Presidential Showdown: “Southern Efficiency” vs. “Northern Charm”?

“This is a town where there are three pastimes: politics, sports, revenge.”
— Lawrence C. Moulter, describing Boston

“If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”
— General Philip Sheridan

“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”
— John F. Kennedy

There are few places that intrigue and intimidate as much as Texas. “Don’t mess with Texas”, is an oft quoted, partially funny/partially serious saying that warns of the influential powers of this vast stretch of land and the fierce loyalties of its devoted natives. Ya’ll are welcome to the family barbeque, but just because you get to wear a cowboy hat for a day and say “Howdy” doesn’t mean you’re worthy of Lone Star-state status.

So it’s odd that President George W. Bush, actually born in Connecticut (though later raised in Texas) to a historically well-known, Eastern-establishment dynasty, successfully managed to fashion himself as the tried-and-true Son of Texas. “Texas envy” is a phrase often attributed to Bush, but somewhere along the line, the envy vanished as Bush realized that despite his Northern roots, Texans had sensed his love for their state, and welcomed him and his good ol’ boy brand of politics with open arms to such an extent that he was soon elevated to governor. Not too shabby for a Yank. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In an interview with (March 2003), Michael Lind, author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic Books, December 2002) explained: “Despite its Western trappings, Texas has always been part of the South . . . ” Lind then describes Bush as “. . . a genuine Texan in his accent, his mannerisms . . . he is a run-of-mill example of the dominant social type in Texas, the Southern conservative.” For God, country, and Texas, eh? (Or should the order be reversed?)

Now, four years after the Texas governor claimed his spot in the Oval Office, he is poised in battle with a real Northerner, the Catholic (though in name only) Democrat from Massachusetts, Sen. John Forbes Kerry, a man frequently dubbed an aloof, wealthy, privileged Boston Brahmin. The real showdown for the presidency is not only between North vs. South, but also, an understated battle between highbrow and lowbrow; Yalie vs. Yalie; and Skull and Bonesman vs. Skull and Bonesman. And there lies the rub.

There has been much ballyhooing in the press as of late about the remarkable similarities between the two candidates. Both come from privileged backgrounds, attended private schools, and headed onto Yale, where both Kerry and Bush were tapped by the exclusive secret society, Skull and Bones, to join its ranks. A 60 Minutes profile (October 2003) about Skull and Bones reported that this ultra-powerful society, “apart from presidents, has included cabinet officers, spies, Supreme Court justices, statesmen . . . It’s a social and political network like no other.” But what happens when Bonesmen turn on each other?

Yale and Bones aside, Kerry and Bush are as different as night and day. Bush was the happy-go-lucky jock who merely coasted on mediocre grades and his family connections (which, surprisingly, later landed him in the MBA program at Harvard), while Kerry was the awe-inspirer and mesmerizing debater whose serious political ambitions were emerging in his student years. As fate would have it, Kerry was also inevitably haunted by his own initials (which eerily mirror those of a former Northern president). Writing in the New York Times (21 March 2004), John Tierney quotes former Yale student and Kerry acquaintance John Townsend as stating that: “It was obviously very much on his mind that his initials were J.F.K.”

Even physical images of Bush and Kerry depict two very different men. Bush’s box-like face and surprising bursts of laughter easily portray the down-home, former party boy with few intellectual ambitions who may have put his wild days behind him, but who still likes a good laugh and off-color crack now and then, and isn’t quite sure how he managed to end up where he is. The long-faced, serious, articulate Kerry, however, comes across as a statelier, more poised and serious Northern patrician who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bush projects a back-slapping “come on over for a barbeque” demeanor’ while Kerry seems to offer a reluctant, albeit formal, invitation for cocktails — only after he’s finished solving America’s problems, though.

Post-Yale, Kerry took the expected road, suited to his polished upbringing. He fought in Vietnam (garnering medals for bravery), then returned a jaded man who became a serious anti-war opponent, and from there sought a profession in law before paving his road to the Senate. On the flip side, Bush meandered for a long while, and in a bizarre fashion attempted to mirror his father’s footsteps. During the war, he was only a member of the Texas National Guard (later receiving an honorable discharge), then tried to make his way in the Texas oil business before turning his attention to politics — giving up drinking and “finding God” along the way.

