Richard Reeves

Bush Is Running a Brilliant Campaign

NEW YORK -- Win or lose, George W. Bush deserves to be remembered for running one of the best presidential campaigns in American history. Leaving aside the many stumbles of Al Gore -- or the many Al Gores of Al Gore -- Bush was a brilliant campaigner.

I mean, of course, not that Bush himself is brilliant, but his campaign has been. The most important attributes for national candidates these media-mobbed days are discipline and consistency. Bush seems to have the discipline and consistency of the ignorant: He knows only so much, and he repeats it over and over again. There is a lot to be learned from watching, with grudging admiration, the mumbling man from West Texas:

-- Bush lowered expectations. And he had the great good fortune to be running against a man who exaggerated political and personal history, raising expectations beyond his own grasp.

-- When in doubt, Bush agreed with Gore. The vice president had a greater command of issues and governance. Bush wisely chose not to compete on that turf -- saying that he, too, was for a long list of Democratic goals, beginning with pharmaceutical compassion and things like the patient's bill of rights. Gore, ever ready to go in for the knockout, could not catch up with Bush's bobbing and dodging.

-- Bush was not specific. Gore was. The man from Tennessee was just too smart or too arrogant to obey one of the first rules of big-time, negative-research national politics: Do not use specific numbers! If you do, you are dealing an opponent a winning hand. It is possible that the reason Bush did not use numbers is because he does not know them. So what?

-- Bush was nice. Silly reason. But look what happened to Rick Lazio here in New York when he was perceived as being mean to Hillary Clinton. People want the illusion that politicians are nice people. Most aren't, but they can fake it. Gore couldn't.

-- Bush was nice to the press -- and the press always returns small favors. Gore hid from the press for months, figuring he had nothing to gain by chatting them up. There was a great scene in a film called "The Paper" a few years ago. A city commissioner came after a columnist with a gun, demanding to know why the writer had picked him as the one to destroy. "Because," said the columnist, "you didn't return my phone calls."

-- Bush attacked Washington, but not America. He got away with the most superficial of attacks on the political establishment -- the one both he and Gore were born into -- saying he would end the "bickering" in Washington. Great. That bickering is called representative democracy.

-- Bush seems to know where he comes from. Gore refuses to acknowledge that he comes from Washington and from Bill Clinton.

There was an interesting insight into how this campaign has evolved on NBC's nightly news on Tuesday. Tom Brokaw questioned both candidates in turn. The questions to Bush were short, and so were his answers. He is one of the first candidates I've ever seen who does not fill his time. The questions to Gore were much longer -- and tougher, I thought -- filled with specifics and numbers. Gore's answers were even longer, to the point he had to be cut off.

At the moment, even his own supporters seem to want Gore to go away for a while. "I'm just tired of him," is a line I've heard in many places. But bumbling, mumbling George W.? America has become his support group, helping him to get through the campaign, through the day, through the sentence he's trying to complete.

This has been an amazing campaign. But George Bush seems to know more about it than the rest of us. I think that's what they call emotional intelligence. It may be making him president.

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