him, he was curled up in a chair with his feet on a coffee table, relaxed and reading something. I wrote in my notes: A comma in an easy chair.
His family loves him. A reporter once told me of how one of Bush's sons became choked with emotion as he described the letters he'd received over the years from his father. He has been married 43 years to a strong, warm woman. He banters with his wife; she teases him.
Americans get their candidates through TV and TV does not add to Bush, it takes from him. He moves, for instance, like an aging athlete--rangy and fluid. But on TV his movements are choppy, without ease.
I suspect all this is complicated by the fact that he knows he is a member and representative of an endangered species: the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, Eastern seaboard division. We all play our ethnic group and wear our affiliations; but how do you wear true-blue WASP in the new America? With a kind of wry awkwardness, it seems.
The irony is that Bush seems most comfortable on the stump when surrounded by average ethnic Americans--and he touches something in them. The night before the New Hampshire primary, Bush's staff blanketed the television market with a half-hour program; the vice president was questioned by a big group of middle- and working-class folks. The Q&A was swift, revealing and funny. It brought out the best in him, and his funniest line. When asked about criticism of his patrician background, he said it's true he was born in affluent Greenwich but he couldn't help it, he wanted to be near his mother at the time.
I suspect Bush has, over the years, repeatedly been told that he should try harder to seem like the man he is--that he should act strong and resolute. So he tries to act the part--shaking his head sternly, shooting his hands out to make a point, using blunt phrases.