Gov. George W. Bush of Texas may be leading in national Presidential polls, piling up endorsements and scaring off rivals, but for all his astonishing success, he has yet to charm his way into the good graces of right-wing Manhattan. That geographically unlikely power base measures its formidable influence not in votes, but on intellect, punditry and even that most dangerous of political weapons, wit. Its members, while few in number, can demolish a Republican candidate or sitting President with a single bon mot or a wave of contempt.
And their displeasure can make a Republican’s life miserable, as a certain former President who shares the front-runner’s last name knows all too well.
“I’m highly skeptical,” John O’Sullivan, editor-at-large at the National Review , said of the nominee-presumptive, summing up the opinions of many of his ideological fellow-travelers. “I don’t think there is any advantage to him getting elected. I think it means handing the Republican Party back to the kind of guilt-ridden social moderates who have lost election after election before and after Ronald Reagan.”
These conservatives are the inheritors of the men and women who made the phrase “Rockefeller Republicanism” a code word for ideological treachery, and who see in anybody named Bush a centrist, country-club Connecticut Republican eager to make deals with liberal Democrats. They felt betrayed by President George Bush, and they seem prepared for similar betrayals from a President George W. Bush. So when a puzzled Bush aide complained about the lack of applause that greeted the candidate’s rebuke of the conservative intelligentsia’s less-than-rosy view of American society during a speech to the Manhattan Institute in early October, the aide should have been grateful that the audience confined its disapproval to chilly silence.
In locking up New York’s leading Republican officeholders, including Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mr. Bush has all but insured a smashing primary victory here next March. But he has done little to win over the city’s conservative-intellectual elite, the true believers who use the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post and such Manhattan-based journals as National Review , Commentary and The New Criterion to marshal Republican activists against both the depradations of the left and the compromises of the squishy center-right.
That could be a problem for Mr. Bush. After all, when his father broke his “read-my-lips, no-new-taxes” pledge, he was skewered by New York conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., the movement’s father figure, who dismissed him as a weak-kneed leader devoid of charisma and beliefs. Mr. Buckley unleashed his patrician wit on the former President with devastating results: “He has permitted himself to slip into a fustian mode,” the author wrote in 1992, “flogging Congress in speeches that give the impression of a temperamentally amiable and serene man reading stage instructions: Here sound indignant. Angry. Give them hell. Screw up your face in bitter frustration. Tell them the American people will never forgive them . After such a performance, the voter tends to wonder what’s wrong not with the economy, but with George Bush.”
And Mr. Buckley’s colleague at National Review , Richard Brookhiser, wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly wondering whether Mr. Bush knew how to think.
So, as he prepared for his re-election bid in 1992, Mr. Bush found himself bloodied and weakened by attacks from the right, which unintentionally helped lay the groundwork for his defeat by Democrat Bill Clinton. Heaven help the younger Mr. Bush if he, too, runs afoul of acid-penned New Yorkers.
So far, some of Manhattan’s conservative writers and policy shapers have held their fire while Mr. Bush did his Clintonesque triangulation act, wrapping himself in slogans like “compassionate conservatism” while attacking the Republican Congress. “There are many factors restraining conservative critics right now,” said Max Boot, editor of The Wall Street Journal ‘s Op-Ed page. “Right now, one of them is the hope that he’ll listen to them or maybe give them jobs. Or both. There is also this hope that he is only posturing as a moderate, that he actually has this secret conservative agenda like Nixon had a secret plan to get us out of Vietnam. But I think the bottom line is, people will be disappointed once he gets into office.”
You Talkin’ to Us?
Certainly, some of New York’s conservative elite were disappointed–to put it mildly–when Mr. Bush used his Manhattan Institute speech to assail those who believe that the country is “slouching towards Gomorrah.” The reference was to the title of Robert Bork’s best-selling treatise on American cultural decline, and the potshot at Mr. Bork managed to loosen the tongues of a few of those previously restrained skeptics who understood that they, too, were being criticized for their views of America’s present and future. “He’s attempting to get elected and that’s fine,” said Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion and author of the soon to be published book, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s Changed America . “On the other hand, there are real issues of substance and they don’t go away by covering them with phrases like ‘compassionate conservatism’ or pretending that astute commentators like Judge Bork are troglodyte conservatives.”
Thomas (Dusty) Rhodes, publisher of the National Review , agreed. “Comments like that don’t show a lot of strategic sense,” he said. “If that was supposed to be good news for conservatives, then they really got it wrong.”
Mr. Rhodes has thrown his support behind one of Mr. Bush’s opponents, publisher Steve Forbes. But he, like other Bush skeptics, seems to be set up for the fate that awaits those who dare stand in the way of a steamroller. According to a mid-October CNN-Gallup- USA Today poll, Mr. Bush is preferred by 60 percent of national Republican voters. He also holds a 16-point lead over Vice President Al Gore, the faltering Democratic front-runner. As of early October, Mr. Bush had raised $56 million, more than any Presidential candidate in history. And Republican Party leaders around the country are falling all over themselves to lend him their support. No wonder his leading opponents–Senator John McCain of Arizona, Senator Orrin Hatch of Nevada, Mr. Forbes and social activist Gary Bauer–are having such difficulty getting a foothold here, even though the right’s brain trust seems intent on finding an electable alternative.
