`W.' stops by in campaign polished to the letter

Bush: The GOP candidate fills The Door with folksiness, smiles and cameras before North Chester Street empties again.

July 15, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Something big had to be happening on North Chester Street in East Baltimore yesterday, what with all the NO PARKING signs lashed to the trees, the police barricades sealing off the block, the cops and police cruisers. And, oh yes, the sudden and dramatic influx of strangers in jackets and ties.

The reporters, the TV camera guys, the guys with coiled wires in their ears, all milling around the Formstone facade of what used to be a Lutheran church. It's now the headquarters of The Door, a group devoted to making the neighborhood better -- helping kids learn, keeping them busy in the summer, rebuilding decayed houses. So you knew this was major because these are the kind of visitors seen only when there's big news. And around here that's not necessarily good news. Folks knew it was big when they saw a city cleanup crew come through in the morning to pick up litter on the street. As the saying goes, alert the media.

This was big. Bigger than President Clinton. Oh sure, he was across town at the Convention Center yakking with a crowd of big-shot Democrats. But really, Clinton is old news compared to the fellow expected on North Chester Street, this fellow who is The Story, absolutely the man of the moment for anyone who actually has a mind to follow presidential politics in the middle of summer.

Even if you'd much rather know about this or that new kid the Orioles brought up from Rochester, you have to make a part-time job of avoiding hearing about this fellow, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Seven months before they cast a ballot in Dixville Notch, N.H., we're about at the point where you can just say "W." and it's understood.

He's done the news magazine covers and the TV news shows. The guy is everywhere, cracking that smile that might have been lifted from one of his old man's campaign posters. They say temperamentally he's a chip off Barbara Bush, but he's got his father's face, the same blue eyes and the angular nose. The same easygoing manner with the crowds, making you think for a fleeting moment he's a regular guy with an ear for your troubles, not a Texas millionaire who graduated from Harvard and Yale and Phillips Andover before that and bought and sold a piece of a baseball team and now is the center of a breathtaking political money machine.

The guy is good. So good and so connected and so widely seen as a solid investment that some folks are standing back and shrugging their shoulders and starting to wonder if maybe the whole thing is already over.

Not one vote cast, at least not in a booth with a curtain. Just in rooms where checks are written.

As of this moment: roughly $36.2 million. But that's not including about $400,000 he picked up at a luncheon in McLean, Va., yesterday, and more from a fund-raiser at the Hyatt in Baltimore last night.

Did you say photo op?

Ah, but there was this one stop to make before that. A little meet-and-greet photo opportunity in a diversity theme with folks doing good works in a style Republicans love to celebrate: with virtually no help from taxpayers.

Nevermind that "W." made his first serious money in life by selling his share in the Texas Rangers, a baseball franchise whose value soared with construction of The Ballpark at Arlington, subsidized by taxpayers.

Across the street from The Door people are waiting on stoops and leaning on their elbows out of second-story windows. A couple doors down from The Door, a crew working for the organization is fixing up a rundown rowhouse.

Shortly after 3 p.m. three vans turn south off Orleans onto North Chester. "W." steps out of a white Chevy Astro in front of The Door in a white shirt and blue tie with little silver stars on it and offers the Bush smile and a folksy greeting: "How's everybody doing today?"

Say whatever you want to say about the Bushes, whatever layer of the socio-economic stratosphere they happen to occupy, there is a certain family gift for folksiness. Apparently that's going to come into play here, as Bush strategist Karl Rove told Time magazine last month -- get this -- they're figuring on playing Bush as the populist vis-a-vis the "true elitist," Vice President Al Gore.

Because this is life in the United States of Plastic Perceptions. What a good thing it was that "W." was known in his Texas Rangers days to wear shoes with holes in the bottom.

Shucks, he wasn't even going to keep those Gucci loafers someone gave him as a gift. Nevermind that he made about $15 million when he sold the club.

Nevermind that.

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