If elected, George W. Bush will be our first president with an MBA.
This is not just a Republican or pro-business attribute but a broader culture alignment. Clinton tracks from the sixties, and follows the early-boomer experience into careers (when everyone went to law school or thought about it), marriage (and marital problems), and more-or-less-conflicted adulthood. George W. represents later boomers: business schools, networking, deals, and a lot less personal angst (more cash flow perhaps equals less angst).
Al Gore doesn’t align very well with either of those psychographic halves of boomerdom. He isn’t hip enough or flawed enough or passionate enough for the former, and he isn’t plugged-in enough or operator enough or yuppielike enough or even bobolike enough for the latter.
Cultural alignment is going to be a big deal.
With no ideological basis whatsoever to this campaign, it’s become virtually a pure personality play – one between men of relatively indistinct character. How do you distinguish between two Ivy League guys in their early fifties from successful political families, both with middle-of-the-road social and economic philosophies? It’s a campaign of pretty extreme nuance and subtlety (it just seems inconsequential and boring).
But one of them will become what Saul Bellow calls the “contrast gainer.” No matter how flawed, uninteresting, and unattractive a couple is, one half of the pair always makes the other look better.
Obviously, the Gore people were thinking that, on the contrast-gainer principle, they’d have it in the bag. Experience and intelligence versus inexperience and dopiness.
Bush clearly shares our contempt for politics and politicians. He keeps waving off the job. He can hire people to do it. It’s worth noting that even his parents seem a little surprised that it isn’t their diligent son, Jeb, who is on his way to the White House.
But so far, it seems to have come down to a general – if reductive – perception that, virtues aside, Bush is more fun than Gore.
Bush is less heavy. Less taxing to be around. Easier to ignore. He is, as background noise, less irritating than Gore. They are both interlopers at the party (you would not have invited either), but Bush fits in better. He’s brought some beer.
He’s a better front man. A better spokesperson. In a modern chief executive, you don’t necessarily want an operator. You want an outside person. You want someone who can represent the brand.
Clearly, Bush is a lot less about politics than Gore. He hasn’t been a politician that long, isn’t steeped in the mystique of politics like Gore (Gore’s family was fundamentally a political family; Bush’s family is fundamentally a Wasp-business family in politics), and certainly doesn’t seem like someone who talks about politics or policy in his spare time. Since the subject that we are least interested in, possibly even most averse to (on the level of a math aversion), is politics, the politician who lets us think less about politics wins.
I’d go with this being the bedrock issue of the campaign: our growing phobia about politics. What do you do when you meet someone who talks to you about politics? You worry a bit. We perceive that anyone who is overinterested in politics is odd (emotionally unstable). We instinctively turn away from him.
George W. went to business school in 1973. Going to business school then was not in any way an obvious or ambitious career move. Business school was about as far from hot as it got. You were way out of cultural alignment. You were a throwback. A legacy. A dope.
If you went to business school, it meant you couldn’t get into law school, or didn’t even want to bother to try; it meant, too, you had subpar verbal skills. Business school in the early seventies was a class safety net. Bill Clinton and Al Gore would have had serious contempt for their business-school opposites. Everybody did.
Certainly, if you were going to business school, you weren’t dreaming of going into politics. You won’t find a letter from a young George W. outlining his future political aspirations (or, likely, any aspirations).
In hindsight, what we missed seeing, or missed isolating, was another, probably more important trait: People in B-school didn’t like conflict, didn’t like upset, rhetoric, posturing, arguing – they didn’t like politics. Indeed, by going to business school, they were opting out of this highly argumentative, polemical, analytic, stay-up-all-night-and-talk post-sixties Watergate moment. It bored them. Or, even more profoundly: They just didn’t give a shit. Here were the seeds of a postpolitics consensus.
And apparently, even in this oddly disengaged early-seventies B-school set, George W. was in a subset further notable for the archness and aggressiveness of its complaisance (“He was so juvenile!” says a person I know who sat in back of him. “He actually threw spitballs in class”).
But this element of not caring too much, of not getting hot and bothered, of having other priorities (relaxing, hanging out, partying), is obviously a strong Bush virtue and is surely earning him contrast-gainer points against Gore, who cares too much about what other people don’t much care about at all (not that they disagree; they’re just not interested).
