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Chapter Seven: Times Have Never Been Better, Vote for Change
I don't know, Governor, they just make my butt itch," Jim Ferguson said.
Governor Bush had just asked Fergie what he thought of the Gore campaign commercials.
"Why's that, Fergie?" Governor Bush asked.
"Just the way he looks." Ferguson shrugged. "I get that butt-scratching feeling."
We were in Kennebunkport, Maine, in one of the cottages on the Bush compound. Jim Ferguson had come up from New York with the Young & Rubicam copywriter Janet Kraus. It was the middle of June 2000.
Ferguson had met Bush once before, when Jim had brought his thirteen-year-old daughter to a film shoot at his ranch. They seemed to hit it off from the start, talking about Texas high school football and the joys of ranch life. Jim had explained that he intended at some point to retire from Young & Rubicam and move back to his hometown of Hico, Texas.
When we finished filming, the governor asked Jim if he wanted to stay for lunch.
"I'd love to but my daughter and I are driving back home," Jim said.
"How far is it to Hico?" the governor asked.
"Oh, we're driving to New York," Jim said.
"Right now?" Bush asked, laughing.
"Right now. Just the two of us." Jim put his arm around his daughter.
"In your little convertible?" Bush asked. Jim drove a Mercedes convertible, a style popular with Beverly Hills housewives and upper-echelon drug dealers.
"It's going to be great, ain't it?" Jim asked his daughter. She smiled but seemed a bit unsure. "I'm taking her to Graceland on the way," Fergie promised.
Governor Bush had come to Kennebunkport for his mother's seventy-fifth birthday party and we were using the trip to shoot commercials, talk about the upcoming convention and prep for the debates. We'd had a good spring, an amazing one, actually. At the end of the primary, the conventional wisdom was that we had been beaten up badly and pushed to the right by the process, and that we were headed into the general election as damaged goods. This was in contrast to Gore, who had emerged stronger from the primary, having shown that he was tough enough to beat back a serious opponent. Of course, Gore had also had the luxury of being attacked from the left, a godsend for a Democrat, so that he had won the Democratic nomination and established that he was more conservative than Bradley.
But a funny thing happened in the spring. The Gore campaign seemed not to have the remotest idea what to do once they won. It was as though Al Gore had suddenly become Robert Redford in The Candidate, who, having triumphed, looks around and asks, "Now what?" It was a syndrome that usually afflicts underdogs who never really expect to win or novice candidates who suddenly find themselves thrust onstage. But Al Gore? This was a guy who had been planning to be president since he was a kid. Now he was the Democratic nominee, the vice president at a time when the economy was booming and the country was at peace, and he couldn't think of what to do next?
The press speculated that it was Gore's style that was hurting him with voters, but his real weak point was a lack of substance and message, which forced people to focus on his style. Not very likeable people with odd personalities get elected all the time — New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is a perfect example — if they have a compelling message. Both David Dinkins and Ruth Messinger ran and lost to Rudy by spending most of their time trying to prosecute him for being a jerk. The problem was, you could believe Rudy was a flaming asshole and still vote for him because Rudy's message of taking back control of the city was so powerful. Gore had yet to come up with a persuasive message, so people focused on his personality, which seemed to have been manufactured in a laboratory.
We had filled the postprimary period with a series of big and little policy proposals, some new, some recycled and freshened up with new "nuggets" as Josh Bolten, head of the policy team, called them. It was a methodical strategy steered by Karl and Josh. Since the summer of 1999, Karl had been working on a postprimary plan for the campaign. As part of this, he was constantly trying to perfect a single planning calendar that would chart all aspects of the campaign. This had gone from being a simple calendar program printout to an elaborate, multicolored document of legendary complexity. At each meeting, it seemed a new element was added to the calendar.
"Do I get a decoder ring with this thing?" Joe Allbaugh asked one day when the newest version was handed out by Karl's whiz kid, Israel Hernandez of Eagle Pass, Texas. Israel was the keeper of the calendar and there was more than one meeting when the only people who could really interpret its nuances were him and Karl, and probably just him.
