Last night, the Bushes appeared on "Larry King Live" (for some bizare reason the transcript is named "Amber Frey Testifies: Day 2"). After some nice words about Nancy Reagan, King asked a series of questions about anger and lack of civility on the campaign trail. Toward the end of this section, Bush made the following statement.
But I just don't see it. When I travel the country, and I've been traveling a lot, there are thousands of people who come out and wave, and they are -- you know, they respect the presidency. Sometimes they like the president, but I have this -- I don't have a sense that there's a lot of anger.
He doesn't believe there is anger in current politics because, when he's on the road,he only sees happy people who love their president. What are we to make of this? Is he really that isolated? Does his staff do such a good job leveraging law enforcement agencies to hide protestors and make sure he only sees supporters that he actually believes that's all there is? Does he really not know that there are people out there who disagree with him? This should a terrifying prospect for anyone, on either side of the political divide, that sincerly cares about this country.
Immediately after that scary admission, he returned to the routinely annoying.
KING: In view of that, do you think that it's fair, for the record, John Kerry's service record, to be an issue at all? I know that Senator McCain...
G. BUSH: You know, I think it is an issue, because he views it as honorable service, and so do I. I mean...
KING: Oh, so it is. But, I mean, Senator McCain has asked to be condemned, the attack on his service. What do you say to that?
G. BUSH: Well, I say they ought to get rid of all those 527s, independent expenditures that have flooded the airwaves.
There have been millions of dollars spent up until this point in time. I signed a law that I thought would get rid of those, and I called on the senator to -- let's just get anybody who feels like they got to run to not do so.
KING: Do you condemn the statements made about his...
G. BUSH: Well, I haven't seen the ad, but what I do condemn is these unregulated, soft-money expenditures by very wealthy people, and they've said some bad things about me. I guess they're saying bad things about him. And what I think we ought to do is not have them on the air. I think there ought to be full disclosure. The campaign funding law I signed I thought was going to get rid of that. But evidently the Federal Election Commission had a different view.
Here two the famous straight talker's least attractive features are on display: His pettiness and his self-absorbtion. The latter is obvious; when asked about a dirty deed inflicted on an opponent, his response is, "they've said some bad things about me."
The pettiness is more subtle and embedded in the whole exchange. If this kind of ad is wrong--and he implies that they are by including them in a category that he thinks should be banned--he should do the right thing and condemn them. McCain had no trouble doing that, but Bush can't. Bush needs to extract payment before he'll do a good deed. Kerry must help him ban all 527s before he will condemn this one especially low example of independent campaign advocacy.
This more than knee-jerk pettiness; it's calculated and planned. If he sees them, or reads a trancript, or in anyway educates himself on the issue, he'll know how bad they are and, arguably, be obliged to take a stand. Bush has had a week to see the ads, but he has not. Larry King doesn't ask him why not. Bush is able to maintain deniabilty, "I haven't seen them; I don't know that they're really that bad." By remaining ignorant he can continue to milk the situation for advantage (and let the ads run). Calculated pettiness crosses the line into meanness.
We can do better than this for a president.