With only a few months left until the 2004 Presidential Election, the back-and-forth bashing between the two is already in full swing. Bush’s team has already painted Kerry as an indecisive “waffler” who has frequently changed his opinion on critical issues, such as the war in Iraq. Another Bush team attack appears to be the frequent use of the “Massachusetts liberal” label, which harks the ghost of Dukakis past. As USA Today reported (17 February 2004), “President Bush’s campaign strategists believe ‘Massachusetts liberal’ is a potent political epithet.” In addition, to the “liberal” and “indecisive” tags, they have also punched Kerry where it hurts the most: regarding his Vietnam service, and his 180-degree turnaround after his return from Vietnam.

Kerry has yet to hit back in typical down-and-dirty fashion, but his blatant choices for retort are the current economic woes — mainly the dismal employment situation— and the unavoidable stink rising from the aftermath of the Iraq invasion (other issues will inevitably surface as the election countdown escalates). He also has his admirable war record to go on, which could add a notch for any potential Commander-in-Chief. In another interesting aside, BBC NewsClive Myrie also reported (8 March 2004) that Kerry has expressed that various world leaders have confided in him that they are eager to see Bush step aside. Surprise, surprise. But world approval for Kerry may not necessarily spell victory amongst his own people.

On that note, Kerry’s “international” wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, could be either a dealmaker or breaker for the presidential hopeful. Born in Africa to Portuguese parents, she met and married millionaire Republican Senator John Heinz III (of the Heinz ketchup fame), and later inherited his millions when he died. Having married the divorced Kerry in 1995, Teresa has been dubbed as a “wild card” in the press, an often too blunt and say-as-I-please potential first lady who, in a not-too-obvious fashion, mirrors Hillary Rodham Clinton. Also in her forthrightness and strong force in her husband’s campaign, and in her international flair, she bears similarity to Jackie Kennedy. [A recent Newsweek story (3 May 2004) questioned: “Is John Kerry’s Heiress Wife a Loose Cannon — Or Crazy Like a Fox?”]

In addition, the Kerrys are a family of divorce (and despite the Reagans, whose past histories didn’t faze voters), many Americans are still puritanical about this topic and weigh in on a strong family foundation when casting their votes. Kerry’s children and stepchildren have all proved supportive so far, but when push comes to shove, the larger-than-life presence of the united Bush clan may prove a tad daunting.

After eight years of Hillary, Americans have grown accustomed to the more sedate Laura Bush, the quiet, behind-the-scenes Texas teacher/librarian with old-fashioned values whose cause célèbre is literacy, and who has largely gained respect for turning around her hard-drinking, aimless husband and putting him on the path where he stands today. Teresa Kerry’s Continental panache, isn’t as — how shall we say? — “American” as Laura Bush’s; a factor which will be met by approval from the international community, but has started to plague the worldly, fluent French-speaking John Kerry (who was educated at Swiss schools) in what was dubbed by The New Yorker (19-26 April issue) as “Kerry’s French problem.”

However, don’t forget what the French connection did for JFK and his wife, Jackie. Given the US’ current standing in the world, an international-savvy president could do wonders in restoring American glory, and Kerry should bank on this. But JFK also had a great deal of charm, which Kerry needs to copy from Bush, whose Southern-rooted charm and capability for invoking emotion (e.g., during the 9/11 tragedy) is his strong suit. And Bush needs to recall his commendable moment of 9/11 greatness, and re-evaluate his current “efficiency” — or lack thereof, particularly in the areas of the economy and the Iraq mess — and unfortunate downplaying of intellectual awareness (especially in the diplomatic arena), and borrow some of Kerry’s know-how in this regard.

The record for the number of Southern vs. Northern presidents currently stands at around 50-50, so the odds are even. November 4th is only a blink of an eye away, and the inevitable messy political fight is yet to escalate. Gentlemen: Start your engines.