The other day Jeb Bush said something about the presidency so fundamentally wrong that it crystallized why his campaign has the vapors, sputtering to just 2.8% in Iowa.
During one of many harangues against Donald Trump, Bush told a small gathering in New Hampshire, “We're not electing a personality. We're electing someone who has to sit behind the big desk and make tough decisions.” Separately, he proclaimed himself an introvert, one who “would rather read a book than go out and get in a conga line and go dancing.” (One wonders who gave him that choice of options.)
The thesis of the Bush campaign is that voters crave a competent manager to make reasonable decisions — not a celebrity or a personality. This, of course, is ludicrous, a total misunderstanding of the modern presidency. And I can prove it. My first witness is his father.
In 1988, when George H.W. Bush sought the presidency, he lambasted his opponent, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, for claiming the election was about competence. “This election isn't only about competence,” the elder Bush declared. “Competence makes the trains run on time but doesn't know where they're going. Competence is the creed of the technocrat who makes sure the gears mesh but doesn't for a second understand the magic of the machine.”
Bush understood that the American people wanted something bigger in their presidents. Which is why he created a persona that they might favor. In the 1980s, at least, the private Bush was a kindly aristocrat with moderate tendencies. The public one was a just-folks Texan who liked pork rinds and country music.
His son — and my former boss — George W. Bush was an even better political performer. In private, Bush was a pragmatic guy. But he ran for president as an even more macho version of his dad: the ultra-confident “decider” who would restore the Reagan Revolution and dismantle the legacy of Bill Clinton. He was dismissed by critics as an arrogant frat boy, which was fine with him. “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger,” he acknowledged. “Which in Texas is called ‘walkin'.'”
Sometimes, when I observed the president with his boots on the desk and his muscular syntax, I'd think, “This isn't really him.” I thought he was putting on a show. At the time, I found that fraudulent. Now, I realize it was necessary.
There is no more important role for a president than that of a performer. A leader who will vow to avenge “a day that will live in infamy.” Or go to Berlin and call on a Soviet leader to tear it down. Or stand on a pile of rubble with a bullhorn and promise to bring the bad guys to justice. The parent who drives through a blizzard, feeling the ice tug on the tires, the car shifting on the slippery road, while telling the kids in the back seat that everything is going just fine and getting them to sing a song.
In the modern era the president is also celebrity-in-chief, expected to comment on the deaths of popular actors or to watch the latest “Star Wars” film or to appear on Jimmy Kimmel alongside beloved comedians.
Does anyone other than Jeb Bush believe that Americans marvel at how efficiently the president cleans out his inbox? Or applaud him for successfully refereeing a dispute between the secretaries of commerce and agriculture? The voters aren't looking for an administrator-in-chief. Last fall Bush gambled otherwise — and released a 644-page book full of emails that he wrote as governor of Florida. If anyone read it — and if Amazon is any guide, almost no one did — they would first have had to wade through six pages of acronyms such as the BOG and the DCA (not to be confused with the DCF).
That's why Bush, the guy who was supposed to win, is losing. Even if he does somehow negative-ad his way to the presidency, he's doomed to fail because he doesn't understand the theater of that office.
Which brings us back to Trump. Whether he makes it to the nominating convention or not — now a shakier prospect than it was just 48 hours ago — he's clearly figured out that this running for president thing has everything to do with creating a persona. His jumbo jet, his photogenic family, his boasts, his feuds against powerful people, his efforts to tie himself to Ronald Reagan and John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all convey a message. He can handle anything people throw at him. He's a winner, even when he isn't, if only because he's ingrained that word in our heads over and over again.
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 memoir-cum-advice manual. “I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts.”
“The Art of the Deal,” Trump tells us, is the bestselling business book of all time. It matters only to fact-checkers and the faltering campaigns of his rivals that this claim is demonstrably false.
Matt Latimer is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. He is currently co-owner of Javelin, a literary and communications agency in Washington.
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