'Chicken George' lays a big egg on debates


September 28, 1992|By MIKE ROYKO

Until now, George Bush has had an overwhelming advantage in the nasty nickname competition. Bill Clinton was "Slick Willie," a tag put on him by a hostile Arkansas columnist. But Bush didn't have a nasty nickname, unless you want to count the tired, old "wimp" label.

But that's changing. There is a growing movement, as political pundits like to say, to stick Bush with the name "Chicken George."

Signs saying "Chicken George" are popping up along his and Clinton's campaign trails. Hecklers wearing chicken costumes are beginning to appear.

Some have expanded the theme to snide signs that say: "Chickens have no lips," referring to Bush's broken tax pledge.

It's all very mean, but Bush has nobody to blame but himself. Or James Baker, or whoever else is making his campaign decisions.

He's being called "Chicken George" because he is ducking debates with Clinton.

Why is he ducking the debates? It depends on who you want to believe.

In private, some of Bush's people say that Bush has little or nothing to gain by debating a glib talker like Clinton. So they hope that by hammering him as a draft dodger and governor of a yokel state that has poultry doo-doo in one of its rivers, they can make people forget about jobs, the economy, freedom of choice and other nagging problems.

For public consumption, Bush's people say that they don't like the format proposed by a bipartisan debate commission.

The commission wants only one person to moderate the debates, a format that would allow Clinton and Bush to really go eyeball to eyeball, nose to nose, or even tummy to tummy.

With only the one moderator nudging them into action, the candidates would have more time to explain their positions. And maybe to say terrible and cruel things about each other, which would be fun to watch.

Clinton says he's happy with the one-moderator format, and little wonder: There isn't another politician in America who can jabber on as long and as easily about any issue. If you asked him why William "The Fridge" Perry is such a fat guy, he would spend an hour talking about the molecular composition of belly blubber, then another hour outlining a 50-point national diet that he will ask Congress to enact after he is elected.

But Bush doesn't want that kind of format. He wants a panel of media people to provide a steady barrage of long, convoluted questions. Media people like to do that because they want to impress their viewers, readers, editors and maybe get invited as a regular on one of the Sunday morning, stiff-lip public affairs shows.

This format would permit Bush to respond with an equally steady barrage of short answers. ("By golly, jobs: good; unemployment: bad. Experience and leadership: good. Arkansas rivers, poultry doo-doo in the water: bad.")

With only one moderator, Clinton might not be asked for the 2,468th time why he didn't enlist or let himself be drafted for the Vietnam War. (If you really want to know, he didn't want to get his butt shot off, which is the way most young men of his generation felt about their butts, including young J. Danforth Quayle.)

But a Sam Donaldson or someone from the McGoofy Group, true to the professional code of media stars and jerks, will not hesitate to raise the draft questions. Or if he ever read dirty books in the bathroom as a lad.

So, with only six weeks left before the election and neither side willing to budge, it appears that we might not get any presidential debates. We will have to choose between the snappiness of their competing sound bites and the skillfulness of their distorted commercials.

But because Bush is the one who is rejecting the recommended format, which is really the most sensible and orderly way to hold a debate, he is being tagged as "Chicken George."

Maybe it is a smart strategy. But history tells us that this country has never once re-elected a president who was known as "Chicken George."

Of course, we've never before had a president who became known as "Chicken George," so maybe this will be a first.

If nothing else, it's a sure way to be remembered.

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