Obstacle Course

Drugs. Cussing. Funeral home regulation. George W. Bush is on the ropes—or is he?

So far to go, so much time. For George W. Bush, the race for president has become a daily obstacle course with no end in sight. Actual voting for the Republican presidential nomination is still more than a third of a year away, and in the meantime, every press conference, every interview, and every reporter prying into his background poses perils. Despite his front-runner status and his huge lead in the polls, his real opponents are not his GOP rivals, nor even Democrats lurking in the distance, but the media and, occasionally, himself. So far, the revelations, suppositions, and insinuations of the summer—from drug use to the renewed questions about whether his family pulled strings to get him into the National Guard—have inflicted no measurable harm on Bush’s standing with the voters. What they have damaged, however, is his aura of invincibility.

The problem is the way it has been damaged. One of the legacies of Bill Clinton is the axiom, established during the bare-knuckle New York primary in 1992, that the charge against the candidate matters less than the way he reacts to it. Clinton, of course, reacts coolly—practice makes perfect—while Bush, pressured to tell all about using drugs, revealed a testiness that did not serve him well. The trouble with this axiom is that it is a license for conjecture. Allegations substitute for evidence, and character becomes the dominant issue.

Does the current way of covering presidential politics serve to inform the public about what a candidate is really like? Judging by the media’s treatment of Bush, the answer is no. The character sketch of him that has been presented to the rest of the country by the press—which is about all that anyone outside Texas knows about him, other than who his parents are—is of a man who, it is assumed, has used cocaine at some point in his past, manipulates the levers of government to help his contributors, and behaves in a vulgar and undignified manner. To Texans, who have watched George W. Bush over the course of six years as a candidate and an officeholder, this portrait bears scant resemblance to the man they know, the

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