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ON THE EVE of his reelection campaign, President Bush has a serious image problem. This time it's not the "wimp factor" or a lack of a "vision thing" that threaten his candidacy--those notions were dispelled nicely by last winter's macho war in the Persian Gulf.
The new Bush image crisis is a product of the administration's tremendous ineptitude in finding solutions to the year-old recession that is wreaking havoc upon the middle class. Polls show that more and more middle-income voters are withdrawing their support of the president. Bush's approval rating has dropped to a new low of 46 percent, with only 18 percent of voters approving how he has handled the economy. Common Americans are starting to sense that Bush is not one of them and does not care about their economic woes.
On at least the first count, of course, they're right. George Bush is a very rich man. He vacations in Kennebunkport, sails a yacht, plays incessant golf and chooses stuffy millionaires as his aides. He is as far removed from the everyday American--and the hardships of the recession--as anyone could possibly be.
The second count also seems to hold true: Bush's only proposal to cure the economy is to cut the capital gains tax rate, a strategy that would lodge the middle class even deeper into recession while giving rich people the opportunity to get richer.
To his credit, George Bush has made a few attempts to dispel his image of old money elitism. In 1988, he claimed a penchant for pork rinds. (This populist snack, it turns out, has not been found in the White House in the past three years.) Last summer, he nominated Clarence Thomas, who grew up dirt poor, to the Supreme Court. And just recently, Bush was photographed buying pants at J.C. Penney, a shop not typically noted for its patrician clientele.
BUT GEORGE Herbert Walker Bush must take more drastic steps if he wants to convince the American electorate of his common man image. He needs to answer jabs from Democratic presidential candidates with real changes in his lifestyle, persona and attitude. When candidate Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa says that "Bush's idea of solving a domestic problem is to fire the maid and yell at the butler," the sitting president shouldn't be vetoing unemployment benefits or remodeling the oval office. He should be portraying himself as sympathetic to--and part of--the middle class.
Here's how he can do it:
* Drop a middle name (or two).
Either Herbert or Walker--or both--must go if George wants to sell himself as an average guy. Middle-class Americans just don't trust guys with four names. Nor should they.
* Go for the belt buckle look.
If George would buy a few new big shiny belt buckles with Mack trucks and Uzis engraved in brass, he might win over a few common Americans. He might also reignite a fashion trend that died prematurely.
* Ditch the yacht for a rowboat.
Bush's mega-supersonic 340-foot yacht is a populist nightmare. He should sell it, buy a scuzzy old rowboat, and give the rest of the money to charity. What could be a better "photo op" than George rowing himself and Barbara into the Atlantic Ocean for a rustic fishing outing?
* Speak even more incoherently.
If he can speak the language of the middle class, Bush just might help his campaign. He's halfway there. Throw in a couple more non sequiturs, a few-more incomplete phrases and a handful of misused SAT words, and Bushspeak may distinguish him from his affluent, smooth-speaking brethren.
* Trade in the presidential limo for a K-car station wagon.
The logic here is the same as for the rowboat, but there are two added advantages. First, a bright-red Dodge would be a constant reminder of Bush's new commitment to the middle class. Second, when Dan Rather reads the news of Bush's latest policy fumble over the footage of Bush riding in the Presidential Wagon, a typical middle-class American will take away only one thing: President Bush's car is just as shitty as the one that's in my garage. That is the stuff campaigns are won on.
* Fire his entire White House staff.
Bush has surrounded himself with a posse of elite, white upper-crust money hounds. Their association with the middle class is limited to paying hired help and getting shoe shines. These guys don't know how to portray Bush as a common man for one reason--they haven't got a clue what the middle class is.
* Publicly announce that Barbara's trademark pearls are fake.
Some people know this, but most don't. This is bound to make some waves.
* Resign from Yale's Skull and Bones Society.
By extricating himself from this club that epitomizes elitism and old money, Bush will make a strong statement that he's not quite as far above everyone else as he once thought. Or at least that's what the public might think.
* Sell golf clubs, buy bowling ball.
This suggestion has been made, and it's a good one. Golf is a sport of the wealthy. It requires a lot of expensive equipment and, usually, a membership to a golf club. Bowling, however, is the sport accessible to everyone: You get a ball, you bowl, you have fun. Bush would be wise to hang up his cleats and head for the lanes, where he can cavort and booze it up with average Joes.
HOWEVER Bush decides to preserve his eroding middle-class support, one thing is clear: He is going to look remarkably silly. It happens whenever politicians attempt to influence voters by changing their image.
Witness Michael Dukakis's tank-driving stunt in his campaign for president in 1988. Dukakis responded to charges of being a dovish peacenik by donning full military garb and hoisting his pathetic little body into the driver's seat of a tank. All we could see was his large goofy head, complete with green helmet, sticking out the top as the tank rolled down the street. It was a photo op turned mockery.
Then there's J. Danforth Quayle, the nation's first teenage heartthrob vice president. To counter his widely perceived boyishness early in 1989, Quayle dyed the hair just above his ears gray. This, of course, was to impart an image of distinguished, rather than school-boy, good looks. But when news of his hair-graying plot came out, Danny just looked ridiculous.
Inevitably, Bush will fall victim to his image-restyling plans. He's not fooling anyone. Any attempt to act like, look like, talk like or care about the middle class is bound to make him look very silly. George Herbert Walker Bush is George Herbert Walker Bush. He owns a yacht, he's a member of Skull and Bones, and his White House staffers use taxpayer-funded air-planes to fly to stamp auctions.
He's no common American, and no amount of campaigning can change that fact.
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