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Target: JFK
George W. Bush is having a rough stretch, but the Republicans know how to fight back: By casting John Forbes Kerry as a gay-loving, fire-hydrant-moving, liberal elitist

PEGGY NOONAN, as usual, got it exactly wrong. Writing for the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com Web site last Sunday, the former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and Bush I lamented that, gee whillikers, Bush II just isn’t very good at defending himself during interviews.

"The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling," Noonan wrote of George W. Bush’s appearance earlier that day on NBC’s Meet the Press. "His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared. He seemed in some way disconnected from the event."

Well, yes. But consider. In the past few weeks Bush has a) been forced to admit that he was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; b) been shamed by former weapons inspector David Kay into naming a commission to study intelligence failures; c) submitted a budget proposal so deficit-riddled and intellectually dishonest that the conservatives in his own party are furious; d) come under increasing scrutiny on the question of whether he’d gone AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s; e) been attacked by his former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, as an incurious, disengaged stooge of Vice-President Dick Cheney; and f) watched in presumed horror as the investigation into the exposure of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame moved ever closer to Cheney’s office. All that and the laughable man-on-Mars mission, too.

Under such circumstances, Bush did a terrific job on Saturday, when the Meet the Press interview was taped. After all, he didn’t break down and cry. He didn’t confess that he’s an utter fraud. He didn’t try to hand a letter of resignation to Tim Russert. Bush just sat there with a look of smug satisfaction on his face, sticking robotically to his talking points that he’s a "war president" and that Saddam Hussein, armed or not, was so dangerous that he had to be taken out. (And to think that Peggy Noonan believes Bush can’t do talking points!) At least he didn’t repeat his recent bizarre assertion that the United States had to invade because Saddam "did not let us in." That must have been news to United Nations weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, whose teams were swarming through Iraq in the weeks and months before Bush launched his unilateral war.

For George W. Bush, these are difficult times. After having been treated with supine deference by the media, especially since 9/11, he is suddenly getting the sort of scrutiny normally reserved for, say, a Democrat. This week’s Time magazine is especially rough. The cover features two profiles of Bush, looking at each other, with the headline DOES BUSH HAVE A CREDIBILITY GAP? and the kicker BELIEVE HIM OR NOT. Inside, near the top of a nearly 4700-word piece on Bush’s troubles with reality, is this rather devastating observation: "It now seems likely that either Bush wasn’t telling the truth about his reasons for going to war or he didn’t know the truth and can’t quite admit it. Neither prospect is very reassuring."

But before you get too excited about the pending implosion of the president, recall that there was a time when another Bush looked eminently beatable. In 1987, Newsweek ran a photo of Bush I with the cover line THE WIMP FACTOR. Before long, though, Bush, Lee Atwater, and company began destroying the Massachusetts liberal whom the Democratic Party had nominated — then-governor Michael Dukakis — by portraying him as soft on crime, a Willie Horton–coddling, unpatriotic, "card-carrying member of the ACLU" who would just as soon burn an American flag as pledge allegiance to it.

Now comes another Massachusetts liberal, Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee against Bush II. As a Vietnam War hero, Kerry presumably will not be vulnerable to the same kind of attacks that Dukakis was 16 years ago. (Although it is instructive that, in 1972, Richard Nixon was easily able to smear George McGovern as a peacenik weenie despite the latter’s service as a fighter pilot in World War II.) Kerry is also far better at fighting back than Dukakis, who never quite seemed to believe that voters would buy the terrible things that were being said about him.

Already, the Republicans are licking their chops over the fact that Massachusetts is poised to become the first state to offer legal recognition to same-sex marriages, thanks to last week’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court. Never mind that Kerry favors civil unions instead, and that he has said — much to his discredit — that he might even support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would prohibit gay marriage as long as the amendment wouldn’t preclude civil unions. (This from a man who, in 1996, was the only senator up for re-election to vote against the loathsome federal Defense of Marriage Act.)

In a piece on Newsweek’s Web site, liberal pundit Eleanor Clift wrote that "the ruling is a gift for the White House. The Bush campaign can use Massachusetts as shorthand for everything that is un-American. The Democrats are making it even easier by holding their convention in Boston."

