Road Show

Page 5 of 13

Bush looks up from his newspaper. "Not punish," he corrects her with a smile. "You mean include them in our winning team." D'Andrea grins and nods. Feeney then reads aloud a Tampa Tribune article in which Crenshaw once again launches an attack on gays. "Oh, great," Bush responds, uncomfortable at the prospect of fielding a new round of press questions about the subject. "Back to the big issue of the campaign." He then grabs the end of his tie, holds it straight up, lets his head drop to his right shoulder, and flops out his tongue, as if he'd just been hanged. In the last 24 hours, at two events, he has been confronted by gays, including one man suffering from AIDS. In each instance Bush handled their questions deftly but without sugarcoating his positions. He flatly tells them he is opposed to any expansion of civil rights laws that would explicitly prohibit discrimination against homosexuals.

On the agenda today is a series of walking tours. Bush will stroll the corridors of the Punta Gorda City Hall with Mayor Rufus Lazzell. He'll visit the Port Charlotte Cultural Center, where Columba will buy him a stuffed toy called a "damnit doll" that can be thrown, pounded, or maniacally twisted to relieve stress. He'll tour the Venice Police Department, where Chief Joseph Slapp will ask Bush quite earnestly, on three separate occasions during his 45-minute visit, to please consider him for the job of FBI director should Bush ever become President of the United States.

And he'll call on the folks at Kimal Lumber, where, because of a fluke of timing, he arrives at the mill just as the five o'clock whistle sounds and nearly all the employees head for the main gate while Bush is in the office meeting with Kimal's manager. Several staffers try to stop the workers from going home so Bush can meet them and shake their hands -- which, after all, was one of the reasons for the visit -- but the staffers quickly relent when they realize it's probably not a good idea to irritate people with such ready access to two-by-fours. Bush hangs around the mill for more than an hour anyway, saying he simply loves the smell of fresh-cut lumber.

Between tours Bush pays his respects to the area's various newspapers. At the Charlotte Sun Herald he is asked if he's concerned with the perceived importance to his campaign of the Christian conservative movement, and whether he might wind up being too indebted to their cause. "I don't sense it as this jihad that you're describing," Bush replies. "I don't know what it is they would ask me, but I'm probably in agreement already." When the meeting concludes, the publisher, Derek Dunn-Rankin, and the other members of the paper's editorial board adjourn for a private luncheon with Bush and Feeney at the Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club. Among today's three newspapers, the publishers, editors, and reporters he met were all men, all white.

Each day on the campaign trail, several times a day, Bush tells the story of two women. One of them, a single mother, has worked for HRS for five years, earns about $12,500 per year, and receives no government assistance. "She doesn't want it," Bush says, "and she's not entitled to it." The other woman doesn't work, he hisses, at least not officially. She has two children and is pregnant with a third. "She gets Medicaid for free," he says. "She gets food stamps." He rattles off other examples of government largess. She cheats on welfare, he says, by working on the side, earning $150 a month under the table, and her live-in boyfriend tosses another $25 per week into the household kitty. All told, through various welfare programs and the odd jobs she never reports, she pockets nearly $16,000 a year.

Bush recounts the tale of the two women, which he claims was told to him by an official in Polk County, as a way of illustrating that welfare is being abused by lazy people who would rather have babies and live off the government than earn an honest wage. That he can tell this story in a way that makes a household income of under $16,000 seem luxurious is both a tribute to his oratorical skills and an indication of bitter middle-class frustration with the welfare system. "Prosperity comes from hard work," he says, which often draws applause. "And the virtue of work has been lost on our society."

But isn't there something disingenuous -- elitist even -- about a man like Bush, who comes from a wealthy family and who has enjoyed every imaginable privilege throughout his life, railing against welfare and the poor? After all, how would he know what it's like out there? "Well, I'm not going to go into poverty to find out," he huffs. "I've spent a year campaigning full time. I've talked to a lot of people. I've listened and I've learned, which is a hell of a lot more than Lawton Chiles has done going from one photo op to another."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede