You Gotta Have Heart

A couple of days before the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush predicted he would be president "if the people of this country take a look and say, 'We trust his judgment; we trust his decision-making capabilities; and most importantly, we trust his heart.'"

Hearts - yours, his, ours - are sprinkled liberally through Bush campaign speeches.

A sampling from the stump:

  • "I want the great American dream to touch every willing heart."
  • "A good heart is so important in our society."
  • "The great strength of our country lies in the hearts and souls of our citizens."
  • "Societies change one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time."
  • In stump speeches and extemporaneous remarks, Bush is trying to win voters' hearts with an expression that's shorthand for his own character and intentions, a signal of inclusion and, sometimes, a high compliment.

    Dallas Morning News reporter Bill Minutaglio said Texas - not famous for bleeding hearts - has listened to Bush's heartbeat for years.

    Bush's reelection campaign for Texas governor, he said, was "a precursor to the presidential bid: he was trying out, auditioning different lines in '98 that would play on a national level." For example, observed Minutaglio "'compassionate conservatism', 'I've got a good heart' and introducing people by saying, 'He's got a good heart.'"

    "He sincerely believes he is a compassionate person," said Minutaglio, the author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty. "The thing to remember about Bush is he likes to be perceived as spontaneous - and he is, one-on-one. But onstage, he doesn't veer from the script. So the words are very measured and are there for a purpose."

    So the governor knows exactly what he's saying. But what do voters hear?

    Wayne Fields, who studies presidential rhetoric and directs the American cultural studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, finds heart a "multipurpose" and "conveniently mobile term" for Bush.

    Heart is "a useful term for him because it connects three areas that preoccupy him," said Fields. "It has a link with the whole issue of compassion ... It is also common to religious vocabulary, the kind of evangelical Christian community that he identifies with. The third linkage is the way athletes use the term 'heart' - someone who will not be beaten down, who will stay in and fight."
    It's also a way to defuse what Bush's father might call "the privilege thing." Said Fields, "Some of it has to do with class." Bush, he said, is signaling, "I may have gone to Yale and joined Skull & Bones but I have heart too, not just connections."

    Voters never heard more about Bush's heart than when he was on the ropes over his visit to Bob Jones University, a gaffe that GOP primary rival John McCain exploited to suggest Bush condones religious bigotry.

    Bush defended himself on several news shows, his heart racing. "People who know me know my heart," he told CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante. To ABC and PBS: "People know my heart." To Fox: "I know where my heart is."

    He even had supporters saying it. "This is a man with a good heart," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

    "It's a way to get out of a tight spot by saying 'I won't address specifics. I am just going to stand on my emotional appeal,'" said Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist and best-selling author. "The positive interpretation would be it's a way of saying it's who you are underneath that counts. But in an election, in a public debate, no one knows anybody's heart."

    Fields concurs, "It's a 'trust me' argument."

    Baring his heart seems a necessary part of the Bush campaign strategy: love me, love my agenda. Asked in Pennsylvania if he was concerned if people think he's cocky and arrogant, Bush replied, "Only thing I know to do is lay out my heart, talk about what I believe in and see what people say. Share my heart and talk about my positions."

    Whoa. "Share my heart and talk about my positions are two different things," said Tannen. "He's trying to blend them into one so that sharing my heart can substitute for taking positions. His positions are vague but if he's sharing his heart..." Well, don't sweat the details.

    Minutaglio thinks Bush's lexicon is both real feeling and realpolitik. "He is making an open appeal for voters who hadn't voted for his father and haven't voted Republican before, and it's also an honest reflection of his personality."

    At a California school in April, seated beside Latino teaching hero Jaime Escalante, the candidate himself put it this way: "I've got a record. But I've got work to do primarily because there are some who say, y'know, 'He's a Republican, therefore, el no tiene el corazon': He doesn't have a heart." Changing those minds, said Bush, is "what the campaign's about. And that's what I'm gonna to do."

    Tannen sees something else going on. "It is a subtle demagoguery. Not what usually comes to mind from that word - shouting and stumping - but a way to sway people on an emotional level rather than convincing them on the rational level."
    Apparently, Bush is comfortable with voters peering into his heart. After all, some primary voters liked what they saw in there. The night of his big primary win in South Carolinam, Bush said, "I think in some of the earlier states I didn't do a good job of defining who I was, but people now in this state know I've got a good heart."

    While Bush frequently introduces favorite colleagues as a "friend" or a "good man" or a "great leader," he doesn't give his heart to just anyone. And with good reason. In Iowa, Bush said of his brother, the Florida governor "Jeb's a good leader, he's got a good heart."

    But the only other pol to get the election-year coronary compliment broke the GOP's heart: "The next United States senator from New York. He's a man of good heart: Rudy Giuliani."