Does W. have a death wish?

No: His handlers should back off and let the guy be his own man.

Published March 16, 2000 12:16PM (EST)

George W. Bush's advisors were trying to mop up again Thursday, after their candidate seemed -- gasp -- less than enthusiastic about embracing the platform of his vanquished primary opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Bush spent the day explaining the "remarks he made in an interview with the New York Times, fearing the fallout could further alienate McCain and his independent-minded supporters," according to the Associated Press.

In the Times interview, Bush said McCain "didn't change my views" on campaign-finance reform. When asked if McCain had raised new issues for his campaign or caused him to reconsider any positions, he replied: "No, not really." Predictably, Bush's advisors went into spin mode as an Al Gore press release and media hissy fit ensued.

This type of overhandling is exactly what got George W. into trouble in the first place. When Bush's team unveiled their candidate to voters as if he were some kind of new public monument last year, velvet ropes were used to corner off reporters, and the candidate stuck religiously to his scripted campaign events and stump speech. When things started looking bad last fall, Bush flack Mindy Tucker announced the governor would not hold any more press conferences because it took the campaign "off message."

Guess what happened? Bush got his brains beat in.

After losing New Hampshire by an embarrassing 19 points, his advisors finally let go a bit. And guess what? W. did fine. The biggest danger to the Bush campaign is not that the candidate is an idiot, it's the perception that he is an idiot. And every time his spinsters try to "clarify his remarks," they just reinforce the perception that Bush would be lost without them.

Let the guy be his own man. So Bush doesn't feel like reaching out to McCain? So what. The guy did win, after all. That should be his prerogative. And if the so-called McCain bloc doesn't like it, they can vote for someone else. Bush talks tough about ushering in "the responsibility era." Isn't it about time that Bush's advisors let the guy take his own lumps?

But instead, they guard him like hens guarding a chick, spinning "clarifications" of what Bush meant to say. This kind of political schizophrenia, and the perception that his advisors must write him new lines to save him from himself, does him more harm than good. The truth is that Bush is a fighter. Anyone who questions his desire to be president does not grasp how competitive the guy really is. Unlike Gore, Bush has already demonstrated that he will play hardball to win this election.

Judging from the events of Thursday, Bush's handlers seem to have learned little from New Hampshire. Less than 12 hours after the Times interview hit the stands, Bush, pumped with talking points, sounded a more conciliatory tone. "I appreciate the hard campaign that John McCain waged. He ran a good race. He highlighted the need for reform and I appreciate the ideas that he brought forth in the campaign."

That, as they say in Texas, is horse shit.

McCain's advisors were reportedly "stunned that Bush would strike a dismissive chord while his aides were privately courting McCain's endorsement." McCain's ego notwithstanding, the truth is that they're not stunned. McCain is just trying to remain a player on the national stage after a dismal showing March 7 forced him from the race.

Bush's advisors quickly took the bait, trying yet again to polish the words of their candidate. But this just reinforces the image of George W. as some kind of henpecked mama's boy incapable of speaking for himself. And in this age of meta politics, that perception is more damaging than anything Bush can do to the English language. On the stump, one of Bush's stock lines is, "You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps." Though the line is used to introduce his wife, Laura, the sentiment rings true of his advisors. During unguarded moments, Bush is more like the person we see in the Times interview -- earthy, unrepentant, with an aura of entitlement about him. But Al Gore ain't much better.

The problem is not Bush. It is with the transparent struggle between the public and private Bush -- the Bush his advisors want you to see and the real Bush. And when the public compares the real Bush to the ideal candidate his people so badly want to present, invariably, he's going to come up short.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.