If you're trying to handicap the 2004 presidential election, forget about the marquee pundits and media analysts. Instead look to Saturday Night Live, whose writers have, if nothing else, at least managed to accurately capture the nation-at-large's take on George W. Bush. There was the Scrabble-challenged Bush of the 2000 debates with Al Gore, proudly summing up his candidacy's merits in one word as strategery, counseling his underage drinking daughter not to be so melodramaculous, and pondering his victorious administration's lineup: "Who do you think would make a better Secretary of the Interior -- Nolan Ryan or The Rock? The Rock is stronger. But Nolan Ryan's wise."
And then there was the post-September 11 SNL Bush, soberly addressing the American people: "We're coming for you, bin Laden. I'm gonna make you my own personal Where's Waldo."
It's a supremely likable portrait, a little goofy, not exactly brimming with gravitas -- but still a commander-in-chief determined to do the right thing, with a little help from his Cabinet friends. Bush himself has admitted as much, explaining to Alexandra Pelosi in her campaign trail documentary Journeys with George: "I started off as a cowboy. I'm now a statesman." The truth may lie somewhere in between those two poles, but as reflected in Bush's strong approval ratings, a firm plurality remains more than willing to forgive the difference. Both images were on display when Bush visited Miami on June 30, and if his performance that day is any guide, GOP Oval Office strategerists, er, strategists, have every reason to be gleeful.
Onboard Air Force One that morning, en route to an audience of viejos at the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was already sparring with a gaggle of reporters.
"Ari, how important is Florida to the president's re-election?" asked one journalist as the jet winged toward Miami.
"At this point I'm not going to get into a state-by-state analysis of an election that is more than a year away.... There will be coming a time for politics," Fleischer coolly replied, minting his own version of Bush-speak.
"It's just a coincidence he's talking to Hispanic seniors about Medicare in Florida?"
"He's been to Florida many times. He's talked to all kinds of people in Florida...."
"Seems like it would be good for the re-election, though, to talk to this group today?"
"The president thinks it's good for policy, and that's why he's here."
"That's good, Ari," the exasperated journalist sighed as Fleischer grinned and the cabin erupted into laughter.
A few hours later, Bush didn't disappoint. Speaking in front of a large, made-for-TV sign emblazoned with "Strengthening Medicare," he had the crowd of predominantly Cuban seniors in his palm from his opening joke about his "big" little brother Jeb. Barely two minutes into his speech he began giving warm shout-outs to the local pols in the room -- "I see that the Diaz-Balart boys are with us today" -- stumbling only when he mistakenly saluted county Mayor Alex Penelas while pointing to city Mayor Manny Diaz. Amid the boos, Bush quickly corrected himself, and newspapers from the New York Times to the Washington Post were quick to make light of the gaffe.
Certainly Bush could be excused for his identity mix-up. After all, as many of his fellow Democrats accuse, U.S. Senate hopeful Alex Penelas -- conspicuously MIA during the South Florida election drama of 2000 -- would seem to be a Republican in everything but name. And Manny Diaz, whose earlier role as counsel to Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives had many worried about his political sensibilities, has quietly turned out to be the most forward-thinking reformer to head city hall in years: championing gay rights, defending civil liberties, and forsaking useless Castro-baiting in favor of demanding accountability from scandal-plagued departments.
More important, while the press corps delighted in reporting Bush's fumble, the crowd there loved him for it, especially when he brought down the house by quipping of the absent Penelas: "At least he got his name mentioned. That's a smart move."
It was a brief moment, but a telling one. Verbal dyslexia and all, Bush is a charismatic leader, and the same gestures that invite ridicule from certain corners make him all the more human -- and attractive as a president -- to other swaths of the body politic. Moreover, this dismissive attitude toward Bush's persona all too often blindly extends to his policies, most glaringly with the war in Iraq. If Bush is for it, this knee-jerk reasoning goes, then I'm most definitely against it.
After his Little Havana love-in, Bush raced off to a $2000-a-plate lunch at the Miami Airport Hilton, where he added a cool $1.8 million to his campaign war chest. However, while several of the event's co-chairmen, such as sugar baron Pepe Fanjul and developer Sergio Pino, may hardly be considered progressive forces in the community, some of what Bush had to say made an awful lot of sense.
"Our national interest involves more than eliminating aggressive threats to our safety," Bush explained to the assembled diners. "Our greatest security comes from the advance of human liberty. Because free nations do not support terror, free nations do not attack their neighbors, and free nations do not threaten the world with weapons of mass terror."
That's an excellent argument for fostering the worldwide spread of democracy, from Saudi Arabia to North Korea. Our own freedom is guaranteed only by the freedom of others, a notion as true today as it was in the era of fascism. And even if Bush's words are mere hollow posturing, the belief they express is still worth fighting for.
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Or so one would think. The leading Democratic contenders for their party's presidential nomination have seized upon Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction as an electioneering issue, one whose subtext is the abandonment of that country's reconstruction and the larger effort to transform the Middle East -- regardless of the consequences. Florida Sen. Bob Graham has even invoked Watergate, wrinkling his nose at the "Nixonian stench" wafting out of the White House. And it's small comfort that the one leading Democrat to refrain from this game is Joseph Lieberman, whose religious fundamentalism and moral crusades against Hollywood leave him as little more than Pat Robertson in a yarmulke. Where's our Tony Blair?
Indeed one can be troubled by the apparent exaggeration of Iraqi intelligence reports without dismissing Hussein as a threat altogether. As Christopher Hitchens wrote recently in Slate: "To believe that the Saddam regime had nothing to hide is to believe that he threw out the U.N. inspectors in 1998 and then said to himself: 'Great. Now I can get on with my dream of unilaterally disarming Iraq!' Who can be such a fool as to believe any such thing?"
Who? Unfortunately a lot of Democrats. In fact it's getting harder to tell the party's principled liberals from the more delusional figures on the Left. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel breathlessly equates antiwar "dissidents" marching in New York with Iranian students risking their lives as they take to the streets of Tehran protesting the ayatollahs. In Fort Lauderdale, New Times's own sister paper earnestly refers to Bush's overseas "jihad" on its cover, seemingly unable to distinguish any difference between al Qaeda's terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the U.S. ousting of Saddam Hussein's government.
Given a choice between burying their heads in the sand or erring on the side of caution, most Americans in 2004 will opt for the candidate who recognizes the all-too-real threats facing us. John Ashcroft = Osama bin Laden? As Bush himself might say: "Don't be so melodramaculous."