"It's simple," Karl would begin, which meant it was going to be incredibly complex. "Everything in black is the governor's schedule. Green is for the governor's speeches and announcements, blue is for holidays and special events and black are events in the House and Senate and miscellaneous themes."
There was a pause as everyone tried to digest this. "I think black is being used for both the governor's schedule and the events in the House and Senate," Josh said. "Or are there different shades of black that I'm just missing?"
"I'm sure there's a reason for this," Karl said solemnly. He looked at Israel, who always sat just behind him at the message meetings. "Israel, what's the answer?"
"The governor's schedule is in bold-faced black," Israel explained.
"See!" Karl cried. "Simple."
No one really knew whether the policy proposals would have much of an impact. The odds were that they would simply not register with voters in the postprimary lull, and there was a constant debate as to whether we were doing too much or wasting good policy at the wrong time. But Karl was convinced that it was critical to keep unveiling a steady stream of new details throughout the spring, and the pace he established was fierce. During the last two weeks of March, Bush gave a speech offering new details on his reading initiative; spoke on the need to support teachers; released a plan called "Strong Teachers, Strong Schools"; gave a major environmental speech focusing on the cleanup of brownfields and unveiled a bundle of proposals on taxes, health care and expanding home ownership for low-income families called "A New Prosperity Initiative." On subsequent days he provided more details on these proposals so that there would be a fresh news hook each day.
It worked, which surprised everybody but Karl. Not that anybody outside of a few journalistic nerds could recite the details of A New Prosperity Initiative, but the overall impression began to soak in that Governor Bush was out there with smart proposals to fix things that were broken. It cast him as an activist, an agent of change who believed government could be part of the solution, not just the problem. It helped that the proposals received consistently high marks for substance, even from those who disagreed with his philosophy.
In the middle of the primary fight, Bush's fav/unfav had been only ten points to the good, 49 to 39, according to ABC News/Washington Post poll numbers. By July, it had improved twenty-one points, to 61 percent to 30 percent. Gore, during that same time, had stagnated to 45/35, this despite the fact that Gore, as vice president, had an ability to command attention and make news far greater than a Texas governor who was still waiting to receive his party's nomination.
"But what the hell is this race about?" Fergie asked. He and Janet Kraus, Karl, Mark, Russ and Karen Hughes were sitting outside the inn where we were staying in Kennebunkport. We had planned some filming the following day and were going over different themes and scripts.
"You haven't figured it out?" Mark laughed.
"Hell no. You're the client. You got to tell me why the chicken tastes good and I'll tell you how to sell it. Did I talk to you about Kentucky Fried?" he asked. Kentucky Fried was a big Y&R client.
"I want to know why they dropped rotisserie style," I asked.
"You know the night of the convention," Fergie said, "when the governor goes over the top in delegates and they cut to that shot of him watching television in his room."
We all nodded. This was a classic shot. It always happened.
"I was wondering if maybe he could have a big ole bucket of KFC in his lap. Don't you think that would be great? Really connect with people."
"Or maybe he could wave a Twister at the camera," Janet said. She had been working on Twisters, a new KFC delicacy.
"You want it, Fergie baby," Karl said, "you got it."
"Great. So what the hell is this race about?"
"Reasonable change," Karl said.
"That's a hell of a slogan," Fergie said. "We could do up a logo in gray. Maybe gray on gray."
Karl laughed. "But that's what people do want. They aren't looking for revolutionary change like 1994 and they don't think the country is going to hell. But there are things that trouble them."
"What about 'Times Have Never Been Better, Vote for Change,' " I suggested.
"I love that," Janet said. "Bored with peace and prosperity? Vote for change."
"You're right," Karl said, "these guys should be winning this thing in a walk. We shouldn't even be in this race. But we are. People do want change, they just want — "
"Reasonable change," Janet said. She pulled out a few pieces of paper from a thin briefcase.
"Janet worked up some stuff," Fergie said.
"They aren't scripts," Janet explained. "I call them theorems." She shrugged. Then she picked up one of the pieces of paper and began to read. She had been an actress once and was a good reader.
