All things to all checkbooks

The smoothly humming Bush machine makes sure that no one gets a chance to find out just who that man in the driver's seat really is.

Published July 1, 1999 9:30AM (EDT)

George W. Bush marched through California this week, plodding methodically from fund-raiser to fund-raiser, delivering the same speech five times in 36 hours. Two more recitals were scheduled by the time the Bush plane, "Great Expectations," flies back to Austin at 4 p.m. PDT Thursday. By then his campaign coffers will be swollen by an additional $4 million, adding to his record-breaking six-month total of $36.3 million.

For a journalist, Bush's California swing was a tedious grind. But anyone who headed home after that first morning of $1,000 yogurt in San Diego would have missed the most noteworthy thing about George W. Bush and his political team: its complete mastery of the media.

As they were whisked from fund-raiser to photo op and back to their hotels, even the most seasoned reporters constantly marveled at the professionalism of the campaign, still 16 months from the general election. The general consensus was that the only thing separating Bush's visit from a presidential visit were the freeway-closing motorcades and the Secret Service.

Bush's skill as a retail campaigner should "send a shiver down the spines" of Democratic hopefuls Bill Bradley and Al Gore, says Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary to President Clinton and now political editor for Vanity Fair, who caught up with Bush as he addressed a group of teachers in Los Angeles.

Politics is perception, and the Bush people did everything they could to make the three-day swing feel like a presidential visit. Fund-raising estimates for each event were consistently low-balled, giving the trip a sense of momentum when the larger dollar figures were announced. There were black-car motorcades, two full-sized media buses and a horde of dark-suited staffers with wires in their ears and ominous black-and-red pins on their lapels that looked as though they could have been issued by the Secret Service. At every stop, reporters were whisked into press-quarantine areas laden with opulent spreads of poached salmon and imported beer as the governor was upstairs in the hotel ballroom raking in the dough.

Though reporters traveled with him for three days, Bush's team did not leave much time for the candidate to meet the press. We saw mostly what the Bush team wanted us to see. The candidate only granted a single one-on-one interview, a Spanish-language chat with Univision that will air this weekend; the other reporters had to settle for one formal press availability, which only lasted 15 minutes. That, and a short "nice to see you" on the airport tarmac when he arrived Monday night, was all the access the traveling media had to the GOP front-runner.

And even that single press availability was choreographed by the Bush team to coincide with the leak of his daunting fund-raising totals. Those record-breaking numbers predictably dominated the following day's headlines, ensuring that even if reporters had miraculously pinned the governor down on an issue and he somehow managed to make news at the press conference, it would dissipate among all the zeros in Bush's mighty financial figures. It didn't matter: The softball questions from the press corps at his one mini-press conference ensured no other news escaped.

Part of the credit goes to the candidate himself. Bush is undeniably impressive on the stump: You can honestly believe his finance chairman when he says, in his standard introduction, "There is no one I'd rather hang out with than George W. Bush." At a campaign event with Oakland Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown in Sacramento, he tossed a football into a crowd of television cameras, sending some reporters scurrying. As he took the stage, he waved a white flag above his head in mock surrender. One reporter quipped sardonically, "I'll bet he was a real towel-snapper in college." Even when he's not horsing around with athletes, there's something about Bush that summons up the bonhomie of a men's locker room.

But if Bush seems comfortable with spontaneous interactions, his team still isn't taking any chances. Unscripted moments on the trip were few. At the Del Mar fairgrounds near San Diego, Bush packed the Plaza de Mexico with 200 supporters and curious onlookers as he allowed himself to be pictured with girls in pigtails and colorful, flowing Mexican dresses and provided a bilingual sound bite for the Spanish-language media. Bush has repeatedly focused on his support from Latinos in Texas, and hopes to single-handedly rebuild the image of the Republican Party in California as intolerant and dominated by white males.

But not all of the Latinos were Bush devotees. Reporters noticed four Latino men sitting at the Plaza, looking bored, wearing matching shirts from Buena Vista Farms. Buena Vista, it turns out, is a horse ranch run by Gerald Parsky, Bush's California chairman. The four men said they were brought to the event and were being paid their regular wages for attending. Later, onboard Bush's charter jet, Parsky came back to joke around and smooth over the incident with reporters, saying his wife simply brought the four men to meet the Texas governor, not stock the plaza with brown faces.

But the press at the Plaza de Mexico was so hungry for the Bush-Latino angle that everyone with dark skin ended up with a microphone in his or her face. Jose Hernandez, a registered Republican who came to the event with his wife and six of his children, probably had no idea that when he woke up Tuesday morning, he would become a de facto spokesman for the California Latino community. But as he waited for Bush to arrive, Hernandez struck up a casual conversation with one reporter. Soon, a pair of television cameras and a dozen other reporters swooped in, sticking microphones in his face. As a wide-eyed Hernandez was peppered with questions about "what Hispanics in California are looking for," he had to pause to regain his composure. "Now I'm getting a little nervous," he said as reporters jotted down his every word.

But the vast majority were there for the same reason as the reporters -- to see what all the hype was about. By design, those questions remain largely unanswered. Bush massaged answers to the few questions he did take. He said he opposed "the spirit" of California's 1994 anti-immigration initiative, Proposition 187 -- thus appealing to Hispanic voters while not explicitly breaking with the vast majority of Republicans who voted for 187 -- but "supported the spirit" of 1996's anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209. Just what those answers meant, in terms of real policy positions, remained murky.

Of course, the press itself is as responsible for this state of affairs as Bush and his handlers. The insatiable media beast's stomach, distended from gorging on Monica, is now empty and any junk food will do. Campaigns provide loads of trivial updates, pundit banter and fun numbers to play with, like poll standings and dollar figures. Never mind the fact that the race is still 16 months away.

And frankly, the voters don't seem to care yet about nailing Bush down. His stump speech is a kind of Rorschach test for Republican activists, a mirror that allows people to see in it anything they want. In Irvine Tuesday, retired high-tech entrepreneur Safi Quereshey walked away from his $1,000 lunch extolling Bush as "a social moderate and a fiscal conservative." But Carole Follman walked away from the same lunch table "happy that we'll have a strong social conservative who will restore the integrity and honor of the presidency."

For California Republicans, Bush is the candidate who can get the party rolling again after a series of recent defeats. His charm on the stump and one-on-one have convinced both moderates and conservatives that Bush can win back the White House. Bruce Thompson, one of the state's most conservative Assembly members, said Bush is the antidote to the failed gubernatorial candidacy of Dan Lungren, who was panned by the press and voters as unlikable.

With its great photo ops and astonishingly successful fund-raisers, Bush's California trip helped cement the impression that Republicans hoping to challenge Bush simply have nowhere to run. But he's out to challenge Al Gore, too. At every stop, Bush told Californians, "I'll be coming to your state a lot," and he let it be known he would be raiding Gore's voting and fund-raising base. In Los Angeles Tuesday, Bush met with more than 100 actors and producers at the Bel-Air home of Terry Semel, co-CEO of Warner Brothers. There, luminaries and Democratic stalwarts like Warren Beatty and Jack Valenti listened to Bush's call to "help usher in the responsibility era." In Palo Alto Thursday, Bush addressed a group of high-tech executives and Silicon Valley residents, a constituency Gore has aggressively courted.

Winning California is not a done deal for Bush. State voters are notorious for their staunch support of gun control and abortion rights -- views Bush does not share. But the man many Republicans are already comparing to Ronald Reagan said he hopes to rebuild the Gipper's strong support in the state. "Maybe," Bush told reporters, "this state isn't as liberal as you think."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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California George W. Bush Republican Party Ronald Reagan