A speech like air kisses

Posted: May 03, 2002 12:00 AM
Speaking before the Commonwealth Club in San Jose Tuesday, President Bush knew he was in enemy territory. That is, in the more liberal part of a state that preferred Al Gore to Bush in 2000 by a margin of 53-to-42. But he never let folks see him sweat. Dubya had entered the land where 40-year-old bike messengers think he is stupid. Where it is a tenet of faith that only liberals care about poor people, and that all Republicans are rich and pinched and care about only one thing -- helping their rich friends. He had come to the land where it is a conceit that only liberals can enjoy a sunset. Bush doesn't take on that nonsense directly. He simply spoke about his philosophy of compassionate conservatism, and how it is designed to help the less fortunate. "There are young Americans growing up here under this flag," he lamented, "who doubt the promise and justice of our country. They live in neighborhoods occupied by gangs and ruled by fear. They are entitled by law to an education, yet do not receive an education." With no partisan references, he gave a simple explanation as to why many people -- like me -- become Republicans. They share the ideals of Democrats but realize that the "guvmint"-program approach doesn't always work. "America doesn't need more big government, and we've learned that more is not always the answer. If a program is failing to serve people, it makes little difference if we spend twice as much or half as much. The measure of true compassion is results. "Yet we cannot have an indifferent government, either." Bush was Reaganesque in his optimism, yet he still demonstrated sympathy for people who may have made bad decisions in the course of difficult lives. You won't hear Bush bashing "welfare queens." Instead, he saluted a former welfare recipient who "happened to be a mother of a chronically ill child and a victim of domestic violence." She praised welfare reform, she said, because working made her feel "like an adult again." The rhetoric works because he's sincere. He likes people. He wants less fortunate people to succeed. He wants to lead by inspiring, instead of by niggling and nagging. It's a very different style than that of Bill Clinton or Gray Davis. Bush doesn't whine, as Clinton used to about Republicans, about what Democrats say about him. Bush didn't use the word Democrat, and he didn't refer to the many broadsides that the left has launched his way. When Bush told the audience at a Santa Clara fund-raiser for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon that he considered the Oval Office a shrine, partisans, of course, got the unspoken reference to Clinton's un-shrinelike behavior. Attendees grinned and winked knowingly at each other. And then, poof, the moment was gone. No fingerprints. Bush also never mentioned Davis by name in San Jose. He took a swipe at the Davis energy plan, or lack thereof. At the fund-raiser, he noted that the hardball Team Davis -- with its tendency to belittle Republican Simon as too inexperienced -- was borrowing from the playbook of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who lost to Bush in 1994. There was one additional element at play. Bush was in town to tout Simon's candidacy -- after Bush had supported rival Dick Riordan in the primary. There is still a lot of tension between the Bushies and Simon's crew, and Bush used the occasion to assert his dominance. In front of donors, they were buds, with the Bush hand slung over the Simon shoulder. So Bush likened his Texas bid for governor with Simon's bid here. But Bush did most of the talking, and Simon most of the listening. Plus, the Bush speech -- with its rare recognition of the Bush philosophy -- was too big to leave much room in news accounts for Simon's candidacy. The whole exercise left the Simon camp more resentful than grateful, and more angry than contrite. (Sort of like Ann Richards.) In more than one way, the Bush speech was like a kiss to the cheek that touches no skin.