"Now is the time to do the good stuff," Janet read. "Once in a hundred years, a nation has this chance. To be at peace. To be in prosperity. And to have the focus and resources to do something good with it all. We could just lie back and enjoy an easy run. But for George W. Bush, this is the time to tackle the tough stuff. Right here, right now, we can be making our country a better place for everyone's lives. Should we look for new ways to make Social Security as certain and valuable for our grandkids as it will be for us? Should our schools make high achievement a goal for every kid? Isn't this a time — when we have the time — to test new ideas? Fresh approaches? To make life better for everyone, for all time? We have the leadership. We have the ideas. But we may never have another chance in our lives to make it happen."
Janet had several others, each one touching on a different large theme that the campaign might explore. They all had elements that could be turned into ads.
"What does this race have to be about for us to win?" Karl asked.
"Strong leadership," Karen said. "People consistently see the governor as a stronger leader than Gore." She was right. When voters were asked who was a stronger leader, Governor Bush consistently topped the vice president by at least twenty points.
"Strong leadership for what purpose?" Mark asked. "Why do we need a strong leader?"
"To do the tough things," Janet said. "To take on solving the problems that don't get solved."
"Like Social Security," Karen said, "and education, when we keep spending more money and scores get worse. Medicare reform — "
"And prescription drugs," Karl added. "So we establish him as a strong leader who not only has a plan to fix these things but the guts to get it done."
"Guys," Fergie said, "what about 'prosperity with a purpose'? That's a great theme. We can't make the case that the governor is going to improve the economy. We can't fix what ain't broke. So don't we have to talk about using the prosperity for a higher purpose? It's like my kids. They have everything in the world they want, but what does it mean?"
"Write something," Karl said. "Let's try it."
"I was afraid you'd say that," Fergie said.
We talked for a couple of hours, batting around different ideas. It always came down to the dilemma that had existed in the race from the beginning — in a time of peace and record prosperity, how do you get a nation to vote against the status quo and in favor of change, especially when the agent of that change is new to them? There was no one simple message that we could drive home over and over. Somehow we had to piece together elements of different messages and hope it would be enough to get us over the top.
That night after dinner, when we were hanging out in the bar of the little inn, I made a list of what we needed to do to win:
1. Make sure people trust GWB enough to be president. Stop Gore from disqualifying him.
2. Make taxes an issue and win it.
3. Win or tie on education.
4. Not lose on health care/prescription drugs/Medicare.
5. Win or tie on Social Security. Use SS to define leadership.
6. Tie on guns/environment/abortion.
7. Win on character/honor/integrity.
Then I made a list of what Gore needed to do to win:
1. Raise just enough doubts about GWB.
2. Make himself the less risky choice on the economy.
3. Win on prescription drugs/Medicare/health care.
4. Tie on education.
5. Not lose on character/honor/integrity.
6. Win on Social Security.
Then I tried to be honest about who was more likely to accomplish each goal.
Make sure people trust GWB enough to be president. Stop Gore from disqualifying him. We could do this, unless there was some defining moment in the campaign, like a disastrous debate performance. People wouldn't think that Bush was a stronger leader, which they did, if they didn't believe he was up to being president. Gore would always win on experience — he had to if only because he had more of it — but lack of experience is something voters are consistently willing to overlook if they believe the person is up to the job. Experience is a trailing, not a leading indicator. Dukakis didn't lose because he didn't have the experience, he lost because he was judged as smaller than life and too liberal.
Make taxes an issue and win it. This was tough. We would win taxes, that was easy, but it was going to be tough to make taxes a driving issue in the race. People wanted a tax cut, sure, and our base loved it, but it wasn't motivating many swing voters.
Win or tie on education. No Republican in modern history had done this. But we had a shot. People understood that Bush was passionate on the issue. In the primary debates, education questions always brought out the best in him. Still, history wasn't on our side.
Not lose on health care/prescription drugs/Medicare. This was hard. Basically it would be a battle between reforms proposed by Bush and more money promised by Gore. It was hard to bet that reform would come out on top.
Win or tie on Social Security. Use SS to define leadership. They didn't call this issue the third rail of politics for nothing. Yet Bush had proposed what would be the most sweeping reforms in the program's history. It wasn't hard to imagine Gore tearing us apart on this in the fall.
