The biggest mystery of the 2000 presidential campaign was never whether George W. Bush would win the Republican nomination. It's whether Bush really wants to be president.
Wednesday's New York Times interview, in which Bush disses Sen. John McCain like a swaggering high school quarterback who humiliated an opponent, is the latest case study in Bush recklessness, and it raises questions about Bush's desire, not to mention readiness, to be president.
At a time when top Republicans are calling on him to reach out to McCain and heal the breach within the party, Bush used the Times interview as a platform to effectively flip McCain off.
Asked whether the Arizona senator's run changed his views in any way, Bush answered airily, "No, not really." Reminded that McCain had spurred a record turnout in many primaries, Bush snapped sarcastically, "Well, then, how come he didn't win?" He's baaaaack: the George W. whose mother wouldn't sit him next to Queen Elizabeth when she visited the White House, fearing his sarcasm and loose tongue.
Times interviewers Richard Berke and Frank Bruni put it best: "Despite the bruising, bitter and sometimes humbling nature of his primary campaign against Mr. McCain, the Texas governor emerged from the experience without any regrets about his campaign's conduct, any second thoughts about his strategy or any new resolves for the way he positions himself for the general election." Can you say "entitlement"?
Bush wasn't much nicer to Berke and Bruni than to McCain. Asked whether he was concerned about polls showing his $483 billion tax-cut proposal was unpopular with voters, Bush got snippy: "May I make something really clear to you, once again, and I hope this pleases you. I don't care what the polls say. I don't."
Bush and his advisors don't get it: The Texas governor is running against himself. With his $70 million war chest, he has had to fight the notion, popular with the press and voters alike, that he's the black-sheep son of a mediocre president, who coasted on his name through Andover, Yale and Harvard, can't account for his 20s, failed ever upwards in the oil industry throughout his 30s and 40s and finally decided to devote himself to the family business, politics.
Bush hasn't been a bad governor of Texas, and on some issues, like education, he's been a good one. Still, on his bad days, and he can't afford many more, he exudes arrogance and entitlement, and even on his good days he suffers from a kind of happy-go-lucky, son-of-privilege insouciance that just doesn't look right in the man running for the toughest job in the world.
But Bush doesn't seem to care. And that makes some people wonder if he's serious enough about this president business. There's something a little over-determined about this goofy 53-year-old trying to get his dad's old job. He's running to avenge his father's loss to the evil Clinton-Gore empire, but it's not too hard to imagine he resents that family responsibility as well.
Whenever Bush talks tough, I find myself thinking about the knucklehead George W. who, at 27, drunkenly picked a fight with his father: "I hear you want a piece of me. You wanna go mano a mano?" And sometimes I think losing to Gore would let Bush have it both ways: He can live up to family expectations by running for president, and evade them by losing in November.
The photos that ran with the Times interview tell an even better story. Bush is sitting in a big comfy brocade chair in his beloved Austin governor's mansion, the one he got homesick for on the campaign trail. There are logs next to the cozy fireplace beside his chair, a tall glass of water on a nearby table.
Jug-eared, frowning, his hands out in a "take it or leave it" pose, Bush looks happy there, in his Austin terrarium, with his cats and his own pillow to sleep on, his baseball memorabilia and his buddies around him. It was in Texas, after all, that he did the one thing his father never could: He became a Texan, and it would make sense if he doesn't want to leave.
On Thursday Bush was in deep damage-control, explaining on an Illinois campaign visit: "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." But it was a day too late. We're all left with the picture of the Texas titan in his comfy den, the poor winner who doesn't seem to want the presidency enough to be gracious in victory. At this rate he'll be heading back there in November, no doubt a gracious loser, just like his dad.