WASHINGTON — George W. Bush wanted me to know that it’s what’s inside that counts. Early in the 2000 campaign, Sen. John McCain had unexpectedly flattened him in New Hampshire. Bush seemed somehow both combative and resigned. “Whatever happens,” he told me one day, “I want you to know that I have a good heart.” I think what he meant was: I may lose, but I’m a decent guy. Also: I may play rough and nasty, but I’m a decent guy.
Well, now we get to see what’s really in George W. Bush’s heart. By his nomination (or nominations) shall we know him. Soon enough he will choose someone to be his first pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. Others are likely to follow. If Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires, and Bush elevates Justice Antonin Scalia to that slot, Congress could see the spectacle of THREE confirmation hearings in one season.
As I see it, there is a tug-of-war going on – and it’s not the one you’re already seeing on TV between the lobbying groups and senators maneuvering for position in front of the cameras. It’s among the various influences that have shaped Bush, in his personal life and in his political career. Here’s a look at them:
Bush has been shaped and surrounded by strong women. As he himself has said, he has had a series of them to “mother-hen me.” They include Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Karen Hughes, Condoleeza Rice and Harriet Miers, now the White House counsel but for many years before that, his personal lawyer. (Give his daughters a few more years to mature, and they will perform the same function; they already serve as jovially merciless style critics.)
What does this have to do with the Supreme Court? Plenty: as far as I know, none of these women is “pro-life” in the strict sense – certainly Barbara and Laura Bush are not. The president has said that the country is not ready to see the overturn of Roe V. Wade. Maybe what he meant was: My Mother Hens aren’t ready. Would he want to defy them with his Supreme Court choice now?
Do what daddy doesn't
Bush’s father is influential, too, but in a different way. The president has built his career on one simple principle of political physics: zig where dad zagged. The list is long. The father never was tight with the Right; the son made it Job One. The father never had a clear agenda; the son had four bullet items per campaign, endlessly repeated. The father behaved as though campaigning and governing were separate activities; the son assumed (rightly) that they had long since become one and the same thing. The father relied on the CIA (and ran it); the son never quite trusted the boys in Langley. The father fought in a war; the son didn’t. The father didn’t go to Baghdad; the son did.
Now comes the Court. Bush One’s first pick was the “black box” known as David Souter, quiet and virtually unknown, with a thin and mysterious judicial track record – and no clearly stated view on abortion. Even Republicans who are not ardent conservatives think it was a mistake, legally and politically.
This Bush doesn’t want to pick another Souter.
If you watched Bush as governor, as I did, you know that he would like to pick a Texan and/or a Hispanic-American from Texas. This is the mix he sees forming the concrete of the post-Bush Republican Party: rural, conservative evangelical whites and traditionalist Latino immigrants. That’s why so many names on various short lists have such connections: Gonzales, Garza, Jones and Luttig, to name a few. That’s why he came so strongly to Gonzales’ defense, even if that doesn’t mean he will nominate him.
For Bush, this connection isn’t just political in the usual sense. It’s emotional. He prizes his track record of winning votes in the Latino community. It validates his sense of himself as an elected official, even as a diplomat who first learned about international affairs from dealing with Mexico on border issues. He already has a place in Hispanic-American history, having picked Gonzales for attorney general. He wants to enlarge his entry in that history book.
Divide and Conquer v. the War on Terrorism
Bush has thrived in politics by drawing bright lines, and forcing “cross-pressured” voters to make hard but clear choices. He picked John Bolton for the U.N., and hasn’t given up on him; he’s for private accounts in social security, and hasn’t abandoned the idea. He essentially believes in the Armadillo Theory of Politics: that being in the middle of the highway is the surest way to get run over.
But he has another concern right now: the war on terrorism. Bush has long since concluded that the key to winning in Iraq, and elsewhere, is to maintain public support for the effort. That means, in turn, that he has to worry at some point about his own job-approval ratings. Will a series of contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings affect what little consensus remains on the war?
It’s up to him to choose – and tell us what’s really in that “good heart” he says he has.