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Why vote when you don't have to?

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If only because they got paid to, something like seven-tenths of 1 percent of the eligible voters in one state have spoken, but because they have, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has apparently won the presidential nomination of the Republican Party.

Not a moment too soon for this culture.

In just 11 long weeks, the election will be only a year away. It's practically history. Is Philadelphia still planning to host the Republican National Convention next August? Better the First Union Center had been promised to the monster truck crowd for that week. At least they've got a clear message, specifically that the people's right to waste fuel and make noise in preposterous proportions shall not be abridged.

The Iowa straw vote, once a quaint Republican publicity stunt but now a spasm of media burlesque that somehow fails to highlight the need for campaign finance reform, has triggered fitful analysis in much the way Steelers exhibition games are framed with the kind of urgency that should make people scuttle their Super Bowl plans the minute the club launches its first punt into a summer sky.

Even though seven of every 10 participating Iowa Republicans voted for someone other than Bush last weekend, the front-runner's 31 percent showing got spun into "a convincing victory" in a field fractured by various political pathologies like Pat Buchanan, the national smokestack, and Dan Quayle, the immutable archival evidence that Bush's president dad had a sense of humor.

"I don't think Bush can lose this [the nomination]," gushed Fox's Bill O'Reilly, "unless he does something extremely bad."

You know, like say something substantive about his vision for America.

I mean, if you're the front-runner without having said anything deeper than what appears in the published ponderings of Millie Bush, the late former first dog, then why dare get down to cases?

What is meant by "extremely bad" would be more likely some kind of political mess or sprung-from-the-closet social skeleton that will have the media jackals gnawing ravenously on Bush's ill-defined character.

On Monday, the first potential mess got wheels. A Texas auditing body dispatched an overseer to look into the workings of the Texas Funeral Service Commission after its director claimed she was fired for investigating a funeral home chain that contributed to Bush and his father.

Not exactly a semen-stained blue dress, admittedly, but it has some interesting threads.

Service Corporation International (SCI), the globe's biggest funeral home conglomerate, is headed by Houston mortician Robert Waltrip, who reportedly contributed $100,000 toward the construction of George Bush's presidential library and some $45,000 to the younger Bush's political campaigns. When the Funeral Service Commission launched an investigation of SCI (which resulted in a fine of nearly a half-million dollars), operatives in the governor's office are alleged to have pressured the agency to back off.

The state agency's director, Eliza May (inconveniently one of the state's leading Democrats), was eventually fired after she was allegedly pressured by Joe Allbaugh, then Bush's chief of staff and now the director of his presidential campaign. May is suing, and although Bush is not named as a defendant, May wants to call him as a witness. Bush's lawyers will be in court a week from Monday to explain why that is mere "harassment."

And still, in the current media climate, the so-called funeral-home flap has less sizzle than Whitewater, which couldn't do more than leak all over Ken Starr's pathetic hot plate and short-circuit the special prosecutor law. Unless the Dallas Morning News, for example, can show that Bush and Allbaugh sent Waltrip and his apprentices out into the Texas woods with instructions to embalm each other at the behest of a century-old witch, I think most of America will just continue to be force-fed the same old infotainment.

For the Democrats, it's just as well. Though Bush is unabashedly over-financed and thus a worthy vote-getting machine, his squishy intellect will ultimately be exposed in direct comparison to either Al Gore or Bill Bradley. America, it says here 15 months ahead of time, will make do with the legacy of one Bush presidency. George was chuckly, Millie was an author, and Barbara did a fine job as the mascot of the Robert Morris Colonials.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com .

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