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Playing mystery guest roulette


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001

WASHINGTON -- If it seems George W. Bush is crafting his presidency by the numbers, that's because he has decided to borrow virtually all of the successful strategies of recent presidents.

Among them are the Saturday radio address, inviting members of Congress to watch movies with the first family in the White House theater and getting to know reporters on a first-name basis.

For that reason, we should not be surprised if Bush invites a so-called "mystery guest" to sit in the audience with his family on Tuesday night when he delivers his first speech to a joint session of Congress.

The mystery guest is something invented by Ronald Reagan and copied by both Bush's father and Bill Clinton. Supposedly, it is someone whose life story exemplifies an important point that the president is trying to make in his speech. But in truth, it usually represents an attempt by the president to trade on the fame or accomplishment of someone else.

For impact, it has been traditional for the White House to keep the identity of the mystery guest under wraps until shortly before the speech. That is why we do not know who Bush's first one will be.

The most predictable choice of a mystery guest Tuesday night would be members of a typical middle class family that will benefit from Bush's proposed tax cut. It could be a single mother, which Bush relied upon so heavily during the campaign. Unfortunately, the choice of a single mother is more difficult now because the Bush White House has finally realized many low-income women get no benefit from his tax cut because they pay no income taxes.

The other sure-fire choice of a good mystery guest -- one that would help Bush identify with real people -- is a family member of the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. I certainly would not rule that out.

At the same time, this would be a good opportunity for Bush to honor some of the people who helped get him where he is today. The first name that leaps to mind is Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state, whose post-election rulings helped him win the election.

Inviting Harris might be overkill, however, since members of the U.S. Supreme Court are already going to be in the audience. Bush could ask the five justices whose votes made him president to move up into the House gallery with the first family.

Still, there are many others who deserve Bush's gratitude.

His mother, Barbara Bush, could be thanked for bringing him into the world. She also deserves some credit for bearing the brunt of the president's seemingly endless supply of jokes designed to portray her as a taskmaster who continues to treat him as if he were an errant child. Another great mystery guest who has helped enhance Bush's career is fugitive investor Marc Rich. If President Clinton had not pardoned Rich and a number of other seemingly undeserving folks, the American people certainly would not be as overwhelmingly grateful as they are to have a new president.

There is also some risk in inviting Rich, of course. Judging from the incredibly egotistical statement he issued from his hideaway in Switzerland the other day, Rich might mistakenly assume he was being asked to give the speech. This could be precisely the kind of triumphal welcome home celebration that Rich has been anticipating since he fled in 1983.

A safer choice might be Hugh Rodham, Sen. Hillary Clinton's brother. They could probably get him to come for just a few thousand dollars. Now that he has been forced to return the $400,000 he received for lobbying on behalf of pardon-seekers, he's going to be mighty grateful for that Bush tax cut.

You'll notice I haven't yet mentioned the names of either former President Clinton or former Vice President Al Gore as possible mystery guests, even though they certainly contributed to putting George W. in the White House.

That's because I cannot decide which one of them did more to elect a Republican president. Was it Clinton's shocking behavior that convinced Americans they'd rather have a son of one of history's dullest presidents in charge? Or was it Gore with his "I am better and smarter than you" attitude that convinced them that it would be far preferable to have someone of average intelligence in the Oval Office?

Alas, while the long list of people who helped put Bush in the White House offers many intriguing possibilities for a mystery guest, too many of them seem to