Bad Boy Makes Good — But Not Goody-Good

TIME's TV critic James Poniewozik reviews Bush's sunny campaign film and finds that Bush makes amiability into an art.

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Posted August 4, 2000, 2:05 a.m. ET

C-SPAN rocks! If you didn't watch the last night of the convention on that cable network, you probably didn't get to watch Brooks and Dunn belt out "Hard-Workin' Man" for George W. Bush's coming-out bash, thoroughly jazzing up the Texas delegation, their little yellow Stetsons bobbing to the twangy, big-backbeat fake-country jam. Too bad for you. It was the perfect lead-in to "The Sky's the Limit," Bush's getting-to-know-me film, a video invite to the line dance he's offering to take the country on for the next four years.

We've gotten eight years more sophisticated and cynical since Bill Clinton's "The Man From Hope" essentially gave him a lead in the 1992 race. But Dubya managed to hit every amiable, feel-good note he intended to. He told us, "There used to be a slogan in Midland, 'The Sky's the Limit.' It's such an optimistic slogan, really." (Let it never be said the man can't read subtext.) He talked baseball. He showed Laura feeding him cake at their wedding. He took us out for a drive. He hung out in the yard with us. Knowing his greatest political asset is likability, he gave us that and more, all but offering the American people a frosty cold long-neck.

He also gave us the obligatory personal-journey story. His generation, he noted over film footage of love-ins, was once the "if it feels good, do it" crowd. (A nice touch, since it doubled as an implied dig at President Clinton and as a nod to Bush's wild-boy past, which, face it, actually gives him a rakish bad-boy glow today.) Today, he said, they have become responsible: they've raised children, gotten careers, become leaders. That's why he ran for governor of Texas, Bush tells us. It's a colossally arrogant idea — that running a huge state should be some form of personal therapy — and yet, again, he pulls it off through sheer uncomplicated amiability.

And then came the true genius note. George and wife Laura are talking about the birth of their twin daughters — we've just seen George in his shaggy '80s hairdo holding them — and he starts reminiscing. "It seems like just yesterday we were at the hospital," and he gets lost in the phrasing, "uh, uh... havin' birth..." And he and Laura crack up. This is a blooper. Al Gore, you think, would have cut and rolled take two. But what does Dubya care? He and Laura laugh each other goofy. I couldn't even think of the words for havin' a baby! "I like to laugh," he says.

Genius. All us eggheads in the punditocracy have spent weeks wondering how the Bush campaign would gloss over his amiable dimness. In fact — and this may be the insight that gets the man elected — they've made it a selling point. This is a man who falteringly reads a letter written to him by grade-schoolers — "We hope that you will make the world safer. And that there will be no more bad guys" — and sound as if he wrote it himself. And yet, in Dan Quayle this was frightening; in George W. Bush, to some huge chunk of the electorate, it's a relief.

Someone on George Bush's crew is a miracle worker. The man is running in a time of prosperity with the opposition in the White House, and yet he has managed to run a campaign like an incumbent. Someone intuited the prevailing mood of the electorate: that the country can basically run himself, so long as the next guy doesn't leave any fluids in the Oval Office and makes sure Alan Greenspan's getting his soluble fiber. Who really cares — just as long as we like the guy? In fact, who needs some guy with big ideas that just might mess things up? If the nation is secure, who cares if the guy with his finger on the nuclear button pronounces it "nuke-yoo-ler"? Today, Bush's film and his campaign say, America is in the middle of one of the biggest prolonged parties in its history. So who do you want to take to the dance — me or the stiff? The crafted image he presented was of a good-time boy who'd gotten responsible, but, you know, not too much. In Philadelphia tonight, George W. Bush urged America to party on — and may have just convinced the nation to elect him Designated Driver.