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Issues take back seat in election

November 17, 2002 1:08 am

AS THE POLLS closed on Nov. 5, the analysts went into overdrive with their explanations of what had taken place and why, and President Bush's coattails were flapping in the airwaves.

They talked about how gosh-darn likable this president is, and how, because of that, the longstanding trend of the president's party losing seats in Congress in the midterm election had been broken. And isn't that just so interesting.

Well, it's interesting all right, but only partially valid. What they should have been discussing--and what's more impressive--is nearly any president's influence, as opposed to that of a particular individual who holds the office.

This is just one aspect of America's greatness: Americans respect the office of the president of the United States, no matter who--in spite of who--the office-holder happens to be. It's the one true example of bipartisanism that goes beyond rhetoric.

At times like these, when Americans face the deadly reality of terrorist attacks on their home soil, when their nation may go to war with a most unconventional foe, when a couple of angry sociopathic snipers can tangle the lives of everyone in a major metropolitan area, America goes on autopilot, and the president's approval ratings soar.

They look to the president for reassurance and to fortify their belief that America continues to stand tall. Those feelings are especially potent because they cross all racial, social, and political lines. Even the devoutly religious among us are often first and foremost Americans.

Back when President Clinton was embarrassing himself and the nation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some of his many detractors fretted that he was bruising the presidency. But that was not the case. He certainly bruised his presidency, but not the office itself.

Had the World Trade Center towers come down in the middle of the Clinton impeachment hearings, Americans would still have turned to the president for strength, and they would have found it.

So I guess I shouldn't be so amazed at President Bush's popularity, even if his victory two years ago came with the mandate one gets from winning a coin toss. Barely half of all eligible Americans bothered to register or vote in the 2000 presidential election. Barely half of those voted for Bush.

In his day-to-day political rhetoric, whether he's pitching war against Iraq, citing the well-hidden health of the economy, or simply discussing education and the environment, the president fails to persuade me that he really knows what he's talking about.

Maybe he's getting better with experience. But he still comes off as goofy. I can't state with authority that he is goofy, but I can say for sure that he comes off that way. As we sift through the ruins of his English, it becomes clear that he has surrounded himself with bright people, like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and is trying to emulate them.

But when he addresses the nation as the commander in chief--as president rather than No. 1 Republican--all of the ideological differences and personal doubts temporarily fade to the background. I'll gather the kids around the TV and we'll listen to what President Bush has to say about Afghanistan and Iraq--just as my parents gathered us around the old Philco to learn what President Kennedy had to say about Cuba and Russia.

I may still shake my head at the way Bush expresses himself, but not without reminding myself that he is the current, democratically elected leader of the free world--and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Still, it is disconcerting how well-suited he seems to today's sound-bite-savvy Americans. If President Bush comes across as superficial, he is supplying Americans with what they want.

The Bush administration's focus is trained on the war on terrorism and homeland security. We are limited to hearing from his spokesman about how well-briefed the president is on everything else, from the gyrations of Wall Street to the needle countdown for the snipers (who have joined Virginia's Alive Until Officially Proven Guilty club).

With so many Americans more concerned about which bimbo "The Bachelor" would select from the harem and who would win "American Idol," who has time to care about politics?

They may have been captivated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but most Americans are either too busy or too uninterested to have a thorough understanding of the important issues unfolding around them. As long as they know they're still governed by a president and not a junta, there's not much that deeply concerns them or that they figure they could do much about anyway. That was the case with President Reagan and Iran-Contra, and that's how it is today with Bush and his ties to big business and Enron.

That makes President Bush the right man in the right place at the right time.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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