Bush is no quitter, Atwater realized in 1980 campaign

ROGER SIMON

November 02, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. -- The gunmetal gray sky hung lower and lower all day until, as the light faded over the flat farmland, it seemed to touch the shoulders of George Bush.

He stood on the little caboose platform of his 19-car campaign train, coughing into his fist and reading each carefully-scripted attack on his opponent from notecards that riffled in the wind.

Hoarse and blowing his nose into a white handkerchief, only one thought seems to sustain him: Win or lose, this will be it for him.

Win or lose, he will never have to campaign again, never have to ask for a vote, never have to beg the people to give his life meaning.

Win or lose, he will soon be free.

And this is what gives him comfort in these last hours. It is so delightful a thought, in fact, that he said this day: "I can hardly believe it."

I cannot tell you with certainty whether George Bush will win or lose. But I can tell you that if he does win, many on his own staff will be very surprised.

Even with all the balloons, all the fireworks, all the cheerleaders and bands, George Bush's last whistlestop trip had all the zest and high spirits of the train that carried Abe Lincoln's body from Washington to Illinois.

And notwithstanding the souped-up, sound-bite rhetoric that his staff cooked up for him before each stop -- "Being attacked on character by Governor Clinton is like being called ugly by a frog!" -- Bush seemed dead behind the eyes.

He has been running for president, after all, for a very long time.

He began in 1980, running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Bush beat Reagan in Iowa, but Reagan beat him in New Hampshire and continued to beat him around the country.

Even though Bush went on to win Michigan, there was no way he could beat Reagan. But George Bush would not drop out of the race.

Lee Atwater, who later would work for Bush, was then working for Reagan. "We kept beating him and beating him and he just kept hanging in and hanging in," Atwater said later. "That's when I learned something about George Bush."

What he learned is this: Whatever else his failings, the guy is no quitter. You give him the ball and he'll carry it. You write him the lines and he'll deliver them.

"He's afraid of the power he has lusted for!" Bush said this day in Wisconsin. "Governor Clinton over the last 24 hours has been frantically flopping around like a bass on the side of the Arkansas River."

Bush claims that he, himself, has never entertained a moment's thought about the possibility of his own defeat. And perhaps that is true. If there is anything politicians possess besides ambition it is an almost limitless capacity for self-delusion.

"Momentum," Bush would tell his press corps every day in 1980. "We've got the Big Mo. This ain't over until the fat lady sings."

And she sang in a voice loud enough for Bush to hear only when Jim Baker came to him and told him he was shutting down the campaign, that going on was pointless and, perhaps, if Bush maintained some shred of dignity he might be in line for vice president.

Where Bush then simmered for eight years.

And when he ran for the presidency in 1988, he almost blew it. Bob Dole and Pat Robertson beat him in Iowa, and if Bush had not won in New Hampshire, it would have been all over.

The polls were bad, the press was bad, even the weather was bad. But Bush hung in. And in the small gymnasium of Kingswood Regional Junior High in Wolfeboro, N.H., Bush gave what I came to call his "Vote for Me or I'll Kill Myself" speech.

"I don't have to do this," he said, a catch in his voice. "I'm 63 PTC years old. I've got some years of mileage on me and a few lines. But I'm not done yet! I'm not done yet doing the work of the people!"

And now, four years later, when everything seems to be slipping away from him again, he has returned to the formula that worked before.

"This hasn't been a pleasant year," he tells the crowds these days. "I've taken a lot of shots from the media, from Clinton and Gore. And people ask me, why do you need this? I'll tell you why. I don't need the job, but I want the job. I want to finish the job. And lemme tell you, I finish what I start!"

Maybe. But only if the people let him.

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