Sunday night's presidential debate was the prime-time unveiling of the greatest political make-over in memory. But the prodigious act of cosmetology designed by George Bush's handlers to transform him from Ronald Reagan's dutiful mastiff into a more heroic figure was a victim of its own excess. Rather than producing a candidate of measured fortitude, the James Baker-Lee Atwater-Rich Bond troika of Bush advisers gave us a truculent and often-muddled back-biter who recklessly belittled the people of Boston and seemed to lay blame for Panama's Manuel Noriega on Dwight D. Eisenhower.
What also came through resoundingly in the debate and what no amount of elocution coaching or mascara could cover is the utter banality of Bush's intellect. His mind is organized like a factory-outlet store--everything scattered around and nothing worth more than $49.95.
But it was his accusatory shrillness more than the emptiness of his programs that marked the new Bush. It makes a person nostalgic for the amiable wimp and ponder whether stature could have been acquired without resort to pugnacity and bluster.
Bush responded to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' indictment of the Reagan Administration's values by unveiling what he said was a revelation from a recent briefing by the CIA. "Seven Administrations," Bush said, "were dealing with Noriega. It was the Reagan-Bush Administration that brought this man to justice."
Bush's confused rejoinder contained both a historical inaccuracy and a misinterpretation of current events: Seven Administrations ago, Eisenhower was in the White House and Noriega was in short pants, and if the Panamanian dictator had been brought to justice why is he still running the country?
A sinister undercurrent of mean-spiritedness coursed through Bush's performance. His snide reference to the term "phony" as "one of these marvelous Boston adjectives," or his charge that the Reagan foreign policy was universally praised except that "several Bostonians don't like it," hearkens back to Sen. Barry Goldwater's dismissal of the East Coast in 1964. Bush also persisted in using the old McCarthyite technique of guilt by association by suggesting that, as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dukakis endorsed every one of the ACLU's positions. Bush has added the ACLU as another exhibit in the right-wing's demonology alongside the Trilateral Commission, whose imagined conspiracies they tried to hang on Walter F. Mondale in 1984.
What is so utterly depressing about Bush's new overbearing style is that by all accounts he is personally one of the more decent people in politics today. He has a reputation for considerateness and generosity that is echoed across the partisan and ideological spectrum. How sad it is that the exigencies of modern campaigning have forced him to be a bully and a scold.
Bush tried, with only partial success, to escape the clutches of his advisers who wanted to make him into a grotesque parody of John Wayne. He kept returning to his "thousand points of light," the homage to voluntarism that originated in his acceptance speech in New Orleans. This forlorn little metaphor, buried in a mass of petulant one-liners, is, sadly, probably a more authentic expression of the real Bush than all of the aspersions cast on his rival's patriotism.
And as it usually is with people whose statements do not match their convictions, Bush often seemed uneasy with the positions that he was forced to take. His response to the question on abortion revealed just how uncomfortable he was as a hard-line right-to-lifer. His admission that "I haven't sorted out the penalties" to be applied to women if abortion were recriminalized was followed by a thicket of ambiguities, evasions and contradictory assertions that revealed that his position is not "continuing to evolve," as he claimed, so much as it is murky and equivocal.
Although it has tended to be dismissed as a difference in style between the two men, Dukakis' greater self-confidence probably arises from the fact that he actually believes a good deal of what he says. When Dukakis does pull his punches or retreat from positions that are deemed unacceptably liberal, his reversals are more adroit than Bush's and show evidence of having been more thoroughly thought through.
What we saw in Bush's performance was a man using bravado to conceal a lack of conviction on issues that political expediency demands he espouse. His response on abortion was pure improvisational theater, and his defense of the Reagan record on foreign policy was a plea for the electorate to accept that, despite calamity and scandal, the end justifies the means.
But for all of the vice president's swerving and trimming, he can still be depicted by his strategists as more of an ordinary Joe than the cerebral governor, whose mastery of the issues can make him appear bookish and remote.
Intellectual rigor, if not an absolutely disqualifying trait for a successful presidential candidate, does not rate highly these days as a desirable characteristic. And if you can cover up your imprecision and intellectual disarray with a bombastic barrage, it can always be interpreted by your "spin doctors" as proof that, unlike your visionary opponent, you are practical, down-to-Earth and resolute.