To: the Honorable George W. Bush Governor of Texas
Dear Governor Bush:
SO, CONGRATULATIONS on your wins in the March primaries. Now you’re going to be the Republican nominee after all. It hasn’t turned out to be as easy as it looked six months ago, and the campaign will become only more difficult in the coming months. In the general election Gore, using some of the events of your primary campaign, can push into the center or even to the right of center, casting you in the role of a hard-line right-winger and making it difficult for you to run as, say, a compassionate conservative. And then there is the danger that the fight with McCain has sapped the strength of the Republican party. Hubert Humphrey beat Eugene McCarthy in 1968 but drained the youth and energy out of the Democratic party in the process.
Your best opportunity to solve both these problems will be in your acceptance speech at the Republican convention. It’s bound to become the most important speech of your life, just as your dad’s acceptance speech at the 1988 convention was the most important speech of his life. I’m sure you remember how Dukakis had come roaring out of the Democratic convention and was fourteen points ahead in the polls. But your dad’s speech turned the tide back in his favor. That speech had the famous “thousand points of light” line. It also had “Read my lips: No new taxes,” which came back to haunt him four years later, but even that is proof it was a great speech that a lot of people believed and remembered.
What should your speech say? I care about the answer to that question because, for me, this campaign turns out to mean something different from campaigns in the past. I try to think about it intellectually, but the fact is that I care about it emotionally. Here’s why. Years ago I saw a pretty good band playing for tips in a bar in San Francisco. Just a few days after that I went to a party in a warehouse and there was the same band playing for free. The band’s name was Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was only a matter of months before they had the first of a long string of hits and became big stars. During their rise, I found myself pulling for them in a kind of teenage-fan way that I was almost embarrassed about. I couldn’t help it. I was proprietary. I thought of them as “my” band just because I happened to see them twice when they were nobody. I feel a little bit the same way about you as I watch you run for president, and so do a lot of other people in Texas. However someone intends to vote this fall, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’re “our” band out there on the campaign trail. You’re carrying Texas out to the rest of the country, and how you handle yourself is going to affect all of us here. When you look bad, we feel as if we look bad too. How often has anyone heard the phrase “Massachusetts miracle” since Michael Dukakis looked so goofy driving around in a tank and your dad trounced him in the election?
And it’s not always the best thing for you to be carrying around Texas. I was under the pleasant delusion that anti-Texan bias in the media had mostly disappeared, just as the crude and ignorant but filthy-rich Texas stereotype had disappeared. But the national press assumed right from the start that you were guilty of . . . well, of something. One reason for their animus is that you are from Texas and therefore they assume you must be a rube. The other reason is that the press never liked your dad and they don’t see why they should like you either. As long as a year ago the talk among journalists in New York was what a good candidate McCain would be compared with you. The moment it became clear you were going to run, Texas was suddenly crawling with journalists whose assignments were to explore your no doubt scuzzy financial dealings or to uncover your wild philandering or to prove all those cocaine rumors were true. Not since Ronald Reagan has the media felt so superior to a national candidate.
Living here in Texas made it hard to watch all this happening. We knew you weren’t such a bad guy. You had run two statewide campaigns, and neither business dealings nor sex nor drugs had ever been an issue. Reasonable people can debate your stand on various issues, but you were clearly the guy in charge despite the weak powers of the governor’s office. You made allies with the Democratic leadership and operated above partisanship. Around the Capitol and around the state, most people were glad you were governor. The media’s determination to get you didn’t seem fair, especially since none of the other candidates had to endure such a determined attempt to knock him off.
I don’t have any evidence, but I’ve always thought that part of your initial hesitancy about running for president was a worry that you might not be ready or that in your heart you might not want to do what it would take to get ready. But then the endorsements and the money started flowing in. The only competition was Steve Forbes, who didn’t look that hard to beat. And in politics the stars and planets that were in line for you now might not line up that way ever again. You joined the race. You beat Forbes in the Iowa caucuses, and then along came McCain. You showed up with too little too late in New Hampshire. Suddenly you had to win South Carolina or the campaign would be as good as over and you would join fellow Texans John Connally and Phil Gramm as embarrassing presidential flops.
Now Texans began seeing another George W. we didn’t know, and this one was not created by the media but by you. During your campaigns in Texas you always had specific issues that you turned to at every opportunity. In the first campaign in particular you talked about little else but reforming juvenile justice, torts, education, and welfare. I understand that you can’t run a national campaign the way you run a state campaign. The problems of the nation, indeed of the world, can’t be reduced to four or five issues that you hammer endlessly. But you moved so far away from your Texas style that it was often hard to find anything in your campaign to hold on to. People were looking for some reason to think of you as presidential, and you didn’t give it to them. You started the campaign with a good defining phrase — compassionate conservatism — and you criticized Congress last fall for trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. But then — nothing. Watching you speak in New Hampshire on television was agonizing. I don’t remember a single thing you said, and neither, evidently, did the voters. And that’s why the talk started about whether you were really presidential enough. That was when your smile, always a cocky one to be sure, came to be referred to as a smirk.
Then came South Carolina and all the endless wrangling with McCain about who was running the dirtier campaign. There was the speech at Bob Jones University, and the depressing sight of Pat Robertson seeming to act as your spokesperson for hours and hours on CNN. The result was that you had to scramble to try to rebut charges that you were a bigot. Before the election in New York, the New York Times endorsed McCain and referred to your “right-wing enforcers.” How could this be? Right-wing Republicans here in Texas hate you. Some went up to Iowa and New Hampshire to try to beat you. The result of the primary campaign has been to transform you from the compassionate conservative from outside the Beltway to the right-wing candidate of the party’s wealthy and fundamentalist insiders. You’ve got to get out of that box, and your speech at the convention will be your best chance to do it.
The key is to be both presidential and yourself. The one moment in the campaign when I thought you were doing just that was during the debate in California the week before the vote there. In response to a question about education you suddenly caught fire. You wanted accountability in schools if they were to receive Title 1 federal money. “How about the system like it is today?” you asked. “You receive Title 1 money, you don’t have to show anybody whether or not the children are learning. That doesn’t work. That’s a system that gives up on children. That’s a system that just simply shuffles children through the system. And guess who gets shuffled through. Poor children. Guess who gets shuffled through. Children whose parents don’t speak English as a first language. That’s unacceptable to me.” There was real passion and real concern and, most important, a well-thought-out position in what you were saying.
But of course you can’t limit yourself to education. To make this speech the kind of success it needs to be, you need to reach out to people who care about issues you don’t particularly care about or where you might be vulnerable. I’m thinking about the environment, about capital punishment, about gun control, and a host of others. You need to learn something from Bill Clinton, of all people. You need to make people feel that if you don’t agree with them, at least you acknowledge them and have made a sincere effort to understand why they think the way they do. Near the end of your first term, at a juvenile detention center in Marlin, a tough-luck kid asked you, “What do you think of me?” Somehow that kid and his question got in under your radar. You referred to him afterward in speeches around Texas and in private conversations. It was clear the boy had affected you and that you wanted to find in yourself the right answer to his question. The way to make the speech you need to make at the convention is to talk directly to that kid. Tell him why you’re on his side. Persuade him to be on yours. The eyes of Texas are upon you.
Yours truly, Gregory Curtis