We don’t like intensity. We like effortlessness. We are, at this point in the economic boom, for better or worse, drawn to the guy in the stadium sky box.
Which brings us to the woman issue. Women like George W. At least in contrast to Gore they do. At any rate, they don’t dislike him, which, because women are traditionally an easier mark for Democrats (they tend to reflexively dislike Republican men), presents big trouble for Gore.
Bush’s positionlessness, his formlessness, his suggestion of openness (of course, arguably, it is just vacancy), turns out to be appealing. Say it: sexy. He is, anyway, in contrast to a rigid guy who has trouble with eye contact.
Gore is, in fact, much better-looking than Bush – but sexless, dead from the waist down. There’s no human warmth here. No nonverbal communication.
Bush, on the other hand, is an obviously friendly guy, probably impulsive, occasionally even overcome by his own silly exuberance. He could make a little trouble. He’s like Clinton, but with a big difference. Clinton would flirt (dangerously) with you. You might flirt (although not too seriously) with Dubya. He has male-bimbo traits.
He may be dangerously incompetent, but he’s cute. It should probably not be so surprising that the former does not cancel the persuasive powers of the latter.
It really frightened the Gore people when it looked like there was a chance they’d have to run against McCain. In the end, though, they figured they got the best of both worlds: McCain showing Bush to be a virtual fool, and Bush winning anyway.
The Gore strategy was obvious. Contrast Gore’s willingness to hustle and go the extra mile against Bush’s laissez faire never-bust-a-gut-if-it-can-be-avoided outlook.
But the effect has been that Gore looks like a striver, a grasper, a not-of-our-class Sammy Glick.
And Bush seems like he’s above it all; he is the BMOC.
His relative ease, his lack of concern, even lack of commitment, have allowed him to appear to embody the joys of economic expansion more completely than Gore has. Gore is struggling – and reminding everyone of the grimness of the struggle – whereas Bush seems to have made it.
He knows, we think, the secret of success.
Where did all that money come from? How did he attract it? Without much experience, or demonstrable skills, he got funded. We’re not in the least suspicious of that. On the contrary, we admire that. Getting funded is the game. The fact that he doesn’t seem to have a clue about why he wants to be president is not especially held against him, because we understand the real and overriding reason he’s running for the presidency: People keep giving him money!
Even his relative inexperience embodies the new career ideal. Don’t do anything for too long. You don’t want to spend your life working at one thing. To be in the oil business, then to own a sports franchise, then to be governor – that’s intelligent parlaying; it’s seeing the big picture; it’s being opportunistic (which is now a virtue). It’s no longer regarded as dilettantism, or failing upward, or having no clear expertise in anything.
Gore, on the other hand, is a drone, a slogger, a guy who just doesn’t understand how the new, entrepreneurial, highly liquid, exit-strategy economy works. Gore is a downer.
What’s the point of the greatest economic expansion in history if you still have to be Al Gore (who doesn’t even have anything invested in the stock market! Hello!)?
Bush clearly shares our contempt for politics and politicians. He keeps waving off the job. He can hire people to do it.
It’s worth noting that even his parents seem a little surprised that it isn’t their diligent son, Jeb, who is on his way to the White House. But the cutup. The underachiever.
There’s something both appealing and frightening about the way his father keeps having to say that George W. is actually pretty smart – as though he is trying to convince himself too.
I’m not sure George the elder knows quite what to make of the fact that his loss of the presidency is being avenged by George W.
Father and son are notably different. His father was a conventional achiever. He lived up to expectations – class- and business-wise.
George W. is … well, a lot closer to Dan Quayle. It was always hard to explain George the Elder’s choice of Quayle. But now we see the resemblance to his own son: friendly, open-faced, boyish, none too bright, but eager to please. Callow, yes. Superficial, sure.
But, many people ask now, does it matter? Why imbue politics with more significance than it has? Why give it attention it does not deserve? Let’s not encourage these people. And as anyone who has ever hired anyone knows – indeed, as anyone who has ever worked with the person who was hired knows – the fun, easy-to-get-along-with guy, the frictionless guy, the less-smart guy, often works out better than the grind and know-it-all. So chill.
Of course, this might well reverse the classic equation. The first time around with Dan Quayle was farce.
The second time, we could get the tragedy.