Bush is outgoing, bluff, hearty on Election Day

ROGER SIMON

November 04, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

HOUSTON -- Victory can be so sweet that one sometimes has to pinch oneself to make sure it is real. Defeat, on the other hand, has a very different feel.

And it smacked George Bush in the face very early yesterday.

Shortly after Bush awoke on Election Day, his staff began working on his concession speech.

Oh, yeah, they slapped together a victory speech, too. But nobody kidded themselves for a second that Bush would ever get to deliver it.

After months of being encased in the steel cocoon that is a presidential campaign, the George Bush re-election staff was finally getting a dose of reality.

And it found it did not like it.

But you know who took it the best this day? George Bush.

Though it was in short supply during the campaign, Bush managed to go out with some class.

He came down to breakfast in the atrium of the Houstonian Hotel, his fictional "home" in Texas, where he maintains a room in order to vote.

And nobody on his staff knew what to say to him. Nobody knew how to face him.

His staff had assumed that he would want to be alone on this worst day of his political life.

But the opposite was true: Bush was outgoing, bluff, hearty. And he pulled up a chair and sat down.

"He made it easy," a staffer said. "He was thinking of us."

A waiter immediately materialized at Bush's elbow. Bush ordered waffles. Everybody laughed.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Bush relentlessly had pounded Bill Clinton for being a "waffler." And now Bush (who prefers oatmeal) was making a little joke to pick up the spirits of those around him.

His staffers immediately spun a strategy for him: They would contact the networks and get them to delay calling the election early for Clinton. That way Bush voters might still turn out in some key states.

Bush listened to this fantasy. It was nonsense that this could make any difference. And it was nonsense that the networks would listen to such a request, especially from a president who was about to be defeated.

Bush was not kidding himself, not any more. He was already beginning the long, painful process of coming to grips with the reality of his defeat.

And in one sense he now felt liberated. And he signaled it early:

A president's public time is tightly scheduled so the media can plan their coverage of it. And Bush was scheduled to vote early on Election Day so the morning TV shows could use the videotape for their East Coast time slots.

But Bush went for a leisurely jog and left the hotel late and got to his polling place more than an hour past schedule. And none of the shows (with their hated "talking heads") could get the pictures to the East in time.

The network reporters were flabbergasted. Not in 12 years in the White House had George Bush ever done such a thing.

"He's not on Media Time anymore," came the explanation. "He's on George Bush Time now."

And he was using it as he wished.

After voting in the gymnasium of St. Mary's Seminary, he was asked by a reporter if he was glad the the campaign was over.

"Very, very pleased," Bush said.

Later, he announced he was going shopping. And his motorcade sped over to a strip shopping mall, where Bush plunked down $6 for a quail hunting license and also bought a bait casting reel for bass. Then he went to a Sound Warehouse store and bought seven country and western and easy listening tapes.

Clearly this was a man who planned to have some leisure time.

How long he had known, really known, that he would be the first elected Republican president since Herbert Hoover to be voted out of office we do not know.

But I think I know when he suspected:

On Monday, in an airplane hangar in Louisville, Ky., on a day when his campaign should have been building to a rousing crescendo, George Bush sat in the back seat of the presidential limousine with James Baker, the man who was supposed to save him from defeat.

And neither man said a word. Both men just sat there, staring forward.

There was nothing left to say. Or to do. Except face reality.

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