- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

When I wrote that I never run into men or women who would prefer now to have Al Gore rather than George W. Bush as president I should have expected to get lots of e-mail, telling me that I was limited by exposure to only the people I partied with. But recent polls and newspaper articles confirm my first impression.

President Bush receives high approval ratings and lots of support from blacks, Hispanics, feminists and Democrats who did not vote for him. Voters, of course, tend to rally around their commander-in-chief in times of great national crisis, whoever he is. When we're threatened we project the qualities we want the leader to have. It makes us feel safer. We stop squabbling like children fighting over toys when we need Daddy to protect us from the big bad wolf outside.

More important, it seems to me, we look with a sharper eye when it's a matter of life and death. The adrenaline forces us to think clearly when confronting a common enemy, eliminating trivial distractions. We achieve what we must. It was fun and games laughing at the president's garbled syntax and imaginative mispronunciations. They were real enough, but they didn't quite reflect a man who had, after all, graduated from Yale, earned a graduate degree in business from Harvard, was elected governor of Texas, and overwhelmingly re-elected. It's fair enough to criticize a candidate's views and policies, but his capabilities should be examined with the care that bears at least a little relation to accomplishment. Besides the usual partisan antagonisms, the perception of George W. as a dim bulb reflected the voters' sense that we had little at stake that required illumination.

The press and the press of politics can be powerful forces in creating an image of a president even when perception has little to do with reality. You could refer to biographies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Gerald Ford, a more recent example, was a good athlete, in splendid physical shape at 62 when he became president. He was still active as well as good at skiing, swimming , golf and playing tennis, and yet he never overcame the image of being awkward and ungainly, even though he was the most physically fit president since Teddy Roosevelt. On a visit to Salzburg, President Ford was photographed tripping on the steps as he descended the steps of Air Force One, followed by another slip on rain-slick steps on his way up to the Residenz Palace. Understandable accidents, but the reporters, pundits and then the comedians never let him or us forget them. Whenever he bumped his head or fell on a ski slope the cameras clicked.

Peter Boller, who keeps track of such presidential anecdotes, recalls that when President Ford was poised, without the slightest sign of clumsiness, journalists complained they lacked a front page story. Said one Oklahoma reporter: "I kept wishing the president would bump his head or skin his shins or suffer some small mishap for me to peg a paragraph on."

Such is the nature of politics. But stereotypes are hard to overcome in a culture saturated with media, not all of it either mature or responsible.

Had it not been for September 11, it would have been considerably more difficult for the new commander-in-chief to rid himself of the ridicule over his command of the language. He was so bedeviled by the problem that he was over-programmed and showed a paralyzing fear of spontaneity. When the need to be spontaneous was thrust upon him, as at Ground Zero when he seized the bullhorn to speak to the assembled cops and firemen, the spell was broken. Harry Potter couldn't have done it better.

During the 2000 campaign there was a dramatic image difference between George Bush and Al Gore and it flowed from personality. The governor looked at ease in his skin, even with his awkward language. He was comfortable as his father's son. The vice president, on the other hand, spoke well enough, but his stiffness betrayed the little boy still yearning for the approval of his dead father. He had to seek advice on what clothes and colors to wear. (Remember the earth tones?) He might have been able to handle the war we're in we'll never know but lots of people are thankful he doesn't have to.

George Bush had no trouble with his syntax when he issued his ultimatum: You're either for us or against us. Or when he mocked Osama bin Laden the other day: "A month ago he was in charge of a country. Today he's in charge of a cave." His speech was loud and clear and the world reacted in kind. We're grateful for that, too.

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