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Here are some things that Christopher Nunneley, a conservative activist in Birmingham, Alabama, believes. That some time in June, apparently unnoticed by the world media, George Bush negotiated an end to the civil war in Sudan. That Bill Clinton is "lazy" and Teresa Heinz Kerry is an "African colonialist." That "we don't do torture," and that the School of the Americas manuals showing we do were "just ancient U.S. disinformation designed to make the Soviets think that we didn't know how to do real interrogations."
Chris Nunneley also believes something crazy: that George W. Bush is a nice guy.
It's a rather different conclusion than many liberals would make. When we think of Bush's character, we're likely to focus on the administration's proposed budget cuts for veterans, the children indefinitely detained at Abu Ghraib, maybe the story of how the young lad Bush loaded up live frogs with firecrackers in order to watch them explode.
Conservatives see it differently.
"He's very compassionate," says Chris, an intelligent man who's open-minded enough to make listening to liberals a sort of hobby. "If you look at the way he's bucked the far right: I mean, $15 billion for AIDS in Africa!" He speaks at the church services of blacks, and "you don't fake that. That's not just a photo op."
Of course, two years after Bush made his pledge, only 2 percent of the AIDS money has been distributed (in any event, it will mainly go to drug companies). And appearing earnest in the presence of African Americans has been a documented Bush strategy for wooing moderate voters since the beginning.
So what does a conservative say when such "nice guy" jazz is challenged? Say, when you ask whether a nice guy would invade a country at the cost of untold innocent lives on the shakiest of pretenses? Or, closer to home, whether he would (as Bush did in late 2000) go on a fishing trip while his daughter was undergoing surgery, and use the world's media to mockingly order her to clean her room while he was away? Doesn't signify with Chris. "If you're in one camp, the idea of being firm, 'tough love,' is very popular. If you're in another, you can say, 'Well, that's just mean!' On my side, well, I like the whole idea of 'tough love.' "
This is a journey among the "tough love" camp. The people who, even in the face of evidence of his casual cruelty, of his habitual and unchristian contempt for weakness, love George Bush unconditionally: love him when he is tender, love him when he is toughbut who never, ever are tough on him.
On July 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign organized 6,925 "Parties for the President" in supporters' homes nationwide. I chose to attend in Portland, Oregon. The right love to believe the whole world is against them. In a county where Ralph Nader got a quarter of the votes of George Bush and Al Gore well over double, the sense of martyrdom is especially fragrant: Portland's conservatives are like others anywhere, only more so. One leader told me that here, it's the conservatives who are oppressed by the gays.
They certainly love them some George Bush.
Twelve people gather on the houseboat of Bruce Broussard, a perennially failed candidate popular among local conservatives for, well, his race: He is African American. First the group hears Laura Bush on a conference call. ("All of us know what makes George a great president. He has the courage of his convictions, the willingness to make the tough decisions and stick with them.") Then, they get a bewilderingly disjointed address from their host (he hits some key points from his recent Senate platform: presidential terms of six years instead of four, a cabinet-level Department of Senior Citizens with himself as secretary). Finally, beef-and-cheese dip loading down a plateful of Mrs. Broussard's homemade tortilla chips, I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.
Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it's too obvious to take seriously. "Honesty. Truth. Integrity," he says upon recovering. "I don't think there's any difference between the governor of Texas and the president of the United States."
Gingerly, I offer one difference: The governor ran for president on a platform of balanced budgets, then ran the federal budget straight into the red.
Responds Larry (of the first president since James Garfield with a Congress compliant enough never to issue a single veto): "Well, it's interesting that we blame the person who happens to be president for the deficit. As if he has any control over the legislature of the United States."
Larry's wife, Tami Mars, the Republican congressional nominee for Oregon's third district, proposes a Divine Right of Eight-Year Terms: "Let the man finish what he started. Instead of switching out his leadershipbecause that's what the terrorists are expecting."
Larry is asked what he thinks of Bush's budget cuts for troops in the field. He's not with Bush on everything: "I hope he reverses himself on that."
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