In Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, Frank Bruni offers a behind-the-scenes account of Bush the candidate as he completed the home stretch of his quest for the presidency in the 2000 election. As The New York Times correspondent covering the Bush campaign, Bruni is able to present numerous glimpses which, in the end, add up to a thought- provoking overall portrait of the future president. This portrait is based on access not available to ordinary Americans. For most people, presidential candidates are figures presented through the filter of mass media. Bruni and other correspondents got to see Bush face-to-face on a daily basis. While Bruni does not go so far as to suggest that this gives him knowledge of the “real” George W. Bush, he does believe that he has valuable insights to offer as to Bush’s personality and motivations. These insights, of necessity, throw light on Bush’s most important advisors and allies as well, including key Bush family members. Bruni’s book also includes a modest attempt to augment his portrait of George W. Bush with helpful commentary about the nature of presidential politics in the United States. Finally, Bruni opens and closes his book with a brief assessment of President Bush’s performance during the early days of the war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., often referred to as 9/11 (which took place about eight months after Bush took office).
The George W. Bush revealed in Bruni’s book is neither the magnanimously compassionate conservative and strong leader portrayed by Bush publicists nor the total bumbler and dunce portrayed by late-night comedians and some of Bush’s less subtle critics. He cuts, instead, a more complex figure, one which is less easily cast simply as hero, villain, or court jester.
To be sure, Bush is neither an eloquent extemporaneous speaker nor an impressive thinker with a clear focus on issues of public policy. Bruni makes it clear that the frequent “Bushisms” one sees quoted are not isolated incidents which have been magnified by the media. Left to fend for himself, Bush produces a never-ending abundance of malapropisms, which, in turn, have contributed to his image as an intellectual and rhetorical lightweight. Also feeding this image is the fact that Bush is not particularly knowledgeable about any topic outside sports. In short, despite holding a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, Bush has never been a distinguished student of ideas. This image of Bush is not refuted in Bruni’s book.
It does not, however, tell the whole story. Bruni reports that Bush’s SAT scores were well above average. (In addition, Bruni deflates the intellectual credentials of Al Gore and John McCain, Bush’s chief rivals in the 2000 campaign.) Moreover, Bush has shown, both during the 2000 campaign and subsequent to his election, the ability to deliver effectively speeches written by staff members. Bruni argues convincingly that this is an indication that Bush is willing and able to put in sufficient time and effort to understand complex issues. Thus, the image of Bush as disinterested and even lazy must be tempered if one is truly to understand the man. For example, Bruni thought, during the campaign, that Bush handled the education issue with an acceptable level of authority.
This is not to say that Bush lives and breathes “compassionate conservatism.” Rather, for Bush, that credo appears, for the most part, to be a convenient and effective formula for political success, with the conservative element cementing the allegiance of the powerful right wing of the Republican Party (including the “religious right”) and the compassionate part appealing to moderates among Republicans, as well as Independents and some potential crossover Democratic voters. Perhaps because his emergence from alcoholism in the 1980’s was linked to religious beliefs, Bush does have a more than convenient affinity for issue positions held by the religious right, including those on the question of abortion. This does not, however, keep him from pursuing more moderate or centrist stances in order to win elections and keep his political persona in line with public opinion. Indeed, this application of the Ronald Reagan formula for success also suggests that Bush is focused and adequately intelligent when it comes to the bottom line of political campaigns—victory. Put another way, Bush may be seen as a talented and hard-working political opportunist.
What is left after one has eliminated the misleading positive and negative images of Bush? It adds up to a person who can, with some accuracy,...
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