By MARSHA MERCER
Media General News Service
November 11, 2005
WASHINGTON - "Here at the White House, we get an interesting mix of visitors," President Bush said.
"Already today I've met with the secretary of state, secretary of defense and the Dalai Lama - and the sheriff of Mayberry."
This is why I don't write fiction. I could never imagine a line that good.
You'd have to be the J.K. Rowling of political potboilers to make up a president who loses his magic powers in 12 short months. Or to create a believable story of a governor's race with as many twists and turns as the one in Virginia last week.
How's this: On Election Eve, the race is neck-and-neck. The Republican president, who took 54 percent of the vote in the state just a year earlier, swoops in for an airport rally, aimed at firing up the faithful for one more mission to the polls.
The next day, it's not even close. The candidate who's a pro-life Catholic and former missionary, the one who speaks openly about his faith, wins handily. But he's the Democrat. Ooops.
President Bush has had plenty of practice dealing with disappointment. He has the Alfred E. Newman "What me worry?" attitude down.
And so, while his press secretary spun the Democratic gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey as state contests and nothing more, the president carried on.
Bush was playful as he welcomed the 14 winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, to the White House. Yes, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, aka Andy Griffith, was an honoree.
Among the others: boxer Muhammad Ali, singer Aretha Franklin, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, baseball great Frank Robinson and entertainer Carol Burnett.
"Looking back on his Mayberry days," Bush said, "Andy explained the timeless appeal of the show. He said, 'It was about love. Barney would set himself up for a fall, and Andy would be there to catch him.' "
In Mayberry, political intrigue centers on Aunt Bee running for the town council and Andy supporting her opponent.
In real life, speaking of Mayberry, John DiIulio, Bush's former director of faith-based programs, raised a furor when he said in an interview in the January 2003 Esquire magazine that in the White House politics trumped policy in "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
The administration boiled everything down to simple, black-and-white solutions, he said, and then steered policies to the political right.
Many Democrats want to believe that last week's off-year election victories are a sign that Republicans will suffer big losses in the 2006 congressional races. There's talk of Virginia and New Jersey as canaries in the political coal mine. Maybe, so, but a cautionary note is in order. Remember last year.
Last November, political analysts were awestruck by Bush's re-election victory. Analysts were abuzz about Bush's mandate. The voters had spoken - and they said it was time to overhaul Social Security. Or so Republicans assured us.
The president talked about the political capital he was going to spend.
It hasn't worked out that way. Social Security is off the table. Iraq is a mess. The White House is trying to get back in the public's good graces with talk of security, education, the economy and high energy costs.
If he carried a wallet, which he doesn't, Bush would have emptied what was left of his political capital in Richmond Election Eve 2005. He flew straight from Panama to the rally for Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore hours before the Virginia polls opened.
The next day, Kilgore lost to Democrat Tim Kaine by 6 points.
Bush not only didn't help. He may have energized more Democrats and independents to go to the polls.
This president is not given to introspection or to second-guessing himself. He's not one to worry about the cosmic meaning of CIA leaks, White House staff indictments or a couple of Democratic victories.
Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman, said the contests were merely "status quo" votes, affirming party choices Virginia and New Jersey made in 2001. And McClellan even suggested that Kaine wasn't a real Democrat.
"In Virginia," McClellan said, "You had a candidate, Democratic candidate for governor, who ran on a conservative platform, a platform that was very much out of line with the Democratic national party."
McClellan even avoided saying that Bush was disappointed by Kilgore's loss.
A lot of people probably wish Washington had more Mayberry and less Machiavelli.