Bush cast a great image, now just needs a theme song

Thursday, August 23, 2001 at 12:00am

President George W. Bush has pulled a head-fake on the American press corps. In a maneuver worthy of MacArthur, the scrappy Texan has again outflanked his pursuers and produced the best TV images of his presidency with his Jimmy Carter-like house building and his Ronald Reagan-like brush clearing in the Rockies. Those who denigrate such imagery as "form over function" must have forgotten how this cowboy got his current job.

During the month before Bush and Gore stood side by side on TV, the Gallup polls showed the country leaning to Gore. For the two weeks afterwards, Gallup had Bush in the lead. Had it not been for Bush's stupid hiding of an aged DUI charge, the picture we all got in that debate could have given this president a clear-cut victory.

Last week, the country got another comparison shot of the two men. Bush was in the "heartland" hauling trees around like a real American. A scantily bearded Gore spent the time instructing young Democrats on electioneering techniques. Bush looked like a Marlboro commercial. Gore had the off-putting appearance of some geek teaching kids how to be geeks.

What worked for Bush this week, once again, was the media snobbery of those in New York and Santa Monica who want to believe Bush is Alfred E. Neuman's idiot nephew. Keep thinking that. It only makes life easier him. Every time you lower the bar on this fellow, the easier it becomes for him to clear it.

You know what I think sells about Bush? Humility. Yes, you can quote Churchill and say Bush is a "modest man with much to be modest about," but I challenge you to say he is as dumb as the sophisticates say he is. When Bush spoke to the nation about stem cells, he admitted right up front that such issues are not solvable by brainpower alone: Good people disagree on the subject.

"The issue is debated within the church, with people of different faiths, even among the same faith, coming to different conclusions," Bush said.

Most people, and not just those in that "red" part of the Electoral College map who voted for him, agree with Bush's decision. Had the president rejected stem-cell funding outright, the decision would have painted him indelibly with the religious right. If he'd gone whole-hog for stem-cell research, he would have been The New York Times' flavor of the week, but also a man who broke a well-known campaign promise. Polls show he threaded the needle. Bush has retained his high Gallup number (59 percent) for being a president who "keeps his promises."

But pretty cowboy pictures and shrewd "values" politics are not enough. What Bush now needs to project is some music to go with it. For FDR, it was "Happy Days Are Here Again." For JFK, it was "High Hopes." For Clinton, it was "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow." The silence in the American air is what keeps Bush's pictures from putting some bounce in the country's step.

Chris Matthews is a nationally syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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