When George W. Bush introduced his running mate, his father's former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and they stood Tuesday afternoon before a row of American flags, the Bush camp finally got what it wanted: an image to banish the family's disastrous 1988 "mystery date" moment, when J. Danforth Quayle, he of the infamous deer-in-the-headlights demeanor, joined the last Bush ticket, and kept late-night comedians in punch lines for the next 12 years.
Unfortunately, the new image is no more flattering to the Bush family, and may confirm a crippling genetic predisposition to bad political judgment. Standing next to Cheney, a standard-issue pasty old white guy, Bush did look the picture of vim, vigor and virility (even though he's just a scant five years younger). But if Cheney is indeed Mr. Gravitas, as the inbred Washington punditocracy insists, that makes George W. the Dan Quayle figure: the handsome, shallow scion of a wealthy family, standing beside a man whose claim to a place on the ticket, everyone agrees, is that he's qualified to be president. Which irresistibly prompts the question: Is W.?
Already, the choice of Cheney made Bush late-night fodder: The ticket wasn't even official when Leno got off the best line Monday night, calling Bush/Cheney "the Wizard of Oz ticket," because Cheney needs a heart (having suffered three coronaries), and Bush needs a brain.
Actually, it's the Bush brain trust that needs a transplant: This is a bonehead move at least equal to the selection of Quayle. With one gesture, Bush confirmed the worst suspicions about him: For all his touted compassion, he's a narrow-minded conservative who's ready to write off pro-choice voters, environmentalists and, quite possibly, all moderates. (Though the Bush/Cheney team made a bid to hold on to the compassionate label by telling Matt Drudge that Bush "embraces" Cheney's lesbian daughter, in a story Drudge breathlessly labeled "exclusive.")
Lesbian daughter or not, Dick Cheney is a right-wing throwback, more pro-gun than the NRA (he opposed the ban on armor-piercing bullets known as "cop killers"), a foe of the Equal Rights Amendment and one of only eight Congress members to oppose the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. And with two oil industry magnates on the ticket, the Republicans can forget about making an issue of skyrocketing gas prices.
It also undermines the credibility of the supposedly thorough hunt conducted by the Bush camp when the guy in charge of the search turned up ... himself. I'd like to have eavesdropped on Cheney's subsequent reports back to Bush. "I'm sorry, Governor, but I think Charles Keating -- did I say Charles? I meant Frank! -- maybe carries a little too much baggage." "Yes, General Powell would be an outstanding choice, but have you ever noticed that ... thing he does when he laughs?" "Liddy Dole is a lovely woman, Governor, but will voters accept her 'man hands'?" And can we seriously trust that the stridently pro-life Cheney gave a fair vetting to pro-choice Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge?
Most damaging of all, the choice of Cheney makes Bush look like daddy's boy, a man whose candidacy is nothing more than, as Republican strategist Kevin Phillips recently wrote, a lame attempt at a Bush restoration.
Everyone knows Bush's political career has been more than a little about avenging his father's defeats. He went after Texas Gov. Ann Richards' job in 1994 at least partly because of the way she savaged his dad at the 1988 convention, with the unforgettable line that George Sr. had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth." In the Bush White House, George W. was known as his dad's avenger, dedicated to rewarding friends, punishing enemies and valuing loyalty above all.
Choosing the man who led his father through the Gulf War, who was known to be the former president's top choice, shows Bush doesn't care about shaking off the daddy's-boy label. That's not confidence, that's arrogance, the family's trademark Kennebunkport bunker mentality. Those who praise Bush for his "solid" choice, for eschewing the risky political leap symbolized by his father's unpopular choice of Quayle in 1988, are forgetting just one thing: The Bush-Quayle ticket won.
By the end of Bush and Cheney's speeches Tuesday afternoon, CNN's Jeff Greenfield had traded the overused word "gravitas" for a new word -- "grown-up" -- and that had to unnerve the Bush folks. The bald, waxy Cheney "looks like [Bush's] father," Greenfield observed, which would seem to make the presidential candidate look like ... a child. And Bush didn't exactly demonstrate gravitas Tuesday, when he began his introduction of Cheney by asking the crowd to observe a moment of silence in honor of the Concorde crash victims -- "May God bless their families," he intoned -- and then, inscrutably, irresistibly, unbelievably, he smirked.
Don't the Bush folks worry that voters will notice that their veep choice spent the mid-1970s running the Ford White House while George W. was busy being, in his own words, "young and irresponsible?" The selection of Cheney could revive the old Bush drug rumors all over again -- if only because it will cause people to wonder what they're smoking in Austin.