Bush backs out of skirmish with Bork

George W. shows compassion for the conservative he dissed.

Published October 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

At the Sheraton Hotel in New York last week, Texas governor and Republican presidential contender George W. Bush made a watershed speech about his new brand of compassionate conservatism. "Too often, my party has focused on the national economy to the exclusion of all else," the Republican front-runner said. "There are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence." While his rush to the center may have exhilarated some, Bush had to unload some baggage in order to make the trip. One of the major things he jettisoned was a book: Judge Robert Bork's 1996 jeremiad about American cultural disintegration, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline."

"Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," Bush said in his speech to the guests of the Manhattan Institute. "Something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline. Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible."

Although he wasn't mentioned by name, Bork, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, got the message. In Monday's Wall Street Journal, Bork returned the gesture by taking a pot shot at Bush's level of literacy. "It is a considerable compliment to have one's book ... cited, even disparagingly, by a presidential contender whose proud boast it is that he does not read books. (He may not even have realized that he was referring to a book)," wrote Bork in the newspaper's "Commentary" section.

Though Bush probably won't be doubling back to pick up the book again, his campaign now seems to be backpedaling. "The remarks were not directed at Judge Bork's book," Bush spokesman Scott McLellan said in an interview. "Gov. Bush recognizes there is a misperception about the conservative philosophy, and he's trying to change that. What the governor is saying is that our party has been viewed as mean-spirited. It's been viewed as conservative with a frown, instead of conservative with a smile."

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It's now official: Marie Arana, deputy editor of the Washington Post Book World, will succeed the ailing Nina King, who was editor for 11 years.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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