Can George W. Avoid Poppy’s Aimless Drift?

George W. Bush, as expected, won the Iowa straw poll. Save the gloating. The Bush family has long experience with meaningless Iowa victories. In 1980, George Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucus and lost the nomination. In 1988, the elder Mr. Bush finished third behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson but won the nomination. Our electoral bellwethers are charming, not only because they take us to remote places in off-seasons, but because they are so often wrong.

George W. has more immediate problems than general political history: his own history and his big mouth.

Did that macho face, which pleases regular guys and plays so well to women on the rope lines, spend any time in the 1970’s and 1980’s whuffling up cocaine? The journalists of America long to know, and George W. refuses to tell them. He claims that his past behavior in this area is old hat, and nobody’s business. It belongs in a “zone of privacy,” as another candidate once put it.

America’s journalists, not surprisingly, are unsatisfied with these demurrals. Maureen Dowd argued that privacy cannot be only somewhat violated: Candidates who boast of their sexual fidelity and newfound faith, as Mr. Bush has, cannot yank the curtain over recreational drug use. Anyone who tells anything must tell all. National Review , my employer, made the more interesting point that Mr. Bush is caught in the hypocrisies of the war on drugs. While we demonize illegal drugs, tobacco and the Budweiser frogs, and are inching toward a real shooting war in Colombia, we recoil at the thought of anyone we actually know paying the penalties we endorse. Yet the hypocrisies must be served, especially by aspirants to the bully pulpit.

The nub of the matter is that anything the press wants to know, it must know. Those are the rules of the era. Inconsistency is no grounds for appeal. Bill Clinton could pal around with a drug dealer while he was governor of Arkansas, but the press did not want to know about it, so it never asked. Mr. Bush is being dealt a different hand, but he can’t refuse to play it.

The question that should be on all our minds is whether Mr. Bush was on cocaine when he was interviewed by Talk magazine. First Hillary, now this-Tina Brown is an equal-opportunity saboteur. The damaging quotation has already gotten a lot of attention, but it deserves still more. Mr. Bush and the reporter were discussing Karla Faye Tucker, a double murderer whose execution Mr. Bush refused, as governor of Texas, to stay, even though she had been born again on death row, and there was evangelical support (unusual in that community) for sparing her. Mr. Bush characterized a death row interview she gave to Larry King thus: “‘Please,’ Mr. Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me.'”

Does Mr. Bush have a sideline in sick drag acts? How is his Jackie in the Dallas motorcade? This was no setup by a hostile lefty: Tucker Carlson, the author of the Talk piece, is an ardent Bush fan. Months ago, he wrote a long essay in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal about how Mr. Bush and Missouri’s John Ashcroft were leading a crusade to remoralize America and the G.O.P. Mocking the doomed is not the way to go about it. By taking the responsibility for retribution from the aggrieved party (as in blood feuds), the state made capital punishment a matter of justice, not emotion, especially not cheesy and childish emotions like Mr. Bush’s. Mr. Bush did the right thing in not sparing Tucker’s life, but by not sparing us his witticisms, he cheapened himself, her and the justice system he says he wishes to strengthen.

Mr. Bush, it seems, is not his father’s son, as far as personality is concerned. The younger Mr. Bush, easy and genial, was bear-hugging bikers at the Iowa straw poll. His father, on the campaign trail, shook hands with the mainmast erectitude of the WASP-ocracy: 12 o’clock, and all is awkward. George W. is blunt and foulmouthed with his staff. George made suggestions to underlings as if he were issuing invitations to a cocktail party. Reversing the Buddenbrooks progression, the older generation was stiff and inhibited, while the younger has energy and vitality.

That’s the problem. The elder Mr. Bush was told all his life to watch himself, to toe the line. Considering how his son behaves when he doesn’t watch himself, maybe that was good advice. Repression isn’t always a bad thing. The elder Mr. Bush’s self-restraints, wound around him like chains on a windlass, bespoke a personality that was also serious and dutiful. He volunteered for the Navy, took on knotty and unrewarding jobs (the C.I.A.) and, once while he was President, did something difficult (Desert Storm). The foibles of George Apley (novelist John Marquand’s Harvard man and Boston Brahmin) came packaged with some of the Wise Men’s virtues. What virtues will George W.’s slap-happy rancor toward dead women come with?

In one respect, father and son are alike-neither has anything much to say about politics. They accumulated positions as they went along, without ever persuasively suggesting where they came from or why they hung together. Lacking that knowledge, you could never be sure what the next day’s positions would be. In a shrewd book about the Bush White House, John Podhoretz made the point that everything was always up for negotiation. Factions we have always with us; they would lobby Solon. But they lobbied all the harder in the Bush Administration because of the intellectual drift at the top. Has the son given any sign that he would be different? George Bush’s signature theme in 1988-it could not be called a program-was that he wanted a “kinder, gentler” America. Mr. Bush’s theme 11 years later is “compassionate conservatism.” Why does the second mean anything more than the first?

Empty agendas can even be bad pragmatically. If Mr. Bush had something to talk about besides his electoral prowess and a buzzword, we would not all be talking about Talk . It’s 15 months before the election-a long time to coast.

Can George W. Avoid Poppy’s Aimless Drift?