George W. Bush, here and gone


Assuming that it's possible to put aside Sarah Palin for a moment - the latest gem is that, as a small-town mayor, she wanted to ban some library books; she fired the town librarian, then relented when citizens protested - let us remember what constitutes John McCain's chief challenge at his national convention, and beyond:

Republican Convention
Who he?

His urgent need to give a respectful nod to the guy he hopes to succeed in office...while nevertheless orchestrating the maximum possible distance from that same guy, who is viewed as a virtual pariah by nearly 70 percent of the American electorate, and who also happens to be one of the worst presidents of the past century.

It's a tad tricky, because most of the delegates in the convention hall are still devotees of George W. Bush, either blind to his faults or willfully oblivious to the serial failures that need no detailing here. McCain needs to honor that devotion, if only in the hopes of transferring that devotion to himself (and this is where the Palin choice will help); at the same time, he well knows that he's cooked in November unless he can bond with the millions of independent, swing voters far from the hall who can barely watch their TVs anymore when Bush's face appears on it.

Which probably explains why Bush's face was permitted to appear last night for a grand total of eight minutes - sandwiched, just outside the 10 p.m. network broadcast hour, between a passel of other speakers and some biographical videos. Thanks to Gustav, Bush was compelled to talk from afar via satellite, as if to demonstrate that, with more potential hurricanes on the horizon, he is truly on the job, essentially saying to the delegates: "This time I promise I'm not going to screw up, like the way I screwed up three years ago during Katrina, when I wrecked the party brand."

Anyway, given the long, testy relations between Bush and McCain, the president's remarks last night clearly require some annotation, which I will now provide.

Bush retold the story about McCain's long stint as a POW: "His wounds were so severe...he suffered nearly five more years of beatings and isolation. When he was released, his arms were broken, but not his honor." (The POW story is certainly excellent grist for building a case for McCain's character. But the irony here, as I well remember from the campaign trail, is that when Bush and McCain were competing for the 2000 nomination, Bush's minions worked diligently to deride McCain's POW stint, spreading rumors that all those years in a cell had made McCain a little nuts - and hence not sufficiently level-headed for the job of commander-in-chief. So either Bush is now implictly admitting that he was well served by scurrilous smears in 2000....or that he's just blowing smoke when he now cites the POW stint as evidence that McCain is "prepared" and "ready to lead this nation.")

Moments later, Bush lauded the McCain family: "As the father of seven sons and daughters, John has the heart of a protector. He and his wonderful wife, Cindy, are adoptive parents." (Nice to see that acknowledgement, given the fact that, eight years ago, Bush-friendly rumors flew in South Carolina about how McCain had supposedly fathered a black baby out of wedlock...whereas the actual truth was that McCain and his wife had adopted a child from Bangladesh.)

Bush then segued into policy: "We have seen John McCain's commitment to principle in our nation's capitol. John is a steadfast opponent of wasteful spending. As president, he will stand up to the high tax crowd in Congress and make the tax relief permanent." (This passage illustrates the current Republican schizophrenia. On the one hand, Bush was praising McCain for railing against him - since, after all, Bush has been the poster child for "wasteful spending" and runaway deficits; he never vetoed any GOP Congress spending measure. On the other hand, Bush was praising McCain for his loyalty, for wanting to make permanent the tax cuts for the rich - two signature Bush measures that McCain used to be against before he was for. The delegates applauded those three speech sentences, although it was hard to tell if they were applauding Bush because they like Bush - and his tax cuts for the rich - or because they're glad that maybe McCain will chart a different course on spending, and hence clean up the fiscal mess for which they know that Bush bears the most responsibility. Probably both.)

Shortly thereafter, Bush returned to his most familiar turf: "We live in a dangerous world and we need a president who understands the lessons of September the 11th, 2001; that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain." (This was tasty red meat for the folks in the hall - most of whom probably cling to the fallacious belief that 9/11 required America to invade Iraq, and some of whom probably know by now that Sarah Palin, in a church video last spring, referred to the Iraq war as "a task that is from God." More problematical is whether the viewers at home - the independents who bothered to watch Bush - bought the president's implicit message that Barack Obama wants to "wait to be hit again." That's rhetoric left over from 2004; on the other hand, there is virtually no distance between Bush and McCain on the fear front.)

And then, after retelling the familiar story about the west Texas painting that hangs near his desk, he was gone from this convention. And not a moment too soon for McCain, who would prefer not to associate himself beyond what it necessary - given the fact that, in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll - 64 percent of Americans are "very" or "somewhat concerned" that McCain "would pursue policies that are too similar to what George W. Bush has pursued."

Nevertheless, it's hard not to think of Bush when pondering Sarah Palin, who makes her debut tonight.

Nine years ago, when candidate Bush was dogged by the widely held suspicion that he was ill-traveled and didn't know much of anything about international affairs, he responded at one point by insisting that this was no big deal, that what he didn't know he could simply learn from his advisers (unfortunately, those advisers were people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz). And now we're getting reports that Palin, in preparation for her big speech tonight, is holed up non-stop with McCain advisers who are busy pumping her full of policy and talking points. I have little doubt that she will put on a boffo show.

The question is whether, eight years after Bush won the presidency in part because he related so well as an average everyday guy, voters will now be stoked for McCain in part because Palin simply seems like the kind of gal you'd want to share a mooseburger with.