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To the White House, Baby.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL WITH GEORGE W. BUSH, A REPORTER GETS AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE PROCESS OF CHOOSING OUR NATION'S LEADER AND, IN RARE MOMENTS, A GLIMPSE OF THE PERSON BEHIND THE CANDIDATE

On the long, winding, and peculiar trail that could very well deposit Texas Governor George W. Bush in the Oval Office, there have been moments more pivotal and moments more perilous. But for my money--and amusement--there has not yet been a moment as memorable as the one when Bush loved the babies three times.

In the standard speech that Bush delivers to audiences in New Hampshire or Iowa or Michigan or New York, he promises that the America he envisions, the America he hopes to lead, will exhort young, unmarried men and women not to have children, not to stifle the achievement of dreams with an awesome responsibility they may not be ready to handle.

But Bush, who likes to call himself a "compassionate conservative," also pledges that any children born into such difficult situations will not be neglected by society. "We will love the babies in America," Bush vows. And then, once again, as if he has been seized suddenly by conviction and has to repeat it, Bush adds, "We'll love the babies."

SOUNDS SPONTANEOUS

It sounds like a spontaneous addition of emphasis, an impromptu exclamation point. It isn't. Bush has loved the babies twice in Buffalo, New York, and Bedford, New Hampshire. He has loved the babies twice not only for the six months that he has been formally campaigning for the Presidency, but also for many of the five years he has been governor of Texas.

So when, in Seneca, South Carolina, in early November, he loved the babies a third time, turning a verbal tic into a near stutter, aides to Bush and reporters who had been slumbering through Bush's speech snapped instantly to attention.

"Did you hear that?" a reporter asked.

"There's no end to our loving of the babies," a Bush aide responded.

THE CROWD GOES WILD

There were grins and quips all around, and for this reason: a Presidential campaign is so carefully plotted and programmed that even the slightest deviation from the plan is like an oasis in the desert to the press corps. When we spotted this one, we dived into it and drank it up.

To shadow Bush--or, for that matter, many other candidates--is to listen to the same words over and over, ad infinitum. The people in Arizona have not heard what he said to the people in Georgia, and the people in Georgia have not heard what he said to the people in Florida. So why not tell them all the same thing?

But I've heard it many times a week, and sometimes many times a day, because I, along with a handful of other reporters, dutifully trail Bush everywhere-he goes, from diners in New Hampshire to hotel ballrooms in South Carolina. I hang on his every word, rummage for fresh tidbits, transcribe audio tapes that all sound pretty much the same, and wonder all the while whether this whole process has any relevance at all to a candidate's ability to make the big decisions that shape a country's destiny.

REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE

Of course, the candidates do more than simply recite their lines. They also shake hands. On more than a few days, my assignment means standing and watching, for 45 minutes a stretch, in three different locations, as Bush, the son of a former President, reaches out and touches the people who swarm around him as if he were a rock star. He will not leave a town hall or a restaurant until he has shaken hands with everyone who wants to. By nightfall, Bush's right hand is sometimes visibly chafed and swollen.

And then there are the debates, which are supposed to be more illuminating, but sometimes aren't. With six candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination on the stage, no one of them has much time to say anything, and they tend to stick to canned remarks lifted directly from their speeches.

The fun part comes in the minutes after each debate ends, when the aides and advisers to the candidates amble with a feigned casualness into the packed press room where I and the other reporters are pounding furiously on the keyboards of our laptops, using the mere 30 minutes or so until our deadlines to churn out stories.

A Bush aide will ask: Did you catch the Governor's comments on taxes? Weren't they sharp?

An aide to one of Bush's rivals, Steve Forbes, will ask: Did you catch Bush's comments on taxes? Weren't they confusing?

THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

It has an undeniable air of absurdity about it, and I must confess that I am still trying to figure out what it all means, if indeed it means anything at all. But I do know why I make a point of being around for every moment, large and small: because it is impossible to predict when a candidate will present a glimpse of himself that is utterly candid and truly revelatory, that tells the observer something about who he really is, not how his aides have packaged and prepared him.

For example, I know that Bush has a good sense of humor, and can't resist a smart-aleck comment now and then, even if it makes him seem a bit more irreverent than some Americans might want a President to be. When he arrived in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the first Republican debate in December, a reporter asked him what he thought was at stake. "I like mine medium rare," Bush deadpanned.

NEXT TARGET: ME

Bush can also be fast on his feet, as I learned one morning in upstate New York. I had just written a story suggesting that he was not too fervent a reader of books, and as his motorcade passed by me, he brought the sport utility vehicle in which he was riding to a halt, rolled down the window and asked me how I was.

Tired, I said, complaining that the campaign schedule on this day had started at the crack of dawn.

"I got up early," Bush drawled, "because I was in the middle of a really good book." Then, seemingly reflecting on his own remark, he said, "Touche!" Up went both his eyebrows and his window, and off he drove.

FRANK BRUNI, a Washington correspondents for The New York Times, is following George W. Bush's campaign.
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Title Annotation:following the Bush campaign
Author:Bruni, Frank
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 17, 2000
Words:1086
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