Oprah Winfrey fans like stories from the heart — which is fortunate, since both presidential candidates have many. In fact, back when George W. Bush’s life story of sin and redemption was new to voters, he was destroying Al Gore in the polls. And lately, as Gore’s pre-White House biography, especially his marital romance, has received a lot of attention he has pulled ahead of Bush. Oprah fans are also, by and large, female and middle-class, representing a hotly contested group of voters, which may explain why both presidential candidates have now appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. Today was Bush’s turn.
He was once a drinker, voters were reminded, but now he was sober. He was lost, but now he was found, having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. Prodding him to describe a time when he may have needed forgiveness, Oprah said, “I am looking for specifics.”
“I know you are,” Bush responded, “but I’m running for president.” He dutifully answered that his favorite sandwich was peanut butter and jelly on white bread. His favorite dream was of himself being sworn in as president of the United States. And he showed a resistance to being interrupted similar to Oprah’s.
Words failed him now and then. He repeatedly used the phrase “A leader is” to little rhetorical effect. Another word score shows him abusing “fabulous.” Asked if he is smarter than most people, he said yes and then circled back to make it clear he didn’t want to sound condescending, so no, he didn’t think he was smarter than other people. Explaining that he was not running in order to return the Bush tradition to the White House, he went too far in reverse: “There are better ways to uphold the honor of my family and that is to be a decent loving citizen.” (Yeah, but being president can’t be that bad either.)
Luckily Bush has the bearing of someone who’s “the comedian in the family.” Asked to tell a joke, he told a cute one your average pastor would consider appropriate. He also gets a lot of what might be called anticipatory chuckles — laughs in response to the vague sense that something funny is going on. His first response when Oprah asked about a time when he needed forgiveness was “Right now.” This ambiguous line was received with much laughter, only to be followed by a second round of the nervous and confused kind. Bush also has an air of goodwill that makes the people around him jolly. This allowed him to talk politics constantly without seeming to. Did he worry about what other people think of him, Oprah asked. “I care what 51 percent of the people think of me,” he answered, in perhaps his best quip. Was he the black sheep of his family? Maybe, maybe not, but “not now that I’m running for president.” Whereas Al Gore described himself as a family man who also did politics, Bush never strayed very far from the message that he wants to be president.
Still, Bush found time to mention his wife and children. His daughters are “sensitive girls” he’d like to protect from “the meat grinder of public opinion.” Were there things he knew for sure? Oprah asked. “That I love my wife” was second only to “That there is a God.” Like many, many memorable guests before him, Bush cried on the Oprah Winfrey show. Talking about when his wife Laura became toxemic while carrying their twins, his eyes became wet and continued to glisten even after the following commercial break. And so, if Al Gore went on Oprah last week to prove he was a real person, George W. Bush proved he was a real Oprah guest, which is even better.