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CAMPAIGN 2000

The Softer Side of Bush: George W. Visits Oprah

September 20, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — He believes in God, he's grateful for love, he thinks he's of the people and smarter than them all at once. He gushed about his wife, cheered up when talking about his daughters' birth. He's a major fan of PB&J.

He is George W. Bush, and he's on the second day of Going Where the Girls Are Week, chatting Tuesday morning with talk show diva Oprah Winfrey about everything from civics and spirituality to sandwiches and sobriety.

As he battled to win back the women voters he has lost to Democratic rival Al Gore, the Republican nominee for president stayed solidly on message and in character, all education and the American dream, all wise-cracking charm and self-deprecating humor.

Introspective, however, he wasn't--not even when questioned by a woman who makes millions plumbing the hearts of America's distaff side. On a show whose audience is 76% female. At a time when he is wooing women with a vengeance. While sitting in the same seat occupied by the vice president eight days earlier.

"Tell us about a time when you've needed forgiveness," Winfrey probed. "Right now," the Texas governor cracked, before continuing: "When my heart turns dark. When I, uh, am jealous. Or when I am spiteful."

Not good enough. "I'm looking for specifics," Winfrey prodded. "I know you are," Bush laughed, "but I'm running for president."

The son of America's 41st president did get a little more specific when asked by a viewer what he thought was the public's greatest misconception about him: "Probably [that] I'm running on my daddy's name, that, you know, if my name were George Jones," and he paused and smiled, "I'd be a country and western singer."

Bush said that he believes in fate and that being born into his storied family is just one reason he's a "blessed person." But he also told Winfrey that being perceived as a legacy is a burden he's lived with "all my life."

Don't get him wrong, he quickly continued, "I love my dad a lot. He's a fabulous man." And no, he responded emphatically, when asked the pointed follow-up: Don't you think "even in the teeny, tiniest part of yourself," that your presidential bid is about restoring the family name to the White House?

"Not even in the teeniest, tiniest part," Bush said, challenging what he viewed as Winfrey's characterization that he's "running out of revenge."

"That is such a negative thought," he responded. "I'm running for positive reasons . . . There are better ways to uphold the honor of my family and that's to be a decent, loving citizen who is willing to contribute to our community."

Those who follow the campaign closely would have recognized Bush's biographical set pieces during the Tuesday morning talk show, along with the basic themes of his campaign for president.

He was asked by a 25-year-old African American woman how someone like her could fit into his agenda. She is part of his vision, Bush told her, because she lives in a nation "that says the American dream is meant for you." And then he went into a riff on education.

He was asked about giving up alcohol when he turned 40. It was "beginning to compete for my affections," Bush said. "It was beginning to crowd out my energy." Another factor, he added, was his wife, Laura: "There were some times when she said, 'You need to think about what you are doing.' "

Winfrey's first two political interviews in 15 years on the talk-show circuit were different at least in tone. She was chummy with Gore, more challenging with Bush. The Gore segment was uneventful; the Bush show drew Winfrey's first in-audience heckler.

Even the segment on "favorite things" varied. Gore was asked his favorite book, quotation, cereal, teacher, thing to sleep in, time of year. Bush was queried on his favorite gift to give ("kiss to my wife"), fast food (taco), sandwich (peanut butter and jelly on white), historical figure (Winston Churchill).

And then came the stumper. Winfrey: "Favorite dream." Bush, appearing flustered, repeated: "Favorite dream?" And he sat back, and he blushed, and he raised his hand and he made eye contact with the host and the audience laughed.

America never learned, on the telecast anyway, what the candidate actually dreams of. In the oddest moment of a three-state campaign day otherwise devoted to school safety and a town hall meeting, reporters did learn, sort of.

Communications director Karen Hughes was asked after the show whether the blushing Bush was thinking about, oh, something personal, maybe racy even. Absolutely not, she insisted: Laura Bush was just shocked to think that anyone could have interpreted her husband's response in such a fashion.

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