Tie on guns/environment/abortion. This we could do, or even win when you considered that the pro-life and Second Amendment types were incredibly motivated. Gore was already discovering that every time he opened his mouth in public on guns and abortion, he lost conservative Democratic voters in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. These were battles Gore would probably fight more under the radar screen, through phones and mail. He'd win the environment, but it wouldn't be a major factor in the race.
Win on character/honor/integrity. We could do this. We had to do this. The problem was that it was too easy for Gore to limit his downside.
For Gore, each of his goals was either easy or not much tougher than easy.
Raise just enough doubts about GWB. He would not be able to disqualify Governor Bush, but could he raise enough doubts with suburban swing voters to make them stay with the status quo?
Make himself the less risky choice on the economy. The economy was roaring. He was vice president. Easy.
Win on prescription drugs/Medicare/health care. He was a Democrat, for crying out loud. They always won on these issues.
Tie on education. He was a Democrat. Easy.
Not lose on character/honor/integrity. This shouldn't be too hard. Monica hadn't been under his desk. Sure he had waved the pom-poms around on the front lawn of the White House after Clinton was impeached, but our focus groups tended to discount that and gave him credit for being loyal. Damn focus groups.
Win on Social Security. Right, like this would be tough.
You know what was really depressing? The things that weren't on the list. No welfare reform, no crime, no national defense, no save us from the evil empire. These were the issues, along with taxes, that had been electing Republicans since World War Two. Now, they weren't even on the radar screen as potential wedge issues. National defense was still a huge crowd pleaser and there was no question that we would win overwhelmingly among those who considered it a top issue, but would the fall campaign be a debate on national defense? Not very likely.
It was basically a miserable political environment in which to elect a Republican president. No national security crisis, people weren't up in arms over taxes, crime had all but disappeared, welfare reform was yesterday's news. Instead, all the big issues were of the classic Democratic safety net variety: Medicare, prescription drugs, Social Security. Realistically, there wasn't a reason in the world that Gore shouldn't win this thing in a walk.
This was why in August at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, every academic analyst predicted Gore would win the race. The Washington Post did a major story headlined "Academics Say It's Elementary: Gore Wins." The political scientists used models to predict the race that "have proven highly accurate in the past. Several of the formulas have repeatedly been more accurate than even election eve public opinion polls."
"It's not even going to be close," said one of the academic teams with a superb record of forecasting the results.
"He's not going to do that," Bush laughed. "No way."
"Governor, that's what he does," Karen said. "It's his style."
Bush shook his head. "Interrupt like that?"
"Worse," Senator Gregg said.
This was the second of two debate prep sessions we were having at Kennebunkport. Senator Gregg had snuck into the Bush compound, ducking low to avoid reporters, since we didn't want to advertise that debate preparations were underway. They had actually begun in May under Karen's direction. She had outlined a format that was working well — we'd do twenty minutes to a half hour on one subject with Senator Gregg playing Al Gore, then break, analyze the responses and move on to another subject.
It was interesting to see how eager Bush was to dive into the prep sessions. He seemed to really enjoy the encounters with Senator Gregg and liked it when Gregg took Gore-like nasty shots at him and the Texas record. I'd wondered whether Senator Gregg, who in real life is a quiet, extremely pleasant guy with a wry sense of humor, could match Gore's level of bombastic self-promotion and cutting barbs. But he was great. Before each session he would listen to tapes of Gore on his Walkman, and he'd mastered Gore's patterns and tendencies to an eerie degree.
We had a serious advantage over the Gore team given the amount of material to study on Gore. We simply had more game film on the other team. A group at the Republican National Committee put together a five-hundred-plus-page tome analyzing Gore's performance over the years. They studied his debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, plus twenty-two appearances on Meet the Press, nineteen appearances on This Week, sixteen appearances on Face the Nation, a showdown with John McCain on MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour in 1988, three Nightlines and a bunch of other shows.
Gore had earned a rep as a successful debater based largely on his trouncing of Ross Perot on Larry King Live. And in the primary he had decimated Bradley in the Iowa debate when he lied — as he often did — about Bradley's opposition to flood relief for Iowa.
