Last Wednesday in Albuquerque, N.M., Governor Gary Johnson introduced George W. Bush by recalling a Governors' conference they attended during which Bush turned to him and asked whether he understood what was going on. "Not a thing," Johnson said. Bush replied, "Neither do I," after which the two subtly high-fived.
You would think Bush would have put the persona of puckish class goof-off to rest by now. But he actually cultivated it well into adulthood, acting as if having to work hard for something detracts from getting it. He's fond of saying that if he doesn't win the presidency, so be it; he can always go fishing. He's not fond of books, and he told a group of schoolchildren that you can get a gentleman's C and end up successful. He insists he can hire foreign policy expertise, as if he doesn't need to acquire it painstakingly on his own.
While his insouciance is part of his considerable charm--especially in contrast to an opponent who would not only ace the exam but also write an essay for extra credit--it is ALSo part of what gives voters pause. When the subject gets serious and Bush doesn't, you have to wonder whether a man so in love with certainty, so impatient with complexity, is ready for the grave duties of the presidency. That may be why he was willing to entertain doubt last week when he agreed for the first time in his record-setting 131 executions to grant a 30-day reprieve so that a more sophisticated DNA test of semen and hair samples could be performed in the rape and murder case of Ricky Nolen McGinn.
Before that Bush had asserted again and again that the Texas criminal-justice system had been infallible under him, despite the lightning speed at which executions are carried out, the lack of an adequate public-defender system, the closing of an office that aided inmates' appeals and a disturbingly high rate of innocence found in other states when death-penalty cases have been independently investigated. In 1999 Governor Bush vetoed a bill that would have modestly improved the quality of representation in criminal cases.
He has exuded nonchalance when challenged on the topic. He laughed during a debate in California when he was asked by CNN's Jeff Greenfield about a lawyer nodding off during a trial in which a man was sentenced to die. When Bush addressed the question, he said, "I'm absolutely confident that everybody that has been put to death is two things: one, they're guilty of the crime charged, and secondly, they had full access to our courts." When asked in the past what had been his biggest mistake in life, he didn't cite anything weightier than trading away Sammy Sosa from the Texas Rangers. Although he says he was quoted out of context, he was described in a profile as making fun of condemned murderer Karla Faye Tucker as if she were begging him to spare her life: "'Please,' Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'Don't kill me.'"