George P. Bush does not smirk. He smiles. A brilliant, movie-star smile, a smile that has earned him the number-four slot on People's list of America's 100 Most Eligible Bachelors and the adoration of thousands of reporters at the Republican convention. And when "P." bounds onto the stage at Philadelphia's Finnegan's Wake Pub, accompanied by the rapturous chant--"P! P! P! P! P!"--of several dozen College Republicans, when he grabs that microphone and smiles that smile ... knees weaken. Breasts heave. Men shake their heads, awed. Two bubbly blondes sidle up next to me, giggling, and snap pictures.
Does it matter what P. says when he opens his mouth? Not really. For the record, it is something about getting involved--"You guys have incredible vision, getting started early and participating in politics!"--followed by something about apathy. Then P. announces that he is "honored to introduce this year's winner of the Lee Atwater Award ... John Kasich!"
The crowd cheers lustily as Kasich wades through a sea of navy blazers, and listens respectfully while he spins a yarn about meeting Richard Nixon. But as Kasich winds down, you can see the crowd rippling toward P.'s table. And when Kasich stops speaking and steps off the stage--off the face of the earth, really--the ripple becomes a rush. P. is their hero--while they were mired in Ivy League geekdom, writing outraged editorials for the campus National Review clone, P. was at Rice University, chugging Budweiser and dating cheerleaders. P. smiles, poses, reaches out to them like a bronzed god. And then, after a few snapshots and handshakes, he is gone, hustled into the elevator by a Bush operative.
Such is a typical stop on the George P. Bush road show. For the three weeks leading up to the GOP convention, P. crisscrossed the country, chatting en Español with the Young Hispanic Republican Association in Arlington, Virginia, and smiling that smile at the Young Professionals for Bush in Milwaukee. Glowingly profiled in The New York Times, the subject of a "Hunkwatch" column in the Philadelphia Daily News, P. is the official point man for the Bush campaign's goal of bringing young and minority voters into the Republican camp.
It's easy to dismiss all this as the most shallow, cynical kind of electioneering. After all, George P.'s most obvious attributes, besides good looks, are youth and brown skin. (His mother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush's wife, is Mexican, a fact George W. repeatedly emphasizes to Hispanic voters.) Unlike Karenna Gore Schiff--Al Gore's youth vote magnet--P. plays no substantive role in his uncle's campaign. It's not even clear whether he's much of a conservative. "No two people have the same personalities, and no two people have the same political beliefs," he told one convention interviewer who asked where he and his uncle parted political ways. "But these differences would just detract from my message."
In this, George P. is entirely correct: For George W., the muddle is the message.
There is, first and foremost, the persona. Both George P. and George W. exude an amiable, genuine personality. And while George P. speaks better Spanish than his uncle--and has a demonstrably superior grasp of English--neither one reminds anyone of twitchy avatars of conservatism like, say, Bob Barr or Dick Armey. Just as George W. is the shiny, happy face of a victory-starved party eager for moderate voters, so is George P. the shiny, happy face of an election-hungry presidential campaign eager for young and Latino voters.
Similarly, George P.'s media presence in Philadelphia was as tightly regulated as his uncle's is generally. At the College Republicans dinner on Monday, P. spoke for about five minutes, most of which was his introduction of Kasich. At the Young Republicans convocation on Tuesday, after an hour and a half of bad jokes and tone-deaf cross-generational intercourse ("We believe in bottom-up! We believe in Napster!" declared Kasich), P. spoke for less than three minutes. At Wednesday's Hispanic welcome event, where George W. made his first appearance in Philadelphia, P. had less stage time than the roadies for bit-rate pop star Jon Secada. Bush media staffers were always close to P. and granted most of his interviews to softball-lobbing TV journalists. In W.'s case, this kind of strategy has often allowed him to respond to tough questions with bland, pre-vetted nonanswers, thus ensuring that his public persona remains pleasantly bland. In P.'s case, this strategy has maximized his pretty-face role, to the delight of young female Republicans and journalists everywhere.
Finally, George P., like George W., knows how to stay on message. For P., that message is relentlessly apolitical. The closest he came to partisanship during the convention was a mention of "compassionate conservatism" on Tuesday; usually what he says is a variation on MTV's much-maligned Choose or Lose campaign, wherein he encourages his contemporaries to become more active in politics. In a recent Newsweek op-ed, for instance, George P. urged young folks to "play a part in choosing our country's leaders," never hinting that such an exercise might actually be more contentious than choosing a flavor of ice cream.
Of course, this is a perfectly good message and a perfectly appropriate role--even a commendable one--for a 24-year-old political rookie. But it's also representative of the Bush grand strategy, both for the convention and for the coming fall campaign. For four nights in Philadelphia, Bush and his surrogates spoke in a political language that, in terms of policy, contained little that anyone would seriously disagree with. It's hard to oppose a strong military, good schools, "honor" and "dignity" in the White House, or a fair shake for black people--even if you might have problems with vouchers, impeachment, outlawing abortion, or tax cuts for rich people.
So forget compassionate conservatism. What George W. and the Republican Party displayed at the convention was a good understanding of the public's distaste for Newt and Company's brand of rhetorical nastiness combined with an incredible degree of discipline (that is, a willingness to muzzle any kind of public dissent in favor of ersatz public unity). Tom DeLay was banished to a reception at the Sound Factory. The die-hard anti-Clintonites did their thundering at a Marriott hotel some miles away from the actual convention. The abortion fight ended before the convention even began, when pro-choice Republicans soundly lost their battle to add a tepid "tolerance" clause to existing platform language. Even John McCain kissed and made up.
And George W. Bush, like his nephew, is all smiles. ¤