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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Primary Questions

As the dust settles in a two-man race, the question now is: Does Bush have the brains, McCain the temperament to preside in the Oval Office?

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT)

Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously described Franklin Roosevelt as a man possessed of a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament. In the years since, America has elected brilliant men and charming ones, wonks, rogues, rascals, a general, an actor, a nuclear engineer, in a rolling judgment about knowledge and wisdom, instinct and style. At times it seems that the murkier the issues, the sharper the matter of character becomes.

This year's Democratic race was a two- man show from the start, but on the Republican side, it took more time, five dropouts, some stumbles and some surprises to arrive where we are now, at least in New Hampshire: with 12 weeks left to go until primary day, George W. Bush and John McCain are suddenly just single digits apart. And as it happened, at just the moment that the contest came into focus, the issues of intellect and temperament that have hummed all year suddenly threw off sparks and lit up the whole horizon of the Republican race.

One Navy prince, one political prince, both rebel cutups with frat-house charm, they took very different roads to the stage they currently share. If Bush is defined by his friends and alliances, McCain is known by the enemies he has dared to make and the grievances he has dared to have. Whereas Bush spent his early years at play, with a father who made everything easier, McCain spent his at war, with a father who ordered the bombing of the city where his son was held prisoner. Bush talks of compassion and those prosperity leaves behind; McCain of courage and the forces of evil at work in the "City of Satan." Bush, all lightness of being, struggles to be viewed as serious enough for the job; McCain, all coiled conviction, is so intense he has to struggle to be seen as normal. Both want to make over the Republican Party: one says he wants to give it a heart; the other says he wants to give it a conscience. Put them together, and it's easy to think you're looking at the ticket right now.

But whose name would come first? In staking his claim to leadership, McCain has never had a problem of lack of intellect or discipline--despite graduating fifth from the bottom of his Annapolis class with a bushel of demerits--but rather of temper and temperament. The question exploded last week in newspaper stories, most notably a blazing Sunday editorial in his hometown paper, the Arizona Republic, damning McCain as a bully, sarcastic and insulting. His personal story, in this view, becomes his burden, with the suggestion that the fighting spirit that allowed him to resist his North Vietnamese captors has left him muscle-bound, not quite nimble enough to cajole and convince and compromise in complicated times.

McCain's natural response was to frame his fault as a virtue: "I have always had this acute sense of right and wrong," he told TIME. And people like a fighter. "Show me a politician who's never offended anyone," said his spokesman Dan Schnur, "and I'll show you a politician who has never got anything done." At a time when the Republican leaders in Congress are not winning popularity contests, McCain's allies note, having them as enemies may win you friends.

McCain is winning them now, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, because people see him as plausible and plainspoken, not as a hothead but as a warrior against the "special interests," ranging from trial lawyers to tobacco makers who have government in a choke hold. If there is, as Bush has said, a crisis of cynicism about government, Bush has put a match to it with his high-octane fund raising. McCain, with his 50 staff members to Bush's 150, working out of a condemned one-story building in Virginia, isn't out giving big policy speeches. He just stands in town-hall meetings hour after hour answering questions about how to fix a broken system.

For Bush, the critical moment came last week when he flunked a pop quiz from a Boston television reporter by failing to name the leaders of countries like India and Pakistan. Bush argued in defense that the names are less relevant than his policies toward them. But the quiz was as much a test of his political radar as of his foreign-policy smarts: ever since he confused Slovenia and Slovakia and called the Greeks Grecians, he should have known it was only a matter of time before someone administered a midterm exam. And at other moments during the week, when he veered off text, the words just sort of floated out there, untied to any actual ideas. The implicit charge is less that he's stupid than that he's incurious, proudly anti-intellectual. Yet he is applying for a new and very demanding job--and it was hard for Bush to attack this as a media ambush when his education philosophy hinges on testing what students know before allowing them to advance to the next grade.

When Bush is challenged about his mastery of the material, his response goes straight to his vision of presidential leadership, the argument that too much knowledge can clutter a vision. His experts can sort through the details, he says; it is more important for a President to have strong convictions about where he wants to take the country. The spirit he invokes is that of Ronald Reagan, who, as Ted Kennedy once noted, could forget your name but always remembered his goals. But 1999 is not 1979, Bush's critics reply: the nation is not shuddering through a cold war or a crisis of confidence that demands a grand vision and buoyant spirit. The job, with the times, has changed, so that on any given morning, a President may have to wrestle with Mexico, Medicaid and Microsoft. Reagan could afford to be more full of principle than policy detail because his whole view of government was that it should do as little as possible; a candidate like Bush, with an activist agenda, is bidding for a job that comes with much more homework.

In the end, both men were swatting away charges about their brains and their tempers with the other great weapon in this race, the sword of authenticity. "The only thing I know to do is be myself," Bush told TIME, when asked if it bothered him to be tarred as a lightweight. "And, ya know, if people like it, fine; if they don't like it, that's the way it is." As for McCain, he argued to TIME that his imperfections only improved him. "By realizing that you are a person with some weaknesses, it gives you a better appreciation that others may not be perfect," he said. It was as if he could wear his flaws like another one of his medals.

"The only thing I know to do is be myself. And, ya know, if people like it, fine; if they don't like it, that's the way it is." --GEORGE W. BUSH


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 15, 1999

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