But these were only the most notorious examples of Gore's alleged prowess as a debater. I had watched every one of his debates going back to 1987 and had come away convinced the guy was way overrated. Let's face it, how much credit should you get for beating a nutcase like Perot or an amiable but hapless politician like Bradley? Everyone who ran against Bradley looked good — that's how Christie Whitman had gotten started, when she came out of nowhere and almost beat him in 1990. When you looked at Gore's debates with his Democratic opponents in the '88 race, Gore never won a single one, though he did manage to inflict pain, which seemed to be his primary objective. He was like some steroid-crazed football player running around dying to put a lick on anything that moved, not caring whether or not it helped him win. Against Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp, Gore certainly hadn't lost, but he hadn't scored resounding victories either and nobody was drafting Quayle or Kemp into the debating Hall of Fame.
It was fascinating to see how Gore's debating tactics repeated themselves. He relied on well-rehearsed themes that he returned to again and again. When he was on his game, it gave a consistency to his constant attacks. But often it sounded robotic and disingenuous. He attacked relentlessly, often with snide, personal digs intended to fluster and embarrass his opponents. In his opening statement against Quayle, he managed to bring up both Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" jab and a "deer caught in the headlights" reference. He accused Bradley of racism, attacked Dick Gephardt in 1988 for flipping on abortion just as he himself had earlier done, made fun of Jesse Jackson for being a preacher and was the first to use the Willie Horton pardon against Dukakis, when he, Dukakis and Jackson were running in the New York primary and it had particular resonance.
He lied in debates, knowing it would more often than not flabbergast his opponents. And he had a very accomplished manner of lying. The classic example was when he scolded Quayle for voting for legislation that he himself had voted for, which left Quayle all but sputtering. He accused Bradley of supporting raising the retirement age on Social Security when Gore himself had voted for legislation that did exactly that. He was consistently mendacious about his record on abortion, something that had driven his debating opponents crazy since 1988. When trapped in a lie, Gore's technique was to simply deny it, understanding that there was not a referee who would correct him. And he appreciated how much it frustrated his opponents, giving him an advantage.
Gore loved to badger and interrupt his opponents. He used annoying tricks like rustling paper in front of a microphone when the other guy was speaking, but his favorite was to end his responses with a question for his opponent. If his opponent ignored the question, Gore often interrupted, asking why he was refusing to answer the question. And if an opponent took the bait and actually answered the question, Gore would interrupt to correct the opponent.
It was this last technique of Gore's — the badgering, the interrupting — that we were practicing in Kennebunkport that morning. Senator Gregg had mastered Gore's technique of ending his response with a question, and now was following up his question with a constant refrain.
"Why don't you answer the question, Governor?" Pause. To the audience, "We haven't heard the answer, have we? Governor, are you going to answer the question? Governor?"
Bush finally started laughing. "Won't the moderator stop him?"
"Maybe," Robert Zoellick said, "but you can't count on it." Zoellick was a foreign policy and trade expert who had been brought in to help. He was focused, no-nonsense and wicked smart.
"You can't look to the moderator to help," I said. All of us on the prep team had talked about this and agreed. It was a natural instinct for Bush to play by the rules and expect the same from his opponent. Bradley had been the same way, as had Quayle and Dukakis and Gephardt. But when Gore ignored the rules of the debate, as he frequently did, and an opponent turned to the moderator for relief, it invariably looked weak, as though he was looking to be bailed out.
"You can't run up and down the court signaling to the ref," Condi Rice added. She was a very serious sports fan.
The governor held up his hand. "Got it. Let's try it again."
I was playing the moderator and I asked another question, directed at Senator Gregg. "Mr. Vice President, as a result of investigations into the Clinton-Gore fund-raising, twenty-one people have fled the country, eighty-three people have pled the Fifth Amendment under oath, twenty-four have been indicted and fourteen convicted. Given this record, how can the American people trust you on campaign finance reform?"
I loved asking Gore tough questions — even a fake Gore. It was deeply gratifying.
"There are two candidates on this stage and unfortunately, only one of us supports McCain-Feingold campaign reform..."
Gregg had Gore nailed. That was exactly how Gore would answer — he'd ignore the question and just launch into an attack on Bush. At the end of his answer, Gregg turned to the governor and said, "Will you join me tonight in pledging that you will make McCain-Feingold your number one priority?"
