The President Vanishes

By Mark Mazzetti

Los Angeles Times

October 15, 2004

For months now I've dropped bets on the presidential election like Hansel (of "Hansel and Gretel") dropped pebbles. For honor and money, I've wagered on George Bush, not because I wanted him to win but rather because I thought he would. Now I'm changing my mind. It's not the tightening polls that have done it -- I knew that would happen -- but rather something I could not have predicted. The president is missing.

The president I have in mind is the funny, good-natured regular guy I once saw on the campaign trail -- a man of surprisingly quick wit and just plain likeability. I contrasted this man to John Kerry, who is as light and as funny as a mud wall, and I thought, "There goes the election."

Where it has mattered most -- the three debates -- Bush has been wooden, ill at ease and downright spooky. He makes bad jokes, cackles at them in the manner of a cinematic serial killer and has lacked the warmth that he not only once had but that I thought would compensate for a disastrous presidency and give him a second -- God help us -- term. In short, he could take over the Bates Motel in an instant.

Just what has happened to Bush I shall get to in an instant. Right now I want to quote that newest font of all political wisdom, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," who said at a New Yorker-sponsored breakfast yesterday morning that he had seen at least two Bushes in recent days: the "angry Bush from the second debate" and a thickly muddled one.

Stewart was kidding, but all jokes must be based on truth or else they are not funny. The truth in this case was that Bush has been inconsistent -- definitely not the reliably unswerving man we prefer as our country's steward.

A bit later, Stewart made a serious remark that goes to the heart of what has been Bush's problem. He referred to the president's nonexistent "learning curve," which is indeed troubling. This is a man who is a latter-day Bourbon. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand said of them that "they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing." I'm not too sure of the forgetting, but when it comes to learning, Bush has shown little growth. In fact, he has ridiculously maintained otherwise.

Historians may someday say that the beginning of the end for Bush came last April when Time magazine's John Dickerson asked the president at a televised news conference, "What would your biggest mistake be . . . and what lessons have you learned from it?" Bush, who said the question took him by surprise, said he could not come up with one.

Essentially the same question was asked by Linda Grabel, an ordinary voter, at the St. Louis debate. This time, it could not have been a surprise. But this time, too, Bush could offer not a single substantive example. Aside from making "some mistakes in appointing people," everything had gone swimmingly.

This was a preposterous, dishonest answer. It was either the response of someone who is vastly deluded or sticking to a political strategy conceived by people who do not value truth. Either way, it harkens back to that "learning curve" Stewart mentioned and it demolishes Bush's pose as a regular guy, someone approachable -- someone you could like. It is not possible to like someone who cannot admit a mistake. Iraq is the crazy aunt in the attic that Bush will not acknowledge. When she throws the furniture, Bush says you're just hearing things. Yeah, sure.

Had Bush admitted that things went wrong with Iraq, he could have been himself. But he was out there three times telling us what we know is not true. This was Kerry's problem when he was defending his vote in favor of a war that he never, in his gut, thought was a good idea. When he finally was able to say how he really felt, his campaign took off. The man settled into his own skin. He had the better argument. The camera picked it up.

Bush, though, has been hobbled by artifice. The natural has been turned into just another synthetic pol. His only good moments came when he talked about his faith and his family, tapping into a wellspring of emotional truth. Other than that, he was only rarely the politician he used to be -- crushed, not empowered by incumbency. If I could, I'd wager differently. The man I bet on no longer exists.

cohenr@washpost.com

© 2004 The Washington Post Company