Son Exposure

A Charge To Keep, by George W. Bush with Karen Hughes (William Morrow). Cloth, $23.

THIS CAMPAIGN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, written by Gov. Bush and his communications director Karen Hughes, is organized not chronologically but thematically, around the traits the candidate believes illuminate his character and leadership style. Brief forays into his personal past include a few anecdotes about his childhood, education, marriage, family life, and Christian "rebirth." He is endearing on the subject of baseball. However, Bush focuses on a few notable controversies during his administration in Austin.

He discusses at length his views on the reform of public education in Texas, his veto of the Patient Protection Act, and his handling of the death sentences of Karla Faye Tucker and Henry Lee Lucas. Another interesting chapter in Charge discusses his approach to gubernatorial appointments to the executive staff, to state boards and agencies, and to judicial office.

Bush hopes that his treatment of these topics will allow voters to envision the tenor and substance of a Bush presidency. Because of the persistent reversion to saccharine pieties and the lack of anything resembling a systematic philosophy of governance, this vision is achieved only by implication. But there is enough substance in his case studies to draw a few inferences confidently.

In general, Bush believes that people--especially the young--are more effectively motivated by the stick than the carrot. He applies his "tough love" nostrums not just to underachieving students and juvenile delinquents, but to certain groups of "intellectual" professionals. He is transparently contemptuous of teachers and school administrators, and when doctors were pitted against insurance companies on his watch, he seemed more confident of the disinterested good will of the HMOs than of the physicians.

Indeed, a distinct bias toward business interests and business methods as the objectives of good government appears to be Bush's deepest understanding of political conservatism. This makes somewhat problematic his unnuanced devotion to "personal responsibility," the moral ground note he strikes repeatedly. His ideas about self-help, loyalty, and communities of faith-based philanthropy are appealing, and his notion that they comprise compassion seems sincere; but there lurks in the background a vacuum of understanding about lives less advantaged than his own.

Consequently, huge blind spots emerge. Critical areas of public policy are ignored--the environment, the simultaneous growth and disintegration of American cities, the realities underlying racial hatred, and other concerns. While market forces and individual initiative may be harnessed to help address these persistent and worsening problems, Bush's conception of the role of government in the process seems no more sophisticated than that of a precocious high school Young Republican.

This impression may result in part from a stylistic decision by the ghost writer to pitch this campaign document at a low level of rhetorical discourse, but an inquiring mind will be left with more questions than answers.