Politics & Policy

Is That Oprah? Johnny? Dubya?

Friends, I attended a presidential event last Wednesday, and I’d like to tell you a little about it. This was at Anne Arundel Community College, in Arnold, Md. (about eight miles outside Annapolis). Why was I there? I was going to interview Bob Ehrlich, the governor of Maryland. His day began with this presidential event at the college.

This was one of Bush’s “real people” presentations, in which he acts as a kind of talk-show host, with ordinary citizens around him–but ordinary citizens who are especially inspiring, and can make certain presidential points. Wednesday’s event was focused on education and jobs. Bush had with him two exemplary students (the real people), the president of the community college, a local hospital administrator, and the governor.

Bush was 100 percent himself: folksy, engaging, quick, informed, confident, brusque, sympathetic, sort of wise-ass. I had never heard him so Texan (in speech). He might have been on the ranch, talkin’ to his hands. If you like the president, you loved this performance. If you don’t like him–you would have ground your teeth to a fine dust. It is said that George W. is a polarizing figure. I concede that.

He is a very good talk-show host. For one thing, he moves that puppy along. He interrupts, he demands clarifications, he allots equal time. He would be terrific on an NR cruise! (You come on them, if you can, don’t you?)

At the community college, I jotted down some notes, and I’d like to share them with you. Regular readers know my fascination with Bush-speak, and the Bush style, and with political theater generally. You will bear with me, I hope.

Bush bounded out onto the stage and said, “Thank you all for comin’. I appreciate the warm welcome.” He was drawlin’ and twangin’ right out of the gate; you have to hear it through this dull type. As the audience cheered, he said, “Go ahead and be seated. We’ve got some work to do.”

In the course of introducing his guests, he said, “The governor’s here, how ’bout that?” He sounded not unlike Johnny Carson (I mean, in the way he handled the show, not in his Texas, de-Kennebunkported English). He said to Ehrlich, “Mom and Dad here?” (They were.) “Still listening to Mom, aren’t you?”

Ehrlich responded, “Absolutely.” Bush said, “Yeah, so am I.”

Shortly after, he made his get-tough statement on Syria–and to Syria–which included, “You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish.” I wondered whether he meant to say “services,” plural. Probably did. But I thought of “the Internets,” from one of the presidential debates last fall. (I still sometimes say “the Internets,” to myself–I mean it as a kind of tribute.)

Later, Bush said, “. . . I look forward to continuing to work with friends and allies to advance freedom–not America’s freedom, but universal freedom, freedom granted by a Higher Being.” I thought immediately of something Richard Cohen wrote, which we’d discussed in this column. You remember his snide remark? He referred to “[the] firm and unmistakably American belief that history is our pal, our angel–ours, and not anyone else’s . . .”

That is not Bush’s belief, not mine, and not that of anyone I know, I would wager.

Bush talked about “lawsuit reform,” preferring it to “tort reform,” obviously. He later talked about “job-creators,” referring to businessmen, employers–a very nice touch. Control crazy asbestos suits, so as not to ruin “job-creators.” The man is a thinker and a pol.

When Bush wants to be emphatic, he often does something peculiar with the word “a”: He pronounces it “ay” (rhyming with “day”), not “uh.” Hence, “We got ay problem.” Given the hounding of doctors by unwarranted malpractice suits, “we got ay problem.”

Here’s a nice bit of Bush-speak: “It would be neat if, someday, somebody walked in and said, ‘We’re growin’ more crop, and therefore we’re less dependent on foreign sources of energy.’” Growin’ more crop — sounds good out of Bush’s mouth. Just tickled me, that’s all.

(In Dundee, Mich., I once heard an older man say, “I drove truck for a living.”)

Bush, when speaking of the federal budget deficit: “I submitted a good lean budget to Congress.”

On Social Security: “There’s a lot of baby-boomers like me gettin’ ready to retire. [Do you ever think of W. as a baby-boomer?] Fortunately, in my case, later rather than sooner.”