Mr. McCain has attracted some attention with his strong stand on campaign finance reform and his best-selling memoir, faith of My Fathers , which recounts his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But even one of his devoted supporters, longtime State Senator John Marchi of Staten Island, realizes that Mr. McCain is a long shot, and that some Republicans are wary of being seen as sympathetic given Mr. Bush’s apparent inevitability. “The last time I saw [Mr. McCain] was at a gathering Henry Kissinger hosted,” Mr. Marchi told The Observer . “There were a lot of intelligent people there. But some said they were endorsing his book, not his candidacy for President.”
Mr. Forbes, whose publishing empire is headquartered in Manhattan, has made some inroads among the city’s supply-side economists and tax-hating Wall Street executives. “Steve Forbes is attracting the policy crowd rather than the patronage crowd,” said Deroy Murdock, a libertarian columnist who is working as a consultant to the publisher’s campaign.
Some political experts say enthusiasm for Mr. Forbes began to wane, however, after he appeared at a fund-raiser at the Waldorf-Astoria and gave a less than stirring performance. “He bombed,” said John Podhoretz, the New York Post ‘s editorial page editor. “He had a teleprompter but he didn’t have a podium. He was talking away, waving his hands. It was weird.”
Until she dropped out of the race on Oct. 20, Elizabeth Dole wasn’t faring much better. She had managed to stir some interest among professional woman in New York like hedge fund consultant Lee Hennessee and Catherine Viscardi Johnson, executive vice president of Condé Nast Publications. But her historic candidacy didn’t gain much ground in New York.
Nor has Mr. Bauer’s improbable campaign. Even hard-right activists who sympathize with the former Reagan administration official’s conservative views on social issues dismiss his chances. “I happen to like Bauer a lot. His message is right on the money,” said Doug Dechert, a conservative activist and media consultant in Manhattan. “It’s just unfortunate that he is physically repulsive and not charismatic.”
In Search of Dutch
So that leaves Mr. Bush. He’s good on the stump. He’s popular with the party regulars. And he has money to burn. That’s enough to persuade any party hack or patronage seeker. But it’s not enough for those who pine for the days of Ronald Reagan. Witness the angelic picture of the youthful, muscle-bound Gipper in a white t-shirt adorning a recent cover of National Review . These conservatives mean it when they refer to Mr. Reagan, as he was described on the magazine’s cover, as “Our Man.” In their eyes, the elder Mr. Bush was too ready to negotiate away Mr. Reagan’s legacy. And Mr. Bush the son has that same look of deal-making moderation in his blue eyes.
“The difficulty here is that one can’t quite figure out an explanation for the overwhelming size of his poll numbers,” said Mr. Podhoretz. “Chances are that 95 percent of the American people have never heard the tenor of his voice. If he went on Howard Stern, they wouldn’t know who he was. So something else has to be going on here, and I don’t know what it is.”
Actually, Mr. Podhoretz may have unwittingly put his finger on the missing “it” in describing Mr. Bush’s controversial Manhattan Institute speech. While the conservative brain trust may have resented the disrespect shown Mr. Bork and his sky-is-falling analysis of American society, pundits, scholars and writers approved of the speech’s call for higher standards in public schools, more charter schools and a voucherlike program for students in failing public schools. That part of the speech was delivered with the sort of emotion his father could never muster convincingly. “A guy like his father could speak the words, but he didn’t know how to play the music,” said Mr. Podhoretz , who agrees with the Texas Governor’s criticism of the party’s far-right gloom-peddlers. “In this case, it was really the words and the music coming together.” Perhaps that explains those mysteriously high poll numbers.
Nevertheless, New York’s conservative thinkers remain suspicious. Mr. Bush is still a newcomer to their cause and he comes from a family whose very name evokes both moderation and defeat for their party. What’s more, he is admittedly something of an intellectual lightweight, a guy who makes jokes about his less-than-stellar academic record at Yale University and his aversion to picking up 500-page books.
Indeed, some people think Mr. Bush may not have realized he was jabbing at Mr. Bork during his Manhattan Institute speech. “In order to believe that Bush meant to insult Robert Bork, he would have to have known that Bork wrote a book called Slouching Towards Gomorrah ,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “You can acquit him of that suspicion.”
But, of course, the audience of New York intellectuals understood full well. And more than a few of them sympathize with Mr. Bork’s harsh critique of American society. “There is a phrase [Mr. Bush] uses: ‘compassionate conservatism,'” said Mr. Kimball. “It makes me feel slightly nauseated because it is neither compassionate or conservative. It reminds me actually of the kind of sentimentality that recent liberalism has made us all too familiar with. Which is promising everything and delivering very little, except taking our money and imposing a network of increasingly onerous regulations and rules and so on that make social life ever more paralyzed.”
Now there’s a potential troublemaker!
Mr. Bush’s admirers, like Myron Magnet, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal , say his fellow New York conservatives will come around once they get to know him better. “I’ve had the good fortune of meeting him and having a long, long talk with him,” said Mr. Magnet, an adviser to the Bush campaign on social and urban issues. “I’m absolutely persuaded of his sincerity as a conservative.”
In the end, members of Manhattan’s conservative elite may have to take Mr. Bush at his word, for it appears they have no other choice. “The stakes are too high to get into fratricide,” said Mr. Dechert, who is supporting the Texas Governor. “This is about taking back the White House. This is about keeping the Supreme Court from being packed with Stalinists, for Christ’s sake!”