Back when he was the front-runner, former Vermont governor Howard Dean warned against the danger of letting Bush and Karl Rove make the election about "God, gays, and guns." What Dean meant was that if the Republicans are able to turn this into a referendum on social issues, the Democrats will lose.

Here, in what is supposedly Bush’s darkest hour, with Kerry beating him in some of the trial-heat poll match-ups, the battle that Dean was so worried about has already begun.

ON THE SURFACE, the notion that the Republicans will be able to pull out their 1980s playbook and scream "Liberal!" at Kerry seems ludicrous. Yes, he’s a liberal, but more in the New Democrat mold of Bill Clinton, who won two elections. Does that old stuff really work anymore?

Perhaps. Because in the psychological atmospherics of politics, the liberal/conservative divide isn’t so much about issues as it’s about culture. And there is no doubt that Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, an heiress with a $500 million fortune, are part of the cultural elite, the "beautiful people" so reviled by — oh, to invoke another memorable Dean moment — Southern good old boys driving pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flags.

Remember that nutty anti-Dean television ad put on the air in Iowa by the ultraconservative Club for Growth? A farmer says, "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times–reading ..." His wife finishes the sentence: "... Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs." Substitute "John Kerry" for "Howard Dean" and "Massachusetts" for "Vermont," and that is exactly where the campaign is going this fall.

The wonder is that Bush, whose blood is a whole lot bluer than the part-Jewish Kerry’s, and who is, like Kerry, a Yale graduate and Skull and Bones man, has succeeded in portraying himself as a brush-clearin’, ranch-lovin’ Bubba. This is why, for all Kerry’s protestations, the gay-marriage issue will resonate against him among the homophobic right (though Bush has to be careful lest he offend the middle-of-the-road independents who will actually decide the election). "Gay marriage," "Massachusetts," and "liberal" don’t mean anything in the literal sense; rather, they are code phrases aimed at characterizing Kerry as elitist and out of touch.

That’s why you’re going to hear a lot about the fire hydrant. You may already know that, some years ago, the Heinz-Kerrys got the city to relocate a fire hydrant in front of the Louisburg Square townhouse they had just bought so that they could park their SUV out front. The fire-hydrant story is much beloved by WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr, who writes about it often in his Boston Herald column — and who last week introduced it to readers of the New York Post, for which he wrote a guest column.

If you search the LexisNexis database for the past two years, you will find 10 references to Kerry and the fire hydrant. (Granted, four of those are Carr columns, not counting his Post piece.) What you will not find is a single reference to what Bush did in Arlington, Texas, in the early 1990s, when he was the part-owner of and principal glad-hander for the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush did not have a fire hydrant moved. Rather, he had an entire 13-acre neighborhood moved — well, flattened — so that he could build a new ballpark for the Rangers. He did this by persuading the Texas legislature to create an independent authority to take the land by eminent domain and use it for a stadium — a remarkable piece of sports socialism that the former owners of the Red Sox unsuccessfully tried to replicate a decade later. (Note: that plan, apparently dead and gone, would have displaced the offices of the Boston Phoenix, which opposed it strenuously.)

The Arlington property owners, who were pretty well-off themselves, went to court and tried to fight back. But Bush and the Rangers got their way. Eventually the authority — that is, the taxpayers — paid $4.2 million for the land, and another $191 million to build the stadium itself, or more than three times the contribution that the Rangers themselves were required to make. As Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose put it in Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (2000), "Here in the Great State, the son of a sitting president served as what Mexicans call a prestanombre — a small player who lends his name to a project run by a big player. Our prestanombre got the taxpayers to provide a big chunk of added value to his business, was elected governor, and made a $15 million profit on a $600,000 investment and his family name."

One afternoon last week, Howie Carr was joined on his talk show by some spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign whose name I didn’t catch. Carr was chortling about Kerry’s mucho expensive Italian motorcycle, a Ducati Paso, and asked the flunky whether Bush would ever be caught on a vehicle like that. The flunky replied that our humble president loves nothing better than to tool around his beloved ranch in Crawford, Texas, in a beat-up old pickup truck. A man of the people. Very much unlike that Italian-motorcycle-riding, fire-hydrant-moving, snobby, squishy-on-gay-marriage Kerry.

You can’t make this stuff up. Sadly, it might actually work.

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Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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