Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

For those desperate souls looking for a Bush family scandal, it was the most exciting development since underage Jenna was caught swigging a beer in Austin. Rumors percolated in the press that brother Jeb might not run for re-election in an attempt to head off revelations of an extramarital affair with a political appointee. As the buzz mounted, the Florida governor was forced to confront it, telling the media the charge was an “outright lie.”

Who knows if the rumors are true? Perhaps Jeb figures that, after “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” no one would believe a philandering politician could be so stupid as to make a false public denial. At any rate, 24 hours later, the story had evaporated. Anyone hoping the Bushes might get a little interesting will have to wait for further developments.

It may not be a long wait, but it is certain to feel like one. The Bush administration, as is now clear to everyone, is boring. Even political journalists who are paid to take an interest in the president seem hard- pressed to pay attention to him. According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, there were 41 percent fewer stories about Bush in his first two months than media magnet Bill Clinton. Wasn’t Al Gore supposed to be the boring one?

Back when W first emerged as a possible presidential candidate, his charm and conviviality were touted as his greatest assets. The man was a cheerleader, for God’s sake, whose powers of leadership shone in his ability to rouse the frat brothers for fun-filled antics. Yet for all the talk about Bush exceeding low expectations, no expectation could have been low enough to predict the depth of the president’s charisma deficit.

I’m not talking about the famous misappropriated prefixes and suffixes or the tortured English-as-second-language syntax. These, in fact, represent Bush the public speaker at his most fascinating. I’m talking about the sheer stuttering dullness of his persona: the halting, beady-eyed, pursed-lipped delivery; the vocabulary-impoverished rhetoric.

In March, when the White House announced the president-not exactly chummy with the press to begin with-was going to forgo formal press conferences, I couldn’t help but suspect that some reporters, in their hearts, were deeply grateful.

In a standard 3.7-second evening-news presidential sound bite, 2.3 seconds consist of the word “uh.” An entire Bush speech must be unwatchable-although I can’t bring myself to sit through one. We do know that George W.’s first address to Congress was seen by 40 million people, about 40 percent fewer than watched the first Clinton state of the union.
My guess is the Nielsen numbers will only get crueler as the Bush administration moves on.
On the other hand, the Great Communificator may be on to something. Without the help of a single memorable speech, public appearance, interview or sound bite, he has managed, thanks to a Republican-controlled House and a divided Senate, to get most of his tax cut.

He’s also promoted conservative agendas that most of the electorate-already bored during the campaign-never noticed he had, let alone supported. And he’s done it not through charismatic leadership, but by making himself as invisible as possible.

But even the most powerful man in the world cannot run an administration this bland all by himself. There is the vital contribution of his helpmate, Laura, who might have spent the first 100 days playing cards with her Texas girlfriends for all we have seen or know of her. (This time eight years ago, Hillary already had her first Newsweek cover.)

Then there is the new white- shirt-and-blue-tie White House culture, run with the kind of Organization Man discipline so out of fashion in the business world itself.

Finally, we can thank the Democrats, who appear to be under some soporific spell of their own. Our boredom is a bipartisan conspiracy.

No doubt there are plenty of Americans who find the pasty efficiency of the Bush administration reassuring, especially after eight years of you know who. And it’s not like we can’t get our fix of political excitement from The West Wing, a show that becomes more unreal every week. When West Wing debuted in the last days of the Clinton White House, its ER ambience-sudden death, policy disasters, scandals, even glib staffers-had a whiff of verisimilitude. Now, next to the real thing, it seems ridiculous, though far more entertaining.

But the irony that is Bush remains: A man devoid of introspection has capitalized on an inverted political axiom: It pays to be a bore.