George Bush is roaming around his Prairie Chapel ranch house in boots, slacks and a linen shirt, naming the native grasses, spotting the herons--admiring the butterflies, for heaven's sake. This is to be a day of image softening, and another magazine's crew is waiting to do a family photo shoot. Bush has remade this Texas landscape to suit him: put in a lake and stocked it, planted the oaks and laid out the house so the winds would sweep through it. That's the way of his world: something to be shaped, by work and will. Whatever his handlers say, the softening will have to wait because right now he could not be more serious.
We have asked if he thinks peace is even possible. Can the U.S.'s enemies ever be defeated, and can you really use an army to plant democracy in an Arab country? That is the question he comes back to in the hot driveway after the formal interview is over, what he says it's all about--the campaign, the presidency, the one thing he has learned for certain after nearly four years as leader of the free world. "If I didn't think it was possible," he says, "I would bring the troops home tomorrow. Why would I risk losing one more soldier's life? But you know what? The whole world is watching. And we cannot waver now or show any doubt." Otherwise, not only will Iraq and Afghanistan fail but other vulnerable states will as well. On one thing at least he and John Kerry agree: the stakes could not be higher.
Four years ago, in his convention speech, George Bush had something to say about Bill Clinton: "Our current President embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm ... But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose." Clinton returned fire at the Democratic Convention in Boston last month. "Strength and wisdom," he declared, "are not opposing values." That was his delicate version of the venomous bumper sticker: BUSH: LIKE A ROCK, ONLY DUMBER. But lest John Kerry get smug, Clinton is the guy who warned his fellow Democrats in December 2002 that voters in dangerous times may prefer a candidate who is strong and wrong to one who is weak and right.
So if Kerry's test in Boston was to show voters that he is not weak, Bush's task at the Republican Convention in New York City this week is to show that he is not wrong, that his strength comes not from a six-gun temperament but from judgment that has matured through three years of hard testing. His vital audience is not that portion of the electorate that sees him as a savior, nor is it the inflamed opposition that calls him a liar and a zealot. He needs to reach the voters who are unsure about either voting for him or voting at all; who don't think he lied but may think he made mistakes; who like his manner but question his judgment; who are glad Saddam is gone but wonder if the price was too high; who wonder whether John Kerry really knows his mind but also whether George Bush ever opens his. Those voters aren't looking for an apology. They do need to see the President growing in the job or get a better idea of where he is going, because his task is not about to get any easier.