Charleston, S.C. — The man who is speaking on stage in Exhibit Hall A of the Charleston Convention Center right now could win the South Carolina primary and, probably, the Republican nomination and the White House too. He is the most fluid and engaging retail politician I have ever heard. He does not rattle off a list of his qualifications or accomplishments, the names of bills he sponsored or economic growth statistics from the years he was governor. Instead he talks about helping our children and giving the poor what they need and reaching out to the disenfranchised and keeping America safe. Throughout his remarks he is relaxed, even slouching while he waits to take the mic, and affable. He exudes confidence and competence and decency. Though his hair is thoroughly gray and there are lines in his forehead, he is handsome, too. He has the charm of an old-fashioned high-school civics teacher who makes you feel ashamed for not standing for the Pledge, or of a tough-but-fair football coach whom you don’t blame for cutting you from the team when you get an F. The crowd, waving American flags and holding up signs and cheering ceaselessly, can’t get enough of him.
But George W. Bush isn’t running in 2016. Even if he wanted the job, which, with admirable candor, he says he doesn’t “miss too much,” there’s the problem of ballot access, to say nothing of the whole 22nd Amendment thing.
For people who were first eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential election, a group into which it sometimes seems as if the national media is soon to be subsumed, it can be hard to appreciate what made W. such a popular candidate. (Your correspondent spent most of the second Bush presidency reading antiwar.com and fantasizing with my friend Chelsea about what it would be like if we could get Dennis Kucinich in office and kick out all the ’phobes and warmongers; I wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on my first acoustic guitar in imitation of Woody Guthrie. Now I work at the Washington Free Beacon. Life is funny.) But “No Blood for Oil” activists are not well represented tonight in Charleston, and the 43rd president’s charms are on full display. The convention hall has been packed since 4:00 p.m. The first thing I hear when I walk in is someone begging for a spot on the waiting list.
I soon realize that if I sit with my laptop in the media section I won’t be able to see anything except an eight-foot-tall black curtain. Risers for television cameras and photographers with tripods are set up in front of the three rows of tables set aside for those of us who are here to take notes and write. The video monitor that currently says “Jeb!” is smaller than the TVs in my office. This is annoying but not as annoying as what’s coming out of the speakers. The music at GOP campaign events is always terrible. When I take my seat it is to the strains of Huey Lewis and the News’s noted top-20 hit “Workin’ for a Livin’.” Haven’t these people ever heard of Dinosaur Jr.? Even something canonical like the Stones would be welcome. When the next singer implores me to “Imagine a dirt road / Full of pot-holes,” I leave the media area and chat with Kent, who looks wryly amused standing next to a handful of young Jeb enthusiasts.
Kent has driven 20 miles from Summerville, South Carolina. He tells me that he “probably will not” be voting for Jeb on Saturday and that he is here mostly to see his brother. Kent says W. is a “good man,” and that while he didn’t like Bush’s expansion of Medicare, the former president kept America safe. He says, in a line that could have come straight from the press office of the junior senator from Texas, that following the death of Antonin Scalia, rallying behind someone with a legal background who will know how to appoint good justices to the Supreme Court is the most important thing.
The most instructive thing, I soon realize, is going to be to watch the two brothers side by side while Lindsey Graham, who endorsed Jeb after dropping out of the race, is introducing W. The contrast, which does not come through on television because the brothers are separated by both Laura Bush and the podium, is striking. Jeb looks tense, as if he is getting ready to sit the SAT. He smiles weakly when Graham makes jokes, which he does frequently, though the audience doesn’t seem to be the right one for his did-he-really double-entendres (“I don’t know about you, but I love Bushes!”). W. is as relaxed as it is possible to imagine someone of his renown being in public, tie-less in a brown jacket with an expression that does not say “I am trying hard to be laidback.” His manner does not change when he starts talking. He begins with a story from the 2000 primary about Tommy’s Ham House, a restaurant in Greenville.
“I was eating some bacon. I looked out the window, and a PETA protestor dressed as a pig showed up in a dump truck. He unloaded a huge load of manure in the parking lot to try to prevent me from leaving. It was kind of a sign of things to come. But let me tell you something about the Ham House: even a steaming pile of manure can’t ruin their good bacon.”
W.’s great secret is that, like Reagan before him, he is equally adept at jokes and gravitas. Despite myself I am laughing along with the audience when he says that he was “frequently misunderestimated” by the media, and am almost shivering when he talks about the girl who was reading to him when he learned about the second plane. “I became something that no president should ever want to be: a wartime president. And I made a lot of tough calls, every one of them with that child’s image in my mind.”
Though no one mentions his name at all this evening, Donald Trump is on everyone’s lips. When Graham says that W. protected America, he is offering an implicit rejoinder to what Trump said in Saturday’s debate and doubled down on only a few hours ago here in Charleston about the attacks of September 11, 2001, being the former president’s fault. W. is less subtle.
“Strength is not empty rhetoric. It is not bluster. It is not theatrics. Real strength, strength of purpose, comes from integrity and character. In my experience the strongest person usually isn’t the loudest person in the room.”
When it is Jeb’s turn, he starts in on his regular stump speech: referring to himself as “Veto Corleone,” a nickname given to him when he was governor by the Democratic speaker of the state house; talking about Denisha Merriweather, a girl who attended a private Christian school using a tax-credit scholarship program and is now earning a master’s degree; hyping how “disruptive” his presidential administration will be. He doesn’t mention Scalia or the Supreme Court or abortion at all. In the back where I am standing, I see that people start leaving almost immediately. At first I count maybe four or five, then 10, then 15. It doesn’t stop. Eventually I start making tally marks—I give up at 100. A Jeb staffer raises his eyebrows at me when he notices that I am noticing what he is noticing. Fifteen or so minutes later, Bush is finished and, though people have spread out enough to prevent it from being blinkeringly obvious, the room is only about a third as full—maybe less.
Pretty soon the heat is off and the stage is being taken down. Behind me a guy with a Bernie Sanders press credential who looks as if he needs to wash his hair is talking on the phone. “Let’s smoke sometime,” he says. Is he talking about tobacco? I am ready for a cigarette myself.
When I pack up my stuff and step outside to light up I come across the only person I see all night who does not seem to be a big fan of W. Mark, a recent graduate of Trident Technical College here in Charleston, is waving a handmade “No More Bushes, No More Clintons.”
Why don’t you like Jeb? I ask.
I notice that Mark is wearing a Trump t-shirt.
The 43rd president may believe that being the loudest voice in the room doesn’t make you the strongest or the best. But, as Kent reminds us, you can admire W. even if you don’t agree with him.