George W., We Really Knew You!

Remember the Bush vacation?

Last year. August. The

“family ranch” in rural Crawford, Tex. The Presidential-esque seal behind the

press secretary’s platform, “WESTERN WHITE HOUSE” branded across the bottom;

the Rancher in Chief snipping at reporters wondering why the man who promised

to bring a new dignity to Washington was abandoning the capital for a solid

month after hardly half a year in office, saying that “they don’t understand

the definition of work … I’m getting a lot of work done.” (The more friendly

among the media helped White House Presidential Counsel Karen Hughes revive a

Reagan-era phrase: the “working vacation.”)

We wise citizens of the Republic of Media reveled in the sheer

histrionics of it all. The New Republic

reported that George W. bought this “family” homestead way back in 1997-the

property developed alongside the younger Bush’s Presidential ambitions,

completed just in time to serve as stage-set for his 2000 campaign video. His

August 2001 command performance there did not disappoint. Ryan Liz of TNR recorded the Great Man’s chatter

upon arrival: “It’s nice to be home…. This is my home…. It’s good to be

home…. This is where you come home… I like my own home”-Texas being a

place, he assured his interlocutors, where “a neighbor means more than just

somebody living next-door to somebody else.” Mr. Bush’s nearest neighbor in

Crawford, it turned out, was several miles away. New Yorkers made many jokes

about George W. Bush-less a cowboy than the handpicked favorite of Wall Street

Republicans-during his weeks in Texas. As once was their wont.

But if George W. Bush, home on the range, was to many New Yorkers

hilarious, his lingering sojourn in Texas also felt devious: proof positive

that our President would play to the rubes a thousand times before even

deigning to set foot in the nation’s largest city. It was a symbolic moment in

the souring of a political relationship that was never too sugary to begin

with. He hated us; everyone knew

that. Even the gnarliest stereotype of the right-wing outer-borough hard-hat

couldn’t have been too pleased with the guy.

Then, the apocalypse. Hardly had the first vigil for Sept. 11 hit

the pavement when Mr. Bush showed up at Ground Zero-there had been some

complaining that he hadn’t made a first-day Churchillian walk-through-and

mounted those wasted ramparts with that scratchy megaphone in his right hand

and a retired old fireman at his right. “We can’t hear you,” brayed a bystander

as his speech began; “I can hear you !”

he brayed back. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked

these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

“Bush! Bush! Bush!” the New York crowd chanted then; and many are

still prepared to chant it now.

It was as if he had turned his back on his Texas fetish and made

room in his heart for us. George W. Bush had a last laugh of sorts vis-à-vis the snarky Manhattan types,

were anyone inclined to laugh: Not only did this city-perhaps even its

liberals-join the rest of the nation in branding this man a hero; now even his

staged histrionics have been adjudged the mark of a wise and brave statesman.

Since Sept. 11, New York has been loving George W. Bush. But that brings me, in

a roundabout way, to my question: Can this marriage be saved?

Four months and change is a not-untypical length of time for a

passionate romance to burn itself out. We all know how it happens: The besotted

parties wipe the stars out of their eyes, see their partners clear for the

first time-and wonder, “Why did we think we ever had anything in common in the

first place?”

No one doubted that Bush was going to make a Republican speech

last night. The question was whether he would gesture towards anything

resembling a New York Republican kind

of speech last night-a speech a Pataki, or even a Bloomberg, could take home to

mother: one that could help lure, say, the upstate unemployed into the former’s

camp in his reelection fight next year with generous doses of truly compassionate

conservatism; or something that could provide some kind of cover for the

latter, the liberal-leaning former Democrat for whom a solid working

relationship with the White House will be so crucial in the year to come to

rebuild downtown. And, in a sense, the speech half-delivered.

Mr. Bush went into the State

of the Union staring down the barrel of some ugly facts. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll reported that

two in five Americans already feel the nation is back to normal or nearly

normal. Six of 10 think President Bush’s major domestic initiative-the expedited

$1.35 trillion tax cut-shouldn’t be delayed (and even Republicans are evenly

split on the issue), and agree with the President, who has declared that will

happen “over my dead body.” Karl Rove has declared that Mr. Bush’s success in

fighting the war will be enough to sustain the Republicans in the 2002

elections. But 44 percent of Americans-a reasonable number in any election-say

they will judge the success of the war against terrorism on the increasingly

dicey proposition of whether Osama Bin Laden is captured. Crawford’s

pieties-the “red-state” priorities-of God and Country and Patriotism seem to be

giving way to the old Democratic priorities of jobs, jobs, jobs.

The surveys show Americans now slightly more concerned with the

economy than with terrorism; and that, perhaps, is why a Fox News poll reported

that “if the election were held today,” only 49 percent of Americans would vote

for Bush-despite his wartime approval ratings upwards of 80 percent.

