Cheap shot bursts Bush's bubble

November 11, 1999|By Tom Teepen

The pop quiz a Boston TV reporter sprang on George W. Bush was dry-gulch journalism that created a 24-hour sensation, about twice the shelf life it merited. That said, Mr. Bush pretty much brought the resulting embarrassment on himself.

Mr. Bush has been ducking requests for interviews like a rabbit trying to hightail it out of a hailstorm. The ground rules for the interviews he does grant often limit the topics in advance. Reporters covering the presumptive GOP presidential nominee have taken to calling him the candidate in a bubble.

Excessive reticence and overbearing political handling only build up pressure for reporters to have at the candidate with special aggression in the moments when he does turn off the bubble machine. In particular, with a couple of his foreign-affairs gaffes already on the record, reporters have wanted to probe and voters deserve to know Mr. Bush's acumen on international matters.

Unfortunately, WHDH-TV reporter Andy Hiller pulled off more of a stunt than a coup.

Mr. Hiller asked Mr. Bush to name the leaders of India, Pakistan, Taiwan and Chechnya. The candidate got just one right, President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan and him only in truncated form: "Yeah, Lee." That's an F even if you're grading on a curve.

This excited squeals of maidenly fright in foreign-policy circles. And brought an unbecoming boast from Vice President Al Gore's camp that their guy would have aced the test. Maybe, but the claim is unprovable and making it marked Mr. Gore anew as the class prig, just when he is supposed to be morphing into an alpha male.

Mr. Bush's inability to come up on the spur of the moment with Pervaiz Musharraf (Pakistan), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (India) and Aslan Maskhadov (Chechnya) will rightly strike most folks as neither surprising nor very worrisome.

Yes, as the reporter noted, all four preside in especially inflammable hot stops, but Mr. Bush is not yet manning the levers and valves of the nation's foreign-policy machinery. Tripping Mr. Bush as he labors up the learning curve was just cutesy pseudo-journalism and no trick. How much better to have asked just one question that called for knowledgeable response to a major international issue that even an embryonic president should command.

With record and pre-emptive funding, Mr. Bush continues to avoid serious challenge to the GOP nomination. There's a natural temptation not to mess with success.

But the longer Mr. Bush relies on set-piece speeches, personality and daunting bank accounts, the greater the doubts about whether, even if he is the certain nominee, this is a candidate who is ready for presidential prime time.

Until Mr. Bush begins to sit for thoughtful interviews that could end those doubts, he will continue being stung by the random zingers that manage to pop his bubble.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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