George W.'s conundrum

By Brian McGrory, Globe Columnist, 11/28/2000

ou're George W. Bush and it wasn't supposed to be like this - not now, not ever.

It all started as a distant dream. You ran a clean, upbeat campaign to unseat Ann Richards for the Texas governorship back in 1994, then showed the kind of political discipline that your old man never had. You pushed through a narrowly defined, carefully scripted program that earned you rave reviews all over the state, such that when you ran for reelection, you won nearly 70 percent of the vote.

You're George W. Bush, and it used to be so much easier. When reporters came knocking, you invited them into your office, kicked your boots up, and without even the guidance of a solitary aide, talked about whatever they wanted to raise - policy, politics, golf, anything.

You're George W. Bush, and the compliments used to flow like Midland oil. Bob Bullock, the nastiest Democrat in your politically brutal state, once said you were ''cut out of the American flag.'' The liberal elitists at The New York Times hailed you as a success on their front page.

After that, you got some ideas. Your name started appearing at the top of every presidential poll. National politicians came calling with grand ideas for a better way. Television analysts began describing your nomination as ''inevitable.''

You're George W. Bush, and your closest advisers, Karl and Karen, mapped out a plan. Push bipartisanship. Talk often of moral leadership. Stress a new-fangled brand of politics known as ''compassionate conservatism.'' And be yourself.

It was supposed to be so easy. Advisers told you that the public suffered from ''Clinton fatigue,'' that your opponent was a career politician with a superiority complex and a knack for speaking to people as if English were their second language. Allies told you he'd be the easiest opponent you'd ever have.

You're George W. Bush and somewhere on the trail, things began to change. Your aides began to script you, shelter you from the reporters you used to regard as friends. The press began seizing on every bungled word, causing you to be tentative every time you spoke. And then came even more mistakes.

Autumn arrived, and the other guy became the darling of the press corps for his specific plans and his grasp of policy details. But you always believed that people would vote for someone they actually liked and could trust, and in this race, in any race, that someone would be you.

You're George W. Bush, and a few days out, Karl and Karen told you everything would be just fine. Karl predicted you'd win by 6 percent and carry 320 electoral votes. They were so confident of victory that when the other guy campaigned through the night on election eve, you went home to Austin.

You're George W. Bush, and you thought you had it all figured out. Your brother, the governor, would deliver his crucial state. Your father, the president, would hug you before an adoring crowd. You would claim a major role in a political dynasty unlike any other that history has ever known. And you would be the leader who healed a nation that had lost its moral way.

You're George W. Bush and you think you won, but you're not really sure. You can't deliver a victory speech because the other guy has yet to concede his defeat. That Katherine Harris didn't do you any great favors by cutting Palm Beach County off at the knees, the Democrats are trying to steal the election, and James Baker looks angry at the world.

You're George W. Bush and you should be elated, but all you really are is confused. You're play-acting rather than leading, hoping rather than healing. You wonder where it all goes from here, not just in the next few days, but in the next four years. Will an election this close, this bitterly contested, ever allow you the ability to lead?

You're George W. Bush, and it wasn't supposed to be like this. The votes are certified, but how do you make the victory seem real?

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