• U.S.

The Cheshire Candidate

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

A smile is just a smile,” the song goes, but with polls showing Governor George W. Bush falling behind in the New Hampshire primary, and after two underwhelming debate performances, the smile with enough wattage to light the national Christmas tree has devolved into the Smirk. It is actually a full-body tic: a pressing together of the upturned lips with a shrug of the shoulders and a preening tilt of the head that signals the Governor is awfully pleased with himself.

For a while, Bush’s facial expression was chronicled only in print. The Wall Street Journal wrote about Bush frozen in a grin as a counselor at a Christian pregnancy center told the sad tale of her secret abortion. Earlier, Tucker Carlson of Talk magazine described the smirk Bush wore as he mimicked convicted murderer turned Christian Karla Faye Tucker begging, “Please don’t kill me,” something she never actually did.

The smirk is much more harmful now that it’s been captured on tape. (Imagine if we had footage of Forbes eating caviar or McCain losing his cool.) The most telling moment in last Monday’s debate grew out of Bush’s earlier assertion that he was reading a biography of Dean Acheson. You might have thought he would then take the time to skim the dust jacket, at least. When CNN’s Judy Woodruff asked what he had learned from Acheson, Bush neither placed the former Secretary of State in an Administration or with a policy, but blithely clutched at rote nostrums about “the incredible freedoms we understand in the great land called America.”

And then he smirked, a reaction that is actually the polar opposite of the deer-in-the-headlight look that overcame Dan Quayle when he realized he’d exposed his ignorance. No matter how remote Bush’s answer to the question at hand, he thinks he’s pulled the wool over the teacher’s eyes, that with his innate smarts and abundant charm, he will not flunk History 101. After all, it’s been arranged. He’s going to be President.

The smirk may be a manifestation of an inner lightness that protects Bush from feeling inadequate. He seems undisturbed that he has no opinion on Boris Yeltsin’s chosen successor, but “will if I’m President”; that he doesn’t know much about controlling nuclear arms but will hire people “who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than I do”; or that he spouts gobbledygook (“It is not only the life of the unborn…it is the life of the living”).

Message: I’m winging it. This may satisfy Bush, but other people have grown concerned. After he grinned through his recent foreign-policy speech, callers to C-Span spent more time weighing in on “the alleged smirk,” as Brian Lamb put it, than on his hard line on China. Last week a New Hampshire voter asked Bush, gingerly, if he were “intellectually curious.” It’s always better, Bush replied, to “be underestimated.”

Well, no problem there. At Haley Barbour’s Christmas open house last Thursday night, clogged with devoted Bushies, there was an admission that Bush’s lackluster performances had raised the bar for subsequent debates (which he would clear), a concession that New Hampshire may go to McCain, and an acknowledgment of the smirk only to the extent that it would be gone by the time voters pay attention.

Republicans are right when they say he can get rid of the smirk–but only if he can lose the attitude. Watching Bush spew his canned responses is as discomfiting as seeing your child straining for the high notes of Silent Night at the school pageant. Most kids know enough to exit the stage gratefully while vowing never to skip practice again. Bush’s response to a near midair collision is to lay down more foam on the runway. Having coasted through Andover and Yale, and to a major-league baseball team that employed his formidable people skills without unduly taxing his mind, he may believe he can also coast to the presidency. He’s so insouciant that he told a group of schoolchildren, “No, I didn’t want to be President when I was little. I’m not even sure I wanted to be President when I was big, until recently.”

In search of an attitude correction, party elders have urged more intense tutorials, a speech coach and mock debates. But when Montana Governor Marc Racicot showed up to help Bush prepare for the Manchester debate, studying and dinner were both wrapped up for a 10 p.m. bedtime.

The focus on the smirk may be just one more example of that crazy thing called life, where a once endearing trait suddenly turns sour, a winning smile and blase demeanor transmogrify overnight into a Cheshire grin and cluelessness. Perhaps it will flip again. While reporters are now intent upon finding clever ways to ask Bush if he’s too dim to be President, it was just one news cycle ago they were obsessed with finding new ways to ask John McCain if he was nuts. Bush said last Thursday that it wasn’t all bad that “I’ve got a heck of a race on my hands.” No one really believes that, but he wasn’t smirking when he said it.

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