Okay: When you read this next bit, you’ve got to hear Bush at his very most Texan–especially on the words “Don’t be passin’ . . .”:

“Now, older Americans have nothing to worry about. Nothing changes. I don’t care what the propaganda says: You’re taken care of, and will be taken care of. But younger Americans need to worry, because when you think about a system that goes in the red $200 billion one year, more the next year, more the next year, and more the next year, you need to be [telling] people like me and members of the United States Congress, ‘You better fix it before it becomes a crisis. Don’t be passin’ on problems to future generations. You were elected to solve problems now.’”

Leave Bush for a moment to ponder this: A couple of sign-language translators were doing their thing, and I wondered–as I often do at these events–”Is there anyone deaf present who’s benefiting from this?” Perhaps it’s impolite to wonder.

But I mean, are you notified in advance, that there will be deaf persons in attendance, and that you’d better have signers on the job? I’ve never known.

Back to our Bush programming: You should hear the president say “accountability,” when he’s in emphatic mode. (You probably have–especially when the subject is testing in schools.) He speaks slowly, and he hits those hard consonants. He sounds like a slightly angry Mr. Rogers: “ac-count-a-bil-i-ty.” Same with “pro-duc-tiv-i-ty.” When Bush pronounces that word, it actually sounds like “pro-ductivity,” the opposite of “anti-ductivity.”

“The term of art these days is pro-ductivity . . .”

Here, Bush is quite good (and I hope you can sense his sarcasm):

“We spend about $16 billion a year on workforce training, except only about 200,000 people got trained. It’s not a very good record. See, part of my job as the president [never “president”–always “the president,” like “the taxes”] is to say, ‘Is the program actually working? It sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s spend money for workforce training.’ It’s just when you train 200,000 people with $16 billion, I think we can do a better job than that.”

Later, he cracked, “We at least ought to shoot for 400,000 people”–fabulous.

Here is the ex-governor on governors:

“[Being flexible with states is] a little problem for some in Washington: ‘Why trust the governor?’ I encountered that when I was a governor. Good news is, I was a governor [and now I’m president–excuse me, the president–and I understand governors’ needs]. I trust local people. It’s a fundamental part of my political philosophy: The closer decision-making is to the people, the better the decision-making will be.”

And what does Bush love? God? His wife? His country? Sure, but also Pell grants: “I love Pell grants–because they help folks that need help. They really reinforce dreams, don’t they? You got a society that says aim big, dream big, and what a Pell grant does, it says, for those who can’t afford higher education, the rightful role of government is to help you realize your dreams.”

Get this: “People say to me, ‘Do I have to repay my loan?’” Pause, pause–perfect timing. “Yeah” (nodding). “It’s part of a responsibility society, isn’t it?”

Turning to Governor Ehrlich, Bush said, “Why don’t you share with the good folks, [including] the C-SPAN watchers like my mother–Hi, Mom . . .”

Ehrlich was wearing a pink tie, decorated with the letter W (lots of tiny ones). This was a souvenir from the ‘04 campaign, distributed by the president’s sister Doro, who lives in Maryland. Ehrlich said, “First of all, I want some extra credit for wearing my W tie today.” Bush said, “Very good, yes. Hot item. I don’t know about the pink.”

At one point, Ehrlich said, “We [in Maryland] have begun one-stop shops.” Bush, like an alert talk-show host, or moderator, interrupted, saying, “Nobody knows what a one-stop shop is”–and Ehrlich explained.

In due course, Bush introduced the president of the college–Anne Arundel (that’s the name of the college, not the president)–and the audience responded heartily. “She’s not going to give you an A just because you’re cheering loud,” said Bush.

And this may be my favorite part of the day. As you know, a presidential visit is a very big deal, very cumbersome, a pain in the neck. Bush said, “Appreciate you puttin’ up with the entourage.” I wish you could have heard the way he said “entourage”–almost mockingly, and with those syllables separated: “en-tou-rage.” The Anne Arundel prez said, “Oh, they were wonderful. They were wonderful.” Bush said, like a somewhat stern but twinkly parent, “That’s good. That’s the way they should be.”

When he was going for a certain answer, Bush confessed to “leading the witness.” I think even critics of Bush acknowledge that he is sincere, unphony. I mean, can you imagine Bill Clinton cheerfully admitting, “I’m leading the witness here . . .”?