The governor started in on his answer and Gregg interrupted. "Why can't you answer this simple question? Why can't — "
"Mr. Moderator," Bush pleaded, "tell him to quit bullying me. Please?"
We all cracked up. Over the next twenty minutes, the governor tried different responses to Gregg/Gore's interruptions. He tried pausing and smiling, as though dealing with a child who was being rude. That didn't work because Gregg/
Gore would jump on the silence and fill it with his own answers. He tried turning to Gregg/Gore and admonishing him not to interrupt. But that was ceding control to Gore, letting him dictate the flow of the debate. What seemed to work best was for Bush to continue to talk over Gore, ignoring him while raising his voice just enough to be assertive.
"When you do that," Karen said, "Gore looks petulant. It frustrates him."
"I am petulant," Senator Gregg insisted. "I am frustrated."
Bush practiced it several times. It was like watching a pitcher learning a new pitch, getting more comfortable with the motion until finally he had it mastered.
Logan Walters, the governor's assistant, interrupted to say that Dick Cheney was on the phone. Bush left to take the call at the main house. These kinds of interruptions by Cheney had become more and more frequent as the vice presidential selection process accelerated. We sat around in the little cottage and talked about everything but why the governor was taking the call. It was always that way. There seemed to be an unstated rule that no one discussed the vice presidential pick, not even in the idlest, most gossipy way. I think everybody thought that it was like getting married — if he wanted our opinion, he would ask. Otherwise it was just bad form to speculate.
When Bush returned, he was very upbeat. "This is great," he said. "Finally."
We glanced around the room at one another. Had he made a decision? Was he going to tell us?
He played out the moment. "Great news, just great." He looked around at us, knowing what we were wondering. "I talked to the guys at the ranch. Got a lot of rain. The pond is filling up." He laughed. "Let's do some more. You ready, Mr. Vice President?"
Janet and Fergie both came up with scripts while we were in Kennebunkport. Janet had written three spots taken from her "now's the time to do the hard things" theorem, one on education, one on Social Security and one that she called an "anthem" for the campaign.
"An anthem?" I asked her. "Really?"
We were having breakfast before the shoot at the terribly cute inn in Kennebunkport where we were staying. Janet was smoking and looking a lot more chic than anyone else in Kennebunkport.
"Yeah, you know. Anthem." She shrugged. "Do you think I'm not supposed to smoke in here?" she asked.
I loved these guys. They knew how to package everything. We would have called it just another spot, but when you styled an ad as an "anthem," it automatically sounded grander, more powerful.
"Don't you call big theme spots anthems?" she asked.
"I will now," I promised.
Janet's scripts were neatly printed out; somewhere she had found a printer to hook up to her computer. She handed them to me.
How come the hard things don't get done?
Because they're hard.
If we really want to make sure no child gets left behind in America, we need the courage to do some tough things.
We need to raise standards in our schools.
We need more accountability, more discipline.
And we need to stop promoting failing kids to the next grade because we've given up on them.
It's easy to spend more.
Let's start by expecting more.
For too long, too many politicians have been afraid to touch it.
Because we need to strengthen it, right now.
We need to give people more choices in how they build their nest eggs.
I have a plan.
Protect the benefits of retirees and near-retirees.
You earned it. You get it. No change. Period.
And if you're part of the next generation, you should have the choice to put some of your Social Security in a personal retirement account you control.
It's time to make Social Security more secure.
There aren't many moments in history when you have the chance to focus on the tough problems.
We're in a moment like that now.
But to make schools better for all children — it takes fresh ideas.
To strengthen Social Security — it takes the courage to try something different.
It's not always popular to say, "Our kids can't read."
"Social Security isn't doing all it could."
"We have a budget surplus and a deficit in values."
But those are the right things to say.
And the right way to make America better for everyone is to be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide.
Now is the time to do the hard things.
While I was reading, Fergie came down to join us at breakfast, dressed in his usual cowboy boots, jeans and linen shirts. "You gotta have a look in New York, Stevens," he had told me, "and this is my look." He downed an orange juice in one gulp and then started writing on a paper place mat. Janet and I looked at each other and shrugged.
