It's a stretch to make George W. Bush look presidential

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 12/6/2000

I'M TRYING TO TALK myself into getting along with the Bush crowd now that it looks like he's in.

But I'm having trouble connecting. Is it me or is it them? What's missing? Fitting these parts into a spanking new administration requires a knack I do not possess. It's like trying to put together something you find under the tree Christmas morning, and you're missing the tools and batteries, and the directions got tossed out with the torn wrapping paper.

After one solid month of watching CNN and C-SPAN with that waiting-outside-the-hospital-room-for-the-doctor-to-tell-us-what's-up feeling, I see Al Gore is cooked. So, as I square my shoulders to face four years of George W., I put him up against the Clinton presidency, and I'm thinking: We're downsizing here.

It's not just the difference in height. Clinton is listed as 6-foot-2, but with that gray hair standing up on top, he looks 6-5 or better. Bush is listed as 6-foot even, but looks shorter. Maybe it's the narrow frame, but it just seems Bush looks less substantial than the Big Guy. Plus Bush walks funny, in all those photo ops that seem to comprise much of his official day.

Why do I get the feeling that the last thing his handlers tell him before he strides through the door is, ''Remember, keep your shoulders squared, swing your arms like we practiced, and try and look taller.'' We all know who his old man is. But the guy he seems to be patterning himself after is Reagan. He buys the new ranch a year ago, wears the cowboy hat and boots, keeps cropping up on TV in line-dancing costume.

When I get the White House pool reports that he's out cutting brush, I'll know the makeover is nearly complete. But there's one thing missing. How come we never see Bush on a horse? Reagan couldn't wait to mount up. Bush seems to prefer the steering wheel. Wonder why?

Then I've got medical concerns. It's a tough job. Did you know Clinton wears hearing aids inside his ear canals to overcome high-frequency hearing loss? No wonder Bill infuriates his critics: He can't hear them half the time. Both Bush and Gore have ''mild high-frequency hearing loss'' too.

I'm also wondering about Dick Cheney. He has his fourth heart attack the day the Florida Supreme Court rules against the Republican ticket, and the Bush operators inherited from his father's regime don't even tell Bush what's wrong till word leaks out. Do you get the impression they only tell this fellow as much as they think he can handle at any given moment?

Do they huddle outside his door and debate among themselves, ''How much do we have to tell him at this point?'' Bush is not an actor - but he plays one on TV. With Clinton bursting through the screen, whacking golf balls into the rough, sneaking a stogie on the back nine, yukking it up with Greg Norman, clapping softly in a robed chorus line at a black church, sitting around that Cabinet room table with all the barons and counts and earls, you just knew that Bill was the smartest guy in the room and having more fun than anybody else there.

Bush is supposed to be a guy who never cheated himself out of a good time or a lazy day. Under the covers by 10 every night, takes his favorite feather pillow on the road to snuggle up with. But he seems stiffer than Clinton, like a teenager who's not quite sure where he's supposed to stand or sit, or what he's supposed to say.

I envisage a lot of wrinkly grins from George Jr. The furrowed brow, the cocked-head Johnny Carson rejoinder after a moment's puzzled reflection. Even routine press inquiries seem to stump this guy. There's not exactly a smooth flow to the conversation. Often you wonder if he understands the question. Clinton he ain't. Nor Einstein.

But he was smart enough to get elected. Lucky enough is more like it. Had a lot of help, and not just in various Florida courtrooms and backrooms. All along. I harken back to that shadowy Texas zillionaire oil mogul who came up with more than $2 million in cash to bankroll the attack ads that helped bury John McCain in the spring, when Bush was wobbly.

I bet that guy is happy. So are the rest of the Oil Boys. And the Tobacco Boys. And all those agribusiness, timber, mining, and ranching operators. You can kiss your federal regulations goodbye. Hell-o, pollution. Houston, we have a problem, and it looks like the air quality you-all are chewing on down there. We'll regu-late y'all later - a lot later!

David Nyhan's e-mail address is