Bush’s Smile

Peter W. Schramm

April 1, 2001

March 27, 2001. We are now nearing one hundred days into the Bush administration, and the great minds in the press corps have started noticing a few things. They are noting that the Republicans are taking great pleasure in running both the Congress and the White House. They are noting that as a result of this massive fact, the Democrats are not having much fun. And these deep thinkers note that Bush’s charm offensive (as it has been called from the beginning) wasn’t simply a tactical gambit that would end a few weeks into the new regime.

The New York Times’ major league political reporter Adam Clymer (remember Bush and Cheney’s off color characterization of him during the campaign when they didn’t know that a microphone would pick it up?) noted in March 10 edition of the New York Times, "the full force of having a Republican president to go with a Republican Congress for the first time since 1954." The "strikingly united Republican majorities" are doing things that would be inconceivable if Gore had won the presidency. And there is "dismay among Democrats," says Clymer. This is due—and here is where Clymer’s deep thinking reveals itself even to petty minds like ours—to the fact that the Republicans have the White House.

It turns out that who is president matters. The Republicans in Congress are going to pass similar legislation that they did when Clinton was president, but now it will not be vetoed. And, even more important, there will be initiatives coming from the Bush White House upon which great national attention will be focused, and to which the Democrat response has to be very powerful indeed to be noted by the public.

Bush gave a talk on his tax cut initiative before both houses of Congress. It was a good solid speech, substantive and well delivered. He has found his own voice for formal speeches: simple, clear words, entirely in line with his natural speech patterns. He was quite comfortable and naturally amusing. Furthermore, his charm came through before and after the speech as he was going to and from the podium. Even battle hardened Democrats were keen to shake his hands and pat him on the back. It was a sight to behold. And it worried the Democratic leadership.

That concern showed when Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt gave their joint rebuttal in front of television cameras. I confess that I could only watch about five minutes of it, I was too embarrassed to stay tuned. I later talked to colleagues to try to find out what else they may have said, but, to my surprise, they all said they stopped watching it just about when I did and for the same reason. You can only watch grown up men wringing their hands so long. Daschle and Gephardt are pessimists, and boring ones at that. They are uninteresting, even when they are outraged, which is all too often. Everything they say, or are about to say, is entirely predictable and over-tedious. Neither has wit in himself and neither is the cause of wit in other men.

They remind me of mediocre students who respond to questions in class by reciting from memory something they have heard about the issue (usually from me). They are not thinking, nothing they say is their own. Even if what they say makes sense you have no way of knowing that they know it or believe it. They are plodding, dour, and dry-as-dust. They are only playing defense.

A few weeks ago I was invited to President Bush’s education roundtable meeting in Columbus. It was good that I went. There were only about forty folks in an elementary school classroom (with triple that number of media types) so I got a good look. Spending an hour-and-a-half in a setting like that—watching his eyes glow and his lips move—allows you to make some reasonable judgments. Here are mine.

Bush’s charm offensive is permanent because it is not an artifice. He is charming. He likes people. He is a gentle man. Clinton, it is said, also likes people. But Clinton use s people for his own purposes, either for his agenda or for his own psychological well-being. Bush isn’t needy. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is genuine. He likes folks. He likes listening to them, he likes looking at them, he likes to see them move in the world. He thinks they are interesting. And if they turn out to oppose him on something, he will not question their motives or villainize them. This looks like civility, and it is, and it comes naturally.

I was struck both by the quality of his mind (he is plenty smart) as by its turn. His disposition is sweet and gentle. He is fair. He puts people at ease because he reminds them that he is just like they are. The principal of the school, sitting next to him, was clearly nervous. Bush asked what the matter was. She admitted to being a nervous wreck. After all, she was sitting next to the President of the United States, cameras were rolling, and so on. Bush smiled and beguilingly told her she ought to try sitting in his seat, now that would make you nervous. She was put at ease immediately.

Clearly, Bush is a very funny man. We all laughed uproariously many times during the meeting. And we could have laughed more, but the President was controlling himself. He is naturally witty. After all, almost everything is fair game for banter, folks being so ridiculous and all. And his inclination is to note it and mock it. And he doesn’t exclude himself from the human pageant. Lincoln once said that there are two ways of being funny and of telling a good story: if you have the time, and your audience is "inclined to listen, lengthen it out slowly as if from a jug. If you have a poor listener, hasten it, shorten it, shoot it out of a pop-gun." Bush’s wit is out of a pop-gun. We hear it pop and we roar with laughter.

Furthermore, I got the sense that this is a content, happy man. I think he would be just as happy on his ranch or in Austin as in Washington. This is not the kind of fellow who, when his second term nears the end, will say that he loves being president so much that he will cut back on his sleep just so it will seem that he is president a bit longer than nature or law will allow. Bush will be happy to get back to his ranch, play with his dog, mend some fences, and keep his smile.