Moreover–Governor Ehrlich and I were discussing this later–do you remember that Clinton was ever self-deprecating? I can’t. Reagan self-deprecated, Bush 41 self-deprecated, W. does. I can’t remember that Clinton ever did so. I think vanity and insecurity precluded it.

I mean, Reagan joked about his “sleepless afternoons” (though he never took a nap–he was just embracing the comedians’ image). Bush 41 joked about his WASPiness and inarticulateness, and W. jokes that he and Schwarzenegger are both foreigners to our language. Did Clinton ever do something fun with McDonald’s hamburgers, for instance? No–he just huffily denied that he ate many of them.

No wonder he never got anywhere in politics.

(For the really, really obtuse, that was ruefully ironic.)

When he turned to the hospital administrator–representing employers at the show–Bush asked why she had come: “besides being invited,” of course. Another wonderful touch.

The first of the “real people” was a nursing student, an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) going for an RN. “Where were you raised?” Bush asked. The woman replied, “Norf Carolina,” in the southern manner. Later on, Bush himself said, “Norf Carolina”–I swear. The woman had worked for a time as a “travel nurse,” and Bush said, “Travel nursing–kind of like an itinerant preacher in the old days!”

When making some point, Bush wanted to include the woman’s name, and when he got to that part of the sentence, he glanced down at a piece of paper, very smoothly–almost imperceptibly–and nailed the name, without a break (a break in the rhythm of his speech). Most impressive (and, as I said, barely noticeable).

The conversation turned to financing, and the president asked the student, “Was it easy to get a loan?” She said, “Yes, yes–no credit check.” Bush looked scandalized; the audience roared. “We don’t need to go that far,” he said. “Wait a minute!”

Later: “Government can’t make you have desire. The government can’t say, ‘Be desirous.’ But government can say, ‘If you are desirous, we want to help you.’” This, I suppose, is an expression of “compassionate conservatism.”

The show ended with the second real person, this one a man. “Thanks for coming, brother,” said Bush. “What are you doin’?” The student said, “Working hard.” “Me too,” replied Bush. “It’s what you expect of me, though.” The student allowed that he had a child, a little boy, “who is here with me this morning.” “Where is the man?” said Bush. “Malcolm is right over there,” said the student, pointing into the audience. Bush said, “Hi, Malcolm. I’ll see you afterwards.” Resuming his conversation with the student, Bush said, “I understand you’re a single dad.” “Yes, I am,” he replied. Said Bush, “Thanks for doing your duty.”

The audience applauded robustly, as I’m sure it should have. But, for some reason, the line made me cringe. It was the only thing all morning that made me cringe, in the slightest.

Wrapping up–and he had run a tight, brisk ship–Bush said, “. . . the reason we have people come and talk, other than me, is so, one, you’ll listen, and two . . .” That’s my Bush.

As I said, if you love, or even like, President Bush, you loved this hour at Anne Arundel Community College. And if you hate or dislike, you had no shot. Bush is not a perfect, unstumbling public performer like Clinton, but he is just as effective in his own way (a rougher way). Everyone knows that Clinton is a natural; but Bush is a natural too, only a natural sometimes obscured by an abundance of humanness. Clinton and John Edwards are “perfect”–but you have the feeling they are robots who practice in front of a mirror. Bush is . . .

But I’ve gone on enough, not just today, but over years.

‐Every time I write a one-subject column–which is rare–people say, “You have not composed impromptus; you’ve done something else,” and they are right. But I will pull this every once in a while. And next time, we’ll have a more conventional Impromptus, complete with jokes, rants, stunts–the works (I think).

‐It has been some time since I was able to read my mail. I apologize, as I’m always doing. The backlog is . . . unconquerable.

‐Should we end on a little music criticism, just for variety’s sake? You’d rather have all Bush, all the time? Maybe, but for a review of Lorin Maazel’s 75th-birthday celebration, a concert featuring his music alone, conducted by him, go here. And for reviews of the pianist Louis Lortie and the Met’s Don Carlo, go here.

Later, gators.

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