George W.'s Ordeal by Oprah

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I remember going to Texas in 1988 with the Dukakis campaign and hearing the state's highway commissioner and designated Democratic wit, Jim Hightower, tell a crowd, "When ignorance goes to $25 a barrel, I want the drilling rights on George Bush's head!"

"Why, George Bush is so dumb," Hightower continued, "he thinks Cheerios are seeds for doughnuts."


One generation passeth away. The son, George W. Bush, was on Oprah Winfrey's show to prove two things, 1) that he is not dumb, but, on the contrary, quick-witted, and 2) that he is compassionate and caring — the real litmus with the women who are not only Oprah's audience but also the decisive swing voters in this election.

How did W. do?

He was fairly quick on his feet, by turns agile and earnest. He used biblical, born-again locutions which to the unprepared sound peculiar (he needs forgiveness "when my heart is dark") and did a modified, limited, low-information, appropriately dignified minute or two on the subject of his drinking.

"Alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections," Bush admitted. Nothing new, but candor in a minor key. He said that on his fortieth birthday he had too much to drink, that he went jogging the next morning, and during that jog vowed never to drink again.

He was pretty funny (and the audience was packed with partisan laughers). He told a joke about the guy in church who keeps calling out during services, "Use me, Lord, use me," whereupon the preacher sets the man to work scraping and painting the pews. Next Sunday, the man cries out from the congregation, "Use me, Lord — but only in an advisory capacity!"

Bush said he was "thick-skinned." The real question, of course, is whether he is thick-skulled. He allowed, in response to a question, that he considers himself to be "smarter than most people." But, Bush cautioned, quite rightly, "there are many different ways of being smart." When Oprah asked Bush whether he cares about what people think, he shot back, "I care what 51 percent of the people think!"

Here's a point: If Bush, at his convention in Philadelphia, had seized his wife and given her a kiss like the one that Al Gore planted on Tipper in Los Angeles, the screams of "yuckkkkk!" in the media would have been loud and prolonged. The Kiss (allegedly so endearing when performed by the Gores) would have been deemed weird and gross — a flashback to the incorrigible frat boy slob.

Bush in any case would not have done it. He sends the same message (I love my wife) by his feeling talk about Laura and about the birth of his twin daughters. Presumably Oprah's huge female audience felt some sympathetic vibration on that score. The question is whether it does not demean the entire process to have all of this attention paid to the state of a candidate's marriage. We have Bill Clinton to thank for that — that, and a certain deepening fatuousness in the American political process.

When the subject of capital punishment came up, and Bush briskly, unapologetically pronounced himself satisfied that all of the 143 people executed during his tenure as governor were a) guilty as charged, and b) given their fair chance in court, Oprah's producers chose to record the frisson in the studio by panning a succession of grave, skeptical female faces.

But Oprah, so hospitable last week to Al Gore, was being nice to W. and did not press the usual Democratic case against Bush.

Favorite sandwich? Peanut butter and jelly.

Favorite gift to bestow? A kiss to my wife. (That's Al Gore's too, presumably).

Favorite song? "Wake Up, Little Suzie," by the Everly Brothers.

Hmmm. "Wake Up, Little Suzie" is about a harmlessly miscreant teenager who's kept the girl out way too late and has major anxiety about the disapproval of parents. Maybe the Bush people could come up with a song that's a little more grown-up, something that does not bring parents into the picture.

It's slightly weird, in any case, that presidential candidates have to submit to ordeal by Oprah. It makes one wonder whether it is George Bush who's dumb, or something in the culture.