Bush's revealing interview

August 12, 1999|By George F. Will

FORTUNATELY for George W. Bush, the first issue of Talk magazine featured Hillary Clinton blaming her husband's glandular life on his grandmother. The resulting hilarity distracted attention from Tucker Carlson's profile of Mr. Bush in the same issue.

Mr. Carlson, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, admires Mr. Bush, but his article has dismayed some Republicans, who understand how heavily invested their party is in Mr. Bush. They are not suffering buyer's remorse, but they are unsettled by what the profile suggests about the candidate's frame of mind.

Bold type over Mr. Carlson's article says: "George W. Bush doesn't give a damn what you think of him. That may be why you'll vote for him for president." But few will think more of Mr. Bush after reading the article.

Regarding Mr. Carlson's reporting of Mr. Bush's several uses of the f-word, Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's communications director, who travels with him, says, "I don't remember those words being used." She says Mr. Bush agrees with those who say such language is inappropriate.

Mr. Carlson, who says he remembers the words, quotes a Bush aide who says Mr. Bush "used to say `fk' a lot more before this all started."

Dwight Eisenhower could turn the air blue with barracks profanity. Ronald Reagan, too, knew the pleasures of salty language. But not in front of the children, meaning the press.

The most disquieting aspect of Mr. Carlson's report of Mr. Bush's language is not what it says about Mr. Bush's ability to dignify politics after President Clinton's squalor. Rather, it is that Mr. Bush may have been showing off for Mr. Carlson, daring to be naughty. He may be proving his independence, which Mr. Carlson likes, but it is independence from standards of public taste -- not the sort of independence many voters will be seeking in a successor to Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Carlson reports asking Mr. Bush whether he met with any people who came to Texas to protest the execution of the murderer Karla Faye Tucker. Mr. Bush said no, adding: "I watched [Larry King's] interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like `What would you say to Governor Bush?' " Mr. Carlson asked, "What was her answer?" and writes:

" `Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, `don't kill me.' "

Ms. Hughes, who says Mr. Bush's decision not to commute Tucker's sentence was "very difficult and very emotional," says Mr. Carlson's report is "a total misread" of Mr. Bush. Mr. Carlson, who describes Mr. Bush as "smirking," says: "I took it down as he said it."

Nothing remotely resembling the King-Tucker exchange that Mr. Bush describes appears in the transcript of Mr. King's hour-long Jan. 14, 1998, program. And it is difficult to imagine anything Mr. Bush said that Mr. Carlson may have "misread" that could do Mr. Bush credit.

Again, what is troubling to Republicans who have plighted their troth to this man is not that they think he is a coarse or cruel man. Rather it is that Mr. Carlson's profile suggests an atmosphere of adolescence, a lack of gravitas -- a carelessness, even a recklessness, perhaps born of things having gone a bit too easily so far.

Mr. Bush has recently referred to Greeks as "Grecians," Kosovars as "Kosovians," East Timorese as "East Timorians," conservatism as "conservativism" and confused Slovenia with Slovakia. Such slips are understandable.

However, having committed them, Mr. Bush should take care not to exacerbate the suspicion that he has a seriousness deficit. When he was asked by Mr. Carlson to name something he isn't good at, he should not have said, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something."

Mr. Bush told James Barnes of the National Journal, "I'm a decisive person" who doesn't "read treatises," and he told Mr. Carlson, "I'm not interested in process. I want the results. If the process doesn't yield the right results, change the process." All very brusque and hearty.

But process, a k a constitutionalism and the rule of law, has its charms, especially after the Clintons' depredations.

Mr. Bush is taking the GOP along on his ride. He and it will care if next year voters think of the Democrats' choice as an unexciting but serious professor and of him as an amiable fraternity boy.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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