On the Road Again, and Again...

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George Bush starts many of his Social Security roundtable conversations with the same awkward moment. He asks an economist to explain why the retirement system is in crisis and then interrupts him. "It's an interesting lesson here, by the way," said the President last Thursday of the Ph.D. sitting with him on stage. "He's an advisor. Now, he is the Ph.D., and I am a C-student—or was a C-student. Now, what's that tell you?"

No one is quite sure what it tells them. The expert is puzzled. The five regular Americans sitting with the President keep their curtain-rod posture and laminated smiles. Is the President insulting the professor? What is the message? Book learning just makes you an adviser, but sleep through a few tests and you too can be President?

George Bush gets a thrill from admitting that he was C-student. It may seems like an odd point to make in the middle of a battle for Social Security—especially when your plan is struggling. But thatís precisely why Bush does it. "For you C students out there, don't give up," he says.

It's a new twist on Bush's favorite message. He delights in defying expectations, and he can't resist tweaking the ears of all those who looked at his college transcript and voted him most likely to hawk siding. He also can't resist, because he's in the middle of prospecting for a bigger comeuppance: he'll show all those naysayer who claim his plan for Social Security is dead. " Someone said, 'It's a steep hill to climb, Mr. President,'" he told the audience at the University of Notre Dame a week ago. "Well, my attitude is, the steeper, the better—because when you get up top, you realize you have left a significant contribution behind."

Watching Bush loop the slack in the microphone, needle his guests on stage and slip into a gooey Texas slang, itís clear that he's enjoying his role as Social Security infomercial host as he travels around the country selling his plan. Aides compare the Presidentís psychic thrill of campaigning to the physical charge he gets from his hour-long bike rides.

Itís easy to tell when the President is enjoying himself. In the highly staged "Conversations on Social Security," round-table discussion Bush is having throughout the country, Bush bobs and weaves on his high chair. In one hand he holds a microphone while the other goes to its busy work. To punctuate a point, he shoots out his free hand like he's flicking water from his fingertips. He presses his breastplate so often to show his sincerity, it looks like he's trying to keep his tie from flying off.

As he gets warmed up, his accent gets thicker and thicker. "Widow," morphs into "widdah," Baby Boomers are described as "fixin' to retire," and things start happening "right quick." He has come to town, he tells audiences, to speak in "plain Texan."

After a monologue about his plan for personal accounts, he interviews the others seated with him in a semicircle of identical high armchairs. The guests are carefully selected. They often mouth back to Bush the exact phrases found in the White House talking points. By squeezing the serendipity out of the events, the White House hopes to present local media with a tableau of regular folks enthusiastic about the President's plan. The cynical national media may talk about polls showing the President losing support for his program or quote influential members of his own party backing away from the plan, but the local media covers the event with less analysis. At the White House they call it getting around the "filter."

The stage management leads to Orwellian moments in which the President tries to turn the pre-programmed comments of his audience into a sign of spontaneous groundswell for his program. No matter how rote or familiar his hand-picked panelists sound, he gins up their talking points into a "dynamic" and a "shift in attitude." It's just the appearance of an upsurge, but Bush hopes to kindle a real one.

The members of Congress he's trying to influence know the trick: they fashion dubious groundswells all the time for themselves. But they also know the trick sometimes works. If the President succeeds in forcing members of Congress to take positions on reforming Social Security—reversing the political calculus that said don't touch the thing—it will not only be a masterful policy accomplishment but a victory for his stagecraft.

What makes the pre-planned events seem so life-like at times is that the President can't help interjecting a little of his own banter, swerving the conversation into odd corners. He even at times has a comedian's good timing. When one young college student describes the return on Social Security as "didley-poo," Bush interjects: "it's a financial term." Audiences love his Shriner-style quips. He says to a funeral parlor owner: "I'm not going to ask you how business is." When one speaker finishes, he throws in a self-deprecating one-liner: "Pretty darn articulate. I could use some lessons."

To keep the patter going, the President sometimes just makes up things. When he learns Social Security recipient Larry Dean sells books, the President says he's happy Laura isn't here or she'd start placing orders. After Dean perks up at the idea, the multi-millionaire President cries poor. "A little short on money these days, you know?" he says. "Government pay."

The President gets so folksy, he occasionally admits some truths his spinners have spent months trying to paper over. When one widow says she has invested in bonds as the safest investment, he cracks: "Well, not so safe, unless we fix the deficit." The audience laughs and Bush quickly rushes to cover his slip. "We're fixing the deficit," he promises.

The Shecky Bush show loosens the guests too. When Dean suggests he has children the President's age and Bush notes that would have made him an eight year old father, the bookseller says: "Well, I'm in Kentucky."

At Notre Dame, 24 year-old Jon Paul Surma explains to Bush that with his bad luck, he'll be dead before he sees his first Social Security check. "Wait a minute," laughs Bush, "you need to seek personal help right here at Notre Dame." The exchange goes back on track until Surma veers off course again. "I don't have any kids, and I probably will never have kids," he says to escalating laughter. Bush interrupts: "I thought you were an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic."

Hecklers have tried in their own way to derail the President but with little success. If the Presidential events were any more tightly screened they'd require a blood test to get in. But last week there were three eruptions in Louisville and three more in Memphis. One protestor shook her fist about the war, but the others were doing their yelling in opposition to personal accounts. But their taunts were a little too wonky to punch through. "I'm with you on personal accounts, but what about add-ons," yelled one man from the balcony, referring to private savings plans outside of the Social Security system.

In Memphis, most of the protestors didn't have the gumption to push out a full rant. Several just yelled "no," at various points. This initiated a predictable chain of events. First responders seated around the timid hecklers held up their arms and pointed so that security officials where to launch their purge. Most left quietly. One woman—who had been polite enough to yell "with all due respect"—required two policemen, who held her skinny elbows as they ushered her up the aisle. In Louisville, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation to drown out a woman who refused to go quietly when the muscle arrived.

Not once did the Bush acknowledge the flare-ups. When it's your road show, and you're the President, you can choose who gets to interrupt whom.