Maybe there are two George W. Bushes -- the good Dubya and the bad Dubya. If so, both showed up Friday at America Online headquarters here in the Texas governor's first-ever national online chat. First the good Bush fielded questions from an online audience estimated at 30,000 and a hundred employees of the online giant.
There weren't many softballs from this crowd. AOL's director of political programming, Kathleen deLaski, served as host inquisitor, relaying e-mailed questions to the seated, relaxed governor on topics ranging from negative campaigning to gun control. Inquiries from the AOL staff covered suburban sprawl, terrorism, the death penalty and China policy.
Bush took it all like a champ, giving coherent answers that hit the themes that once (pre-South Carolina) made his candidacy so attractive to moderates. He reminded the crowd that he's "a uniter, not a divider," talked about "lifting the spirit" of the American electorate, and revived his recurring line that "I'm running because I want the American dream to touch every willing heart." Education in general, and minority education in particular, was worked into nearly every response, even one about traffic patterns.
When John McCain's name came up during the chat, Bush was downright courtly. He backed off his recent slams against the Arizona senator and described the negative campaigning as part of the rough-and-tumble business of politics. He also repeated his refusal to talk about McCain "or anyone" for a vice presidential slot while the race was in progress. "It is insulting for me to try to turn the conversation to John McCain as a running mate when he is a viable candidate to be president." Many in the crowd nodded approvingly.
In fact, the governor seemed successful in winning over the pack of mostly 30-something Net-izens who work at AOL. They rewarded him with vigorous applause and a polite standing ovation once the event was over. Autograph hounds impeded Bush's progress toward the door, while other members of the audience said that Bush did "quite well" and showed "a great deal of respect for John McCain."
Even those who were not in his corner were impressed. "I still haven't decided whether I'll vote for him," said Andrew Cohen, a life-long Democrat who planned to support Gore in the general election. Cohen said he'll vote in the upcoming Virginia GOP primary, not to make mischief, but because "the country should have the best two qualified candidates to chose from." He came into the event with a positive yet skeptical view of Bush shared by more than a few of his co-workers. He left saying that he "would be hard pressed to give a reason for voting against Bush" on Feb. 29.
It was easy to see why. This was the pre-Michigan, perhaps even the pre-Iowa Bush on display before the AOL staff. The governor was charming and poised, poked fun at himself, and seemed relieved to renew the bright and sunny tone of his early campaign. Whether talking about his dearly departed cat, his father's recent hospitalization or defending his daughters against the glare of the campaign spotlight, Bush never lost the crowd, sounding moderate, prepared and rather presidential throughout.
This abruptly ended, however, at the "press availability" afterward. By now, all the smiling voters were gone, and the bad Bush suddenly came back with a vengeance. The governor unceasingly bad-mouthed John McCain, sniped at a reporter who refused to politely accept his dodge on the abortion issue and turned testy after one too many Bob Jones questions. "I'm going to be their president," Bush said in defense of his visit to the controversial university, dropping the awh-shucks humility that characterized his chat performance. "Of course I'm going to talk to them."
After he continued to be pressed on Bob Jones, its anti-Catholic rhetoric and its ban on interracial dating, Bush stumbled. "I denounce interracial dating," he said twice before correcting himself. The governor then tried to make the case that he declared his opposition to the policy during the visit, but eventually admitted that he had only said something after he had left. Bush also tried to turn the question of anti-Catholicism back on McCain, denouncing phone calls made by the senator's campaign in Michigan highlighting that aspect of the Bob Jones story.
"I reject the politics of guilt by association," Bush thundered. This is his campaign's new catch-all line of defense against bigot eruptions, covering Pat Robertson's South Carolina phone calls against McCain ally Warren Rudman, the continuing fallout from the Bob Jones visit, and recent allegations of anti-Semitism by a Bush advisor.
In between accusations and rants, the governor tried to revive the positive image he so successfully projected in the chat minutes before. "I've got the vision," he pleaded.
Too bad it's double vision.