"So great to see you too, Fergie," she said.
A few moments later Fergie handed us his place mat.
"Here's mine," he said. At the top, he'd scribbled "Something's Missing." It went like this:
Something's missing in America.
Something's just not quite right.
It's hard to say exactly what. But Americans know it...deep down.
Our wallets are full but our hearts are empty.
It's a time of peace but we're not at peace.
Our national symbols are no longer symbols of pride.
It's time we put the heart back into America.
Time to take accountability in our actions.
Time to make Social Security secure again.
Time to educate our children.
Time to be proud again.
Now's the time to elect George W. Bush President of the United States.
I read it over. I loved it. "Is the governor talking?" I asked.
"Are you nuts? It's an announcer, for Chrissake. Can I get sausage here?"
"Fergie, you can have whatever you want."
"I'm on a diet but what the hell. I have to go to the Cannes Advertising Festival and be a judge next week. That's a big deal, you know."
Karen joined us and I passed her the scripts.
"When you wear those thongs on the beach," Fergie asked Karen, "do you put that little triangle thingie in the front or back?"
* * *
We spent the afternoon filming former President and Mrs. Bush. The goal was to get material for the convention film about the senior Bush — we'd decided to make a film about the three living Republican presidents, Ford, Reagan and Bush — as well as the centerpiece film on Governor Bush, which would run just before he gave his acceptance speech.
We were working from outlines rather than scripts, and the idea was to get everything we needed in interviews with the former president and Mrs. Bush. The location we'd picked was one of the cottages on the Bush compound. By moving around the camera, we could create the impression of more than one setting. We could film Governor Bush in a warm and informal setting, with books behind him (which was important because we didn't want the shot to scream Maine), and former President and Mrs. Bush with a large plate glass window that overlooked the sea behind them.
While waiting for the lighting to be adjusted, George Sr. was relaxed and funny.
"Ready for the A team to show 'em how it's done," he cracked, loud enough to make sure his son overheard.
Though former President Bush couldn't have been more informal and cordial, there was something about having a president in the room that affected everyone. We were all going about our business but it was like being at a small party with a famous actor — it just changes how everyone acts, if only because you are concentrating on not letting anything change. We all believed that there was a very good chance that Governor Bush would be president but President Bush had been a president. It was different and I wondered how we would all react if a few months from now, George W. Bush became president. It would change everything, even for those who were closest to him, like Karen and Karl.
Of course, he understood that better than most candidates, having seen it up close. I think he had a bittersweet feeling about how his life would change if he won. In New Hampshire, he had talked a lot about the sacrifices it took to run and the press had jumped all over him, saying he sounded homesick, questioning if he had what it took to win. He quit trying to talk about it in public, but it was easy to understand what he was feeling. He enjoyed his life, wanted to protect his family and knew that his life and his family would change in ways that were impossible to imagine. Ten years ago, he never would have predicted his life would take the turn that it had. For anyone who wasn't completely defined by their ambition — the Clintons being the perfect example — becoming president must, on some level, be terribly daunting and disconcerting.
Russ interviewed President Bush — they had known each other since Russ worked for him in 1988. When Russ asked him about the White House and the role of the president, his jaw tensed a bit and he looked off camera for just a beat. He talked about how the presidency was bigger than any one man and how even in the thick of Watergate when people said respect for the White House would never return, it did. Russ prompted him a little on the Clinton years and he just raised a hand, as if batting the question away. He wasn't going to touch it.
"What's it like to know that your son might be president of the United States?" Russ asked.
The former president started to answer then turned away, his eyes full of tears. He smiled apologetically. "Sorry," he murmured.
Several of the crew, a bunch of battle-hardened pros Laura Crawford had brought up from Texas, looked down or away, their eyes watering.
Later, when we were about to film Mrs. Bush and everyone had commented on how nice she looked, which she did, Mark asked her with a smile, "Does anyone ever tell you that you don't look great, Mrs. Bush?"
"Oh, yes," she said, smiling, "but they don't last long."
Copyright © 2001 by Stuart Stevens
Posted April 6, 2014
Posted April 6, 2014