And so, not surprisingly, beyond the expected clarion wartime

calls to patriotism and service, there was something almost Clintonian about

it, or, if you will, Republican moderate. Much of it was the economy,

stupid-with its fervent appeals to Clinton-style national service, to welfarist

appeals to thin the gap between the haves and the have-nots, to “economic

security” over “economic stimulus.”

But I fear it was also Clintonian, in the more unwelcome sense of

the term, then any Republican would want to admit. It was not, in a word, a

trustworthy speech. Where once George Bush played Crawford, Texas to the

hilt-traveling incessantly through the “heartland,” not even giving the

Northeast, which gave him nothing on election Tuesday, the time of day-he now

plays down the tropes of folksy Southwestern populism. But where Texas was but

empty window dressing back in August, now he plays down the histrionics. Now

“Texas” is in the background. But the things Texas represents more and more

pulls the strings.

There is Enron, for one thing. The Bush family may be relative

newcomers, as things go, to the mythology of the American Southwest. It’s too

early to say just how dearly this White House will pay, politically, for its

associations with the now-defunct Houston energy trading company. But it was

not too hard to discern the vulnerability Bush must feel in that scandal’s wake

nonetheless. Kenneth Lay’s Enron is a state of mind that feels an awful lot

like Texas-a place where legend has it that you can only judge a real man by

the number of times he falls from grace, only to dust himself off and build

himself another empire. And whatever the actual biographical provenance of our

forty-third president-grandson of an Eastern Establishment senator from

Connecticut, son of an Eastern Establishment president that made of his family

a minor American political dynasty, and now a president who came to power with

the blessings of that Eastern Establishment now that he was the scion of one of

the great political dynasties of American history-has invented himself as the

soul of Texas itself. And a politician who wears Texan pride on his sleeve

cannot but tread carefully when Texan booms, as they so often do, go bust.

It is not a Texas boom if you sedulously insure yourself against

bust. For in the self-identity that Southwesterners have inculcated for

themselves-not for nothing is the historical pattern of the American Southwest

we are familiar with called a “mythology”-greatness must be built from

“nothing.” It is hard to imagine a Southwestern conservative sincerely

struggling on behalf of an ideal so banal as “economic security.” To be

secure-hemmed in by the bureaucratic niceties that protect you from risk-has

seemed nearly, to the greatest of these figures, to suffer a state of

unmanning: you are thereby rendered liberal.  

Of course these desert myths are built (as it were) on sand.

Nothing comes from nothing. Some of the most famous Southwestern fortunes were

originally made in the exploitation of government largesse; Barry Goldwater’s

family began its retailing empire in Arizona profiteering off government

projects such as, first, the Indian Wars, and second, the building of the

state’s federally funded waterworks, without which no civilization could exist.

That Southwestern protestations of manly independence take on such a

characteristic of high camp is a direct function of their implausibility: a

reaction formation.

“Out here in the West,” Barry

Goldwater used to say, “we’re not harassed by the fear of what might happen.”

Goldwaters “have always taken risks.” Certainly more risks, at least, than the

former proprietor of Arbusto. And for converts like Bush-who seems to have

never dared looked back East between the time he left Yale and his White House

ascendancy-the lionization of those who tempt busts by building booms is all

the more zealous. As is the patronization of liberals-deep in the heart, as

they say.

It’s getting a little to late to wonder about whether the guy is

really a cowboy because he’s a convert and realize all cowboys are converts.

That’s the West for you

George W. Bush’s Texas habit pops up in odd places and at strange

times, like a stubborn rash. Last week, in a speech in Maine (roundabout the actual Bush family homestead in

Kennebunkport, which, President Bush sheepishly allowed, was “I guess my second

home”), George W. Bush brought up Crawford again. This time the message was more

awkward-he was giving Sen. Edward M. Kennedy his due for helping him pass a

bipartisan education bill (another of those Clintonian touches). “[T] he folks

back home at the coffee shop in Crawford, Texas will be amazed when they see me

standing up there saying nice things about [Ted Kennedy].” The point seemed to

be little more than to signal that where he comes from-his “home”-they still

appreciate the value of a good Ted Kennedy joke. It’s that old, base,

Republican reactionary populism again.

I speak impressionistically, of course. But  where is President Bush heading off to

first, today, to sell his new proposals to the nation? He is heading straight

into the welcoming arms of Dixie, Texas’s country cousin in reactionary

Republicanism. First stop is a “town-hall meeting,” with handpicked questioners,

in Winston-Salem, NC, then Daytona Beach and Atlanta. The symbolism is key.

Bush is an old-style conservative Republican of the Southern and Southwestern;

it is where his deepest sympathies lay; but which show up only fugitively in

his most carefully scripted public orations.

George W. Bush’s Northeastern vacation seems soon to be over if

it isn’t already, and he’s going back home, far from the place his Presidency

was reborn, here; back to the place where he was reborn-south toward home, to

Crawford.