For Bush, the political children's hour is over

February 03, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MAYBE GEORGE W. Bush will begin talking to the grown-ups now. When the numbers arrived from New Hampshire on Tuesday night, showing John McCain with his blowout 49-to-30-percent victory in the Republican presidential primary there, some of us remembered the 200 block of N. Chester St. in Southeast Baltimore and the afternoon last summer when Bush brought his roadshow here but left all traces of seriousness somewhere else.

On the television set Tuesday night, reporters who endured New Hampshire's miserable winter primary spoke rapturously of a McCain who opens his mouth and holds nothing back. They talked, one after another, of McCain's "Straight Talk Express," a campaign bus whose name is intended as a subtle knock at Bush.

Some of us remembered the 200 block of Chester St., and places not so far from it, and wondered if they had all begun to catch up with Bush. He has campaign money beyond counting, but where is his record? He has a famous name, but what does he stand for beyond pedigree?

On Chester Street, he staged a television show instead of a dialogue. In other places, he's dodged the most emotional questions. In South Carolina, asked about the Republican senator who had called the NAACP "the National Association for Retarded People," Bush danced around a response. On the Confederate flag controversy, he called it a "local issue" and ducked it. On racial profiling of motorists, he skirted the issue. All this from the man who wishes to be called a "compassionate conservative."

In New Hampshire, he was repeatedly accused of answering questions with words swiped from his television commercials. He's a law-and-order candidate but won't talk about his history with drugs. His experience in government consists of being governor of Texas, which is 50th in per-capita spending on government programs, 40th in public school spending, 47th in public health spending -- and fifth in the percentage of people living in poverty.

When he came to Baltimore last summer, he talked about none of this. The man who wishes to be president allowed television cameras to follow him along Chester Street as he glanced -- "compassionately," we were to assume -- at the ruins created by neighborhood predators and at efforts being made to restore the neighborhood.

But he refused to answer any questions -- except from little children gathered specifically for the photo opportunity, and the softball questions they would toss his way while cameras recorded the precious scene.

When a reporter complained loudly about this, Bush, wishing to preserve the careful choreography of the moment, ambled over and asked, "What's the problem, ol' buddy?" He offered a friendly wink. Didn't the reporter understand? This was just part of the show, part of a television performance, and not necessarily to be confused with actual life.

Then Bush sat down in front of the children to answer their questions. One asked Bush's wife's name. Another asked about his hobbies.

"Why are you running for president?" a third asked.

"Because I love America," Bush declared.

Oh.

Maybe he will begin to talk to the grown-ups now and speak like a serious person. He runs against an opponent, McCain, whose life is an open book, and an astonishing read. He endured the ravages of hell in Vietnam. Even those who dislike some of McCain's politics -- he's against abortion rights and gun control; he voted to convict Bill Clinton on all impeachment counts; he backs term limits; he's fought legislation barring job discrimination; and he's lobbied against environmental regulations -- still find themselves falling for him in ways thought to be embarrassing for hardened reporters and normal human beings.

Much is made of McCain's authenticity. He has lived a life, and not merely the string-pulling of a rich and famous father. He is the candidate who suffered for America's sins in Southeast Asia. Maybe he is the tribute we pay to the guilt we still feel about Vietnam, for all of the boys who went and all who found a way around it.

After seven years of Bill Clinton's juvenilities, the country's looking for someone who seems to be an adult and knows how to talk like one. Bill Bradley, seeking the most public job in the land, declares himself a private man. Al Gore, past the age of 50, having spent a lifetime in politics, still searches for the proper image, the proper wardrobe, the proper political guru.

And George W. Bush, the front-runner, the man with the great bankroll, must now show the country: Does he know how to talk to us with any depth? Or was that afternoon on Chester Street a hint of the real man, offering a television performance instead of real ideas, offering childish answers to a nation of childlike citizens?

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