Bush's populist pose looks awkward

July 14, 2002|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- It must be frustrating for the George Bushes.

They go through all the motions of proclaiming that they're self-made Texas bidnessmen.

They become president by acting more red-blooded than blue-blooded.

They whup small, backward countries that brutalize their own people and get dizzying approval ratings.

And then, after everything they've done, after all the laurels and plaudits, that darn economy gets its knickers in a twist.

And they are hounded by the same old question they have designed their lives to avoid: Can a Bush -- born on third base but thinking he hit a triple -- ever really understand the problems of the guys in the bleachers?

Despite the efforts of W. and Karl Rove to use Poppy's one-term presidency as a reverse playbook, to instead aim for the populist two-term touch of Ronald Reagan, the junior Mr. Bush now finds himself combating the same accusations of elitism that cost his father re-election.

By November 1991, with the demise of the blue-collar bard Lee Atwater and the decline of the economy, the rich white guys running the first Bush administration were openly admitting they were in a fog of privilege.

"Bush's idea of solving a domestic problem is to fire the maid and yell at the butler," chortled Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The Democrats are going to town again on Bush obliviousness. America is repulsed by corporate gluttony and accounting racketeering. And the younger Mr. Bush must prove that his connection to the common man goes deeper than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The 180-degree turn from "Kenny Boy" to "Book Kenny" is going to be tricky.

How can Mr. Bush crack the whip on Big Business when he's a wholly owned subsidiary of it? His dynastic ties to business gave him his career in oil and baseball, provided the record-breaking $100 million that made him president and spawned his CEO administration.

How can Mr. Bush lecture companies on setting a moral tone, getting tough on accounting practices and ending "malfee-ance," as he calls it, when there are pesky questions about his own windfall at Harken Energy? (His $848,560 stock cash-in made Hillary, the Cattle Queen of commodities trading, look like a piker for taking home only $100,000.)

The president's speech on Wall Street on Tuesday was a Karl Rove production, making all the right noises, with the reassuring blue "Corporate Responsibility" backdrop. But TV viewers who looked lower on the screen could see the Dow arrow sliding down steadily, off 178 points for the day.

Mr. Rove pushed W. out to the White House pressroom on Monday so he would not seem to be evading corporate responsibility for himself while preaching it for others.

But the president was acting petulant. Like his father before him, the president resents being challenged -- on his judgment or on his trustworthiness. He just wants the country to take it on faith that he and Dick Cheney, who got filthy rich at Halliburton, and Army Secretary Thomas White, who got filthy rich at Enron, are "good actors," as he puts it.

Poppy, at some level, always knew and subtly acknowledged that his Texas up-from-bootstraps story line was a pose. He never gave up the summers in Kennebunkport, the preppy threads, the patrician posture, the upward tilt of his chin.

Junior, with his pseudo-James-Dean-in-"Giant" lectern slouch, believes he's the real thing, coated in Midland dust. He sees himself as self-made and anti-elitist. But given his slacker start, he ended up relying even more on family connections for business and political success than his father did.

He bought a dusty ranch in Crawford to show he's not a New England preppy. But he got the money for the 1,600-acre spread by having the famous name of a New England preppy.

He talks the populist talk, while walking the elitist walk.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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