West Wing Story: The Two Faces Of George W.

I'm confused about the Bush administration's image management leading up to yesterday's speech: Is George W. Bush an Eastern establishment businessman or a Texas populist who's gonna kick some corporate butt?

Last weekend, we followed our president to Kennebunkport, Maine, where he spent his birthday weekend with his parents and much of the Bush clan. He stayed at the family estate, Walker's Point, fished on his dad's boat, the Fidelity II, played some hypercompetitive "aerobic golf" and did what other rich, preppy Northeasterners do this time of year: they summer.

For a president who didn't want to appear too chummy with the country-club set he was supposed to pummel in his speech this week, it seemed like an odd choice. Now, the president has a right to some R&R. Certainly, the press corps was only too happy to eat lobster rolls in the Maine breeze rather than chicken-fried-everything in the Crawford broil. But yesterday's speech was probably his most important-at least on domestic issues-since the State of the Union. Its goal was a daunting one: to convince America that he is on the side of corporate reform without calling too much attention to his own business dealings back in Texas.

The criticism always leveled at Bush the Candidate was that he rode his name to fame and wealth, that his business success was due to family connections and well-heeled friends-not because of his own acumen. A reporter once asked him if he thought he'd be running for president if his name was George Walker. "We'll never know," he said, rightly. Last weekend's outing didn't do much to bolster the impression of Bush as his own man. His dad drove their golf cart, his mom told him to take his feet off the table and everyone in Kennebunkport referred to the president as "Junior" and his father as "president."

Then on Monday, his handlers decided he should hold a press conference the day before the speech. The reason they gave was that Congress was getting back from its July 4th recess and Bush wanted to stir them to action before their August break. But the real reason-and there always is a real reason-was that aides wanted Bush to dismiss the inquiries about his own business dealings before the speech. That way no one could accuse him of a lack of transparency-the accusation he would level at corporate execs in his speech.

But Bush seemed to make things worse. There was a predictable barrage of questions about his own involvement in Harken Energy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At one point, a reporter asked Bush about the sale of a subsidiary (the profit from which was used to offset losses but then later wiped off the books due to SEC pressure). Defensive and angry throughout much of the press conference, Bush replied: "All I can tell you is, is that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures."

Reporters in the briefing room tittered. Isn't that exactly the problem you're supposed to fix, they seemed to be asking. For a man who does see the world in black and white when it comes to the war on terrorism and Yasir Arafat, it was a big gaffe. It was also a good sound bite for the Democrats, who quickly started using it against him. From the podium, Bush glared at the snickering reporters. Maybe he should have been glaring at his handlers.

The thing they got right-at least tonally-was his speech Tuesday. There have been times during Enron and the morass of other corporate scandals when Bush has tried to champion the shareholder. His mother-in-law, for example, lost several thousand dollars on Enron, he told us almost casually during a factory tour several months ago. Of course, aides had encouraged him to divulge that unfortunate if politically convenient fact. But it would have sounded false if Bush, who is worth as much as $30 million, had tried to play the outsider on Wall Street yesterday. He was not there to speak for the little guy but to the big guy. Guys-and a few gals-like him.

His tone was one you'd take when you are disappointed in a friend, a friend who you really want to keep. "We need men and women of character, who know the difference between ambition and destructive greed, between justified risk and irresponsibility, between enterprise and fraud," Bush told the business leaders at the Regent Wall Street Hotel ballroom. He was talking to the kind of people he went to Harvard Business School with-those trained to lead companies, and, it turns out, countries. He called on corporate titans to "set a moral tone." Of the few specifics he called for in his speech, he asked CEOs to personally vouch for their companies' financial statements. "When you sign a statement, you're pledging your word, and you should stand behind it," Bush said.

For Bush, the business world is full of mostly good people whose handshake should be enough to close a deal. Like in Kennebunkport, raw competition is left on the golf course. When Bush was in Midland, Texas, in the 1970s, much of the oil business was also conducted on faith. Who needed rules and regulations when you had trust between friends? Bush's message to CEOs shows he believes in people over government to regulate excess. It also reveals that, to him, business really is an elite club. Despite the image he likes to project of a scrappy wildcatter, Bush always has been a member of the Northeast establishment. Much of the money invested in Midland, after all, came from Wall Street.