AUSTIN, Texas - Where's Governor Bush?
Oh, sure, physically, George W. Bush spent much of yesterday in his office at the state Capitol here, working on the transition process that he expects eventually will take him from Austin to Washington and from governor to president.
But to some longtime observers, the easygoing Bush who has charmed Texas over the years seems to be disappearing as a more constricted, a more "presidential," persona emerges.
It was his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, who was supposed to be the wooden one. But there was Bush on Sunday night, staring straight ahead - the better to read the TelePrompTer - stiffly delivering what for him was a long-delayed victory speech.
"He's a fun guy," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But when the stakes are high, he will read speeches like that, to make sure he doesn't stumble, or get things bollixed up, to convey his seriousness and to seem presidential.
"Maybe once all these legal challenges are over, he'll go back to being warm and personable again."
That is Paul Burka's hope as well. The executive editor of the rollicking magazine Texas Monthly, Burka has known Bush for more than 15 years. The old Bush, that is.
"The saddest thing about the campaign for me, personally, was to see someone I had thought and had written about as just this force of nature politician, a perfect fit for Texas, go out in the nation and seem to diminish," Burka said. "I hope he gets it back."
It is, of course, beyond premature to start assessing Bush's performance as president-elect, especially since not everyone is acknowledging that he is president-elect. He is in an unenviable, betwixt-and-between position: He is the almost president, the maybe president.
The challenge, then, is to seem presidential but not presumptuous, as some believed Bush appeared the day after the election. Then, he publicly busied himself with transition matters in a way that seemed premature to many who felt the Florida tally was incomplete.
Now, though, with the Florida certification, the public opinion tide has shifted, and more Americans believe Gore should concede.
Bush's Sunday night speech was his first step into what he called "a different phase."
The speech reminded Burka of one Bush gave last year at the Reagan Library in California, the same gestureless, inflectionless style that gave no indication of the human being behind it.
"He just wanted to get the words out without making any mistakes," Burka said. "He's not an experienced public speaker. Sure, he spoke to the Rotary clubs when he owned the Rangers, but the political speech doesn't come naturally to him."
Except for his Sunday night speech, Bush has ventured out in the public eye only briefly - striding in or out of the state Capitol or the Governor's Mansion, greeted usually by a group of enthusiastic constituents who have grown accustomed in this intimate city to being able to walk up to him and shake his hand.
Even during these friendly exchanges, he seems to hold back. Yesterday outside the Capitol, when a fan boomed out, "You are the man, yeah!", Bush looked at him rather blankly.
Flashes of his good humor can still emerge, of course. When Austin American-Statesman reporter Ken Herman asked Bush yesterday how he should be addressed during this transition phase, the governor replied, "`Sir' - at least in your case."
People like Burka are starting to speak a bit wistfully about Bush, like a parent watching a son go off to college. Proud, yes, but worried; ready to let him go, but hoping everyone will be nice to him.
"I hope he gets good grades," Burka says with a rueful laugh. "I hope he does well. I hope the country does well."
The parent-child analogy is a good one, he thinks, because Bush is still a relatively new politician, coming to politics relatively later than most after a career as a businessman. He's learning on the job, Burka said, but under less than felicitous circumstance.
"He doesn't yet look presidential, but he needs more time," Burka said. "Bush's problem is he may not have time. He may not get the honeymoon that other presidents get."
Jillson said Bush should get his groove back after this week, after the U.S. Supreme Court gives what he believes will be the final word on this endlessly contested election.
Bush has a "winning" personality, and Jillson said that will serve him well in difficult times.
"There is bad blood between Democrats and Republicans," he said. "He has to face the country, particularly Democrats, and bring them on board."
Jillson gives Bush a C+ for his Sunday night speech, a middling grade because he thinks the governor made conciliatory gestures but then got bogged down in talking about his own pet programs, like eliminating the death tax, when he should have tried for a more healing tone.
"He began the process," Jillson said, "but now he needs to do more."