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The Last Hurrah

In the last days before the election George Bush passed a near terminal stage of his via dolorosa still bravely trying but barely managing to preserve his self-esteem against the assaults of his despairs. Every sighting of him in those final days enlarged the impression that no divine intervention could so profoundly surprise him as to be awakened on November 3 a president-elect once again.

The conventional wisdoms of politics were already commencing to dismiss the likelihood of his survival by the time the President joined their consensus. But now he appeared to accept it with a whole, if downcast, heart.

Venturesome denials of what informed opinion asserts as fact are not for George Bush; whatever wisdoms he carried to this last ditch were uniformly of the conventional sort. There is no way to guess the exact moment when the mixture of the waters of his hopes with the cement of his doubts about his destiny hardened into the concrete of his near certainty of its disaster. But the day of this dreadful revelation had to be the Halloween Saturday he spent in Wisconsin just before the election, campaigning from the observation platform of the first passenger train to ennoble the rails between Burlington and Chippewa Falls in a generation.

Of course, the gods of irony had once again proved their mastery of stagecraft by setting the scene where the President would recognize that history’s attic was his destination while he sat in one of those railroad passenger cars that were, for small Midwestern towns, the most evocative of historical relics and the more precious for being so rarely seen.

The last passenger train to stop for George Bush was perhaps the last to stop at Chippewa Falls for all time to come. Occasional patches of children stood watching with their mothers along the right of way; and Bush-Quayle signs appeared infrequently enough in their lines to suggest how secondary a point the President of the United States had become for the focus of their curiosity.

Television has transformed our presidents into our almost domestic familiars. No evening went by without the current one’s intrusion into our living rooms, like some brother-in-law beseeching a loan. Only the blue locomotive and its clattering yellow chain of club cars on the Bush campaign train had the magic that belonged to the strange and never-before-seen by these children’s eyes.

But George Bush had mislaid his magic somewhere, and had worn out his eyes scouring too many dark corners and failing to find it anywhere, until, with every mile he covered, he seemed less capable of seeing what he was looking at. He saluted Wisconsin for its “lovely day” and the abundance of its corn crop, while the skies stayed gray and the landscape grew more sodden and, since Halloween is the appointed day for the burial of the Corn God until spring, his kingdom was invisible except for wind-grieved stalk and stubble. It was one of those panoramas that most please curious tastes for somber joys; and the sweetly melancholy heart could all but feel the rustling of the ghosts of all the babies the pioneers lost to diseases no horse-and-buggy doctor could cure.

Mrs. Bush had flown in to bear up her husband on his ride. She may have been drawn there by impulses as much for correction as for encouragement. He had gone rather too far in the directions of scurrility the day before, calling Albert Gore “Ozone Man,” and “bozo”-bashings were just the sort of thing that would arouse the women in the family to reprove excesses of boyish spleen not merely bad for being undignified for a president but worse for being unbecoming in a gentleman.

And the President was indeed inspired to some improvement of his manners until word was brought that Bill Clinton had accused him of fudging the facts about his role in Iran-contra The catalog of my own mendacities would overstuff the National Archives, but even I would take offense at being called a liar by a governor of Arkansas whose career as an evader of truths is hardly less distinguished than Emmett Smith’s as an eluder of open field tackles.

The parvenu who had been so presumptuous as to totter George Bush’s high seat had now compounded the trespass of imminent usurpation with the outright crime of assaulting the character of someone better born than he. The President’s question can be imagined: “God dammit, Barb, that fat fruit of a car dealer’s loins called me a liar. Why can’t I tell him off?”

And so he did from the back of the train, with images of a Clinton “afraid for the power he lusted for…afraid it’s going to slip away and…begun a series of personal attacks on my character.” The words read like fire in the transcripts; but they had no more heat than a dead ember when spoken from the platform. The President’s spirit was chilling further in his bosom with each new venture into the open air; he was so weary of all litanies by now that he could even remonstrate on behalf of his own honor in tones of passion more authentic than those he had left for traducing Clinton’s.

We may suppose that the bitter cup of resignation was handed to him that afternoon dosed with one or another tracking poll. Politicians dismiss polls in public and obsess over them in private. All the previous week Bush had been gaining one painful point a day on Clinton; and now he had fallen two points back. His orbit appeared to have fallen short at its peak and begun the descent where all hopes abandon.

At Oshkosh a few of the journalists waiting by the train fell into small talk with James Baker, Bush’s conscript campaign manager. At one point in their pleasantries, the President beckoned Baker from the window. The disciplined gaiety of the countenance could not disguise its foreknowledge of how the game would end and its concern for what Baker might be letting out. Baker turned and stooped and mimed the body language of the hired man shoveling manure.

The President leaned back to cares no smaller for relief from the insignificant peril that Baker might have lapsed into the revelation of a secret ringing by now in every ear within range of his voice. It was all the same not easy for the heart to resist the tug of the President’s communion with the only male comrade on this darkling plain who was to any extent his intimate. There had settled upon them both the look that suggests the locker room of the country club where each mocks the four putts the other took on the eighteenth hole.

Barbara Bush surprised no sentient observer by going home the next day. The business was henceforth to be guy stuff. George Bush who had prayed for us all to trust him was at the place where he could confidently trust only James Baker. When Mrs. Bush last heard her husband in public, the President was in Chippewa Falls amid the rockets in a raincoat as marvelously white as a bishop’s surplice; and he was carried back to the misted glories of the Gulf War when “they said that I was inarticulate and could not lead.”

The unspoken “Look at me now” hung in the air. You looked at him then and tried if you could to harden your heart against abrading with the sight of the wounds that had sunk him so far in desolation that, if the rock were to have rolled off his political tomb on November 3, he would have looked in the mirror at his resurrected self with eyes like Doubting Thomas’s.

November 5, 1992

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