Someone has put out the word that I’ve got an interview with George W. Bush, so when I get to Florida there are a bunch of messages on my cell phone suggesting questions. “Take him to task,” one friend says angrily, as if I possess the perfect question to expose his lack of intelligence. My niece has a question, and another friend says he wants to talk to me about a rumor he picked up from Larry Flynt.
But the closest I get to Bush is to glimpse him through a thicket of people near the stage, actually his blurred shoulder as he leaps to the stage. From that glimpse, it’s clear he knows he’s going to win. Maybe he’s wrong, but that’s what he knows, the way an animal knows something. Onstage he glides and pauses and flicks the microphone cord around at his feet like a long tail and works the spaces between the words longer than the words. The way he holds himself, you can tell he’s vain about his broad shoulders and trim butt. Some time in the last few days, George Bush has come to believe he’s the next rock-star politician, that the sexual revivalist mojo of Elvis and Jimmy Swaggart and Bill Clinton belongs to him. Maybe somebody conned him, but then they conned him good; before each performance, someone backstage has laid hands on George Bush’s shoulders and said solemnly, Governor, we just got the latest numbers from Michigan–ahem, you are going to be the next President of the United States.
George Bush believes that, and now he’s growing into something else before our eyes. He ends his speech with a preacherly vision of Inauguration.
“Should Ahh be the one–Should Ahh be the one to put my hand on the Bobble in January 2001–”
Pronounced “Babble” or “Bobble,” depending on how manic he is.
They herd us back on the buses. We’re at a community college outside Orlando, Fla. Low-level Bush aides run heavily through the grass. The Bush boys wear orange baseball caps with a W on them that looks Deke-y, the Bush girls wear cropped black Capri pants. They might be 45 or 25, they’re wearing cropped black pants to flash some calf to W. My wife says no woman past the age of 19 should wear cropped pants, and as always my wife is right.
On the bus, the only thing to do is listen to reporters on their cell phones. They make stock deals on the cell phones or push for a television shot of George Bush jogging or get the latest poll numbers. They grab extra laminated credentials to hold onto as souvenirs. Is this why they became journalists, to sit on a bus and get paid too much money to talk on the phone? When a reporter has a new poll number, he or she flounces up the aisle telling the other reporters, and there’s a flutter, people twist around in their seats. It’s like a single woman walking into Plato’s Retreat.
We get on to I-4. I-4 is central Florida, the battleground. Through the smoked glass window there are righteous signs.
JESUS CHRIST IS LORD OVER GREATERORLANDO.GOD ACCEPTS KNEEMAIL.
“Where’s Intel?” a tall pursy reporter in a bow tie says into his cell phone. “And Softy?”
Mr. Pursy is across the aisle. I’m seated next to a tall, faintly dude-ish TV person in a double-vented suit who has made a connection to a college friend who lives nearby. He’s talking a little too loud to her on his hands-free phone.
“I was reading this line in your e-mail”–he holds out his phone to read the screen–”‘Maybe if you weren’t married you’d be the man of my dreams.’ Were you joking or were you half-serious?” he says in a booming voice.
They make a dinner date and he says, “Wear something skimpy.”
We pass a woman on the grass median holding up a popular Bush sticker. BUSH WOMAN. White letters against a brown background. A little bit jungley, a little bit carnal.
That’s one of the vibes Governor Bush sends out, carnal and dark, old-fashioned. At the morning event, I stood at the edge of the reporters’ pen and across the rope line from a bigamist who brought both his wives to hear George Bush, one wife petite and Asian, the other a big-boned blonde. Even as I tried to look at them he cast me cold, my-chattel looks. Then at the end of the speech, a bunch of kids in blue T-shirts walked past the bigamist. The only black faces in the crowd were a couple of these kids, in “House of Hope” T-shirts.
“What are you doing here?” I asked a freckled little redheaded girl. She wasn’t more than 12, and what a pretty, fearful face.
“House of Hope is for hurting teens,” she said, drawing her little shoulders up. “And that’s what I am, a hurting teen.”
My heart broke for her, and I understood George Bush is reaching out for all broken hearts. He’s working every emotional vein he can, like a TV preacher. He talks about single mothers and inner-city children. He uses the word “love” a lot. Loving your neighbor, loving your brother. Put your arm around your neighbor, he says. He uses words like that to touch the cheeks of that pretty, hurting girl.
They stuff us into a ballroom at a Sheraton outside Orlando and a line forms for the king crab legs and scallops and chicken and I pick up my messages. My friend in New York says, “Larry Flynt has been doing his magic on W., trying to convince a horde of reporters to ask George about this early 70’s abortion–that he gave a woman an abortion, before Roe v. Wade, had a woman get an abortion, and he’s basically spent a lot of man-hours with investigators and he’s frustrated because no one will touch the story–”
I don’t have the guts to call him back and tell him I’m on Bus No. 3 so I couldn’t ask him if I wanted, and I don’t want to anyway. I think it’s good if he helped a woman get an abortion. We want our Supreme Court justices to have smoked dope and our Presidents to be sexual, we want them to know someone who’s had an abortion.
A very serious liberal friend comes over and browbeats me for a while about voting for Nader. He tells me about all the government programs that George Bush is ignorant of or will do away with, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or AmeriCorps. We generally end up screaming at one another, so it feels a little pointless to engage, we should probably just wave and smile like so many of my old friends and I do. I’m disaffected, he’s corporate. Some of the bone-deep hatred of George Bush feels like elitism–we got to the Ivy League by merit, he got there by family connections, so elevating him feels like a giant step backwards. It’s turned these liberals into totalitarians. I’ve never told anyone who to vote for, but they scream at me about voting for someone I’m voting for out of true belief.
When I talk about the press blackout of Ralph Nader’s message, my friend says sternly that all the media decisions are based on polls. So everything is marketing, and anyone who acts on principle is a horse’s ass. I lost my Democratic loyalty two years ago, when they told me I had to swallow the stalker stuff and the bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in the name of loyalty. I was for President Gore in ’99. Now when Al Gore talks about the Clinton scandals as a “personal mistake,” it makes me angry.
I get up and have an éclair and a lemon tartufo. The Bush advance people are pounding us with white sugar. Then I check my e-mail and someone else has sent me a note about the Larry Flynt story, how it was blacked out on CNN.
A Bush aide gets up on a chair to announce a conference call with George Shultz. You call an 800 number belonging to some conferencing outfit and he’s on the line, and you can punch 1 to get in line to ask a question. George Shultz has a grave crocodile-ish tone. The reporters call him “Mr. Secretary.” I ask a question and feel important, then a Bush advance person orders us back outside to the buses.
The European reporters are under the trees, smoking cigarettes. I’m getting strong messages from the Bush aides. A well-preserved blond one in cropped pants and a lime top has a huge subliminal vibe going: Willing to Get on All Fours Now for George.
As if I even had a mind to ask the abortion question, I count the vehicles between my bus and Bush’s. A bunch of sport utility vehicles, two other press buses, various police vehicles. The governor’s a half-mile away. We’re trailed by Volusia County sheriffs in formation on motorbikes. They wear dark green uniforms with black boots and homoerotic reinforced bottoms on the trousers. They choke the entrance ramps as we race by.
Living Water Church.
GOD’S FREE GIFT, ETERNAL LIFE THROUGH JESUS CHRIST
Dirt For Sale.
A half-dozen tires lain under a palm tree, for stepping exercises.
The buses pull inside a big building on the Florida State Fairgrounds. They let us out and there are lots of BUSH WOMAN signs and a woman breast-feeding her baby, sitting on a chair. What is this world coming to? Since when is George Bush getting breast-feeders? The Bush Women sense a mama’s boy when they see one, and for his part, George Bush talks about his wife and mother onstage; he doesn’t talk about his dad.
His brother Jeb is there and George puts him down viciously.
“Mah big little brother Jeb,” he calls him.
The stage is in the middle, theater in the round. George Bush likes it there. He prowls jacketless and displays his shoulders, his flat stomach. He calls a man in the audience “Brother.” George Bush knows how to bro’ down. Even if you hate him, you have to give him that, he’s instinctual and unpretentious and can crash through the class lines, as Bill Clinton can. Not many people can bro’ down. Just look at Al Gore wearing his urban cowboy ensemble in the new Rolling Stone .
All the reporters who write about Bushisms, the mangled tenses, the dyslexia or whatever it is; they’re overeducated and missing the real story, the preacher rock-star cadences.
“Before Ahh get cranked up–”
“Ahh wanna remahn you all–”
“You kina got me wound up!”
“I’d be listening loud and clear to this
“Now thassa fack. No chile will be left behine.”
“Ah’m windin’ down. [Boos.] O.K. Ah’ll keep going then. Ah’m just hitting mah stride.”
Believing himself the winner, George Bush has been granted a vision of himself as James Brown. He wants to give a good show, he has a sense of drama and understands his physical presence. The night before in Jacksonville, he stopped mid-sentence in a manly three-quarter profile to gesture at a man who was stricken in the crowd. “He’s over there, come on around,” he called out to the paramedics. He seized the drama, but a little like Jim Morrison, because he’s so vain. Showing off his shoulders, his figure.
I could bag these campaign workers but I won’t, he says.
Brother Jeb’s a stiff next to George. He wears a white shirt that’s too short and buttoned too high. Makes his skinny arms into sticks. His father’s son.
At the fairgrounds, Jeb’s in a line of politicians along one side of the stage. But since the stage is in the center of the hall, they’re cutting off the view from that side. George Bush realizes instinctually that there are people he can’t make eye contact with.
“Y’all have trouble seeing me?” he cries out to the people past his brother.
Yes, they cry, and so the group of politicians dribble offstage and George Bush wisecracks, “Now thass called democracy! Ahh dint want to hurt mah little brother’s feelings.”
Another shot at Jeb. Jeb is pretty passive-aggressive himself. His introductory speech is painfully lukewarm, and he holds it to under two minutes. It feels like he’s trying to throw the state to Al Gore after all.
George Bush is hoarse as he goes into his windup.
“It requires a leader–Should Ahh be the one–after we all go out and work for the next 13 days–Should this good country put its faith in me–It requires a leader when he puts his hand on the Bobble, that day in January 2001–”
That vision of the Bobble makes the crowd crazy. They stand up and you can’t see Bush anymore. The Bush Women’s signs are out of control.
Bush Woman Seeks To Receive His Seed Tonite.
Bush Woman Will Obtain Abortion
And watch, should he be the one to put his hand on the Bobble, how the reporters will deify him for this lowdown sour-mash sexuality.
Right now, the reporters are tired and bored. They’ve left the hall, they’re standing around the buses waiting to go.
Mr. Pursy, the bow-tied reporter, gets on the phone and asks about his stock, which to me sounds like “Scaler.” “Tell me where Scaler finished,” he says. “I put some orders in, I don’t know if I got filled. I’m buying Scaler all the way down.”
Sober as insurance men, they walk into the Tampa Airport Marriott in a long dark line, holding their computer bags. It’s pushing nine. They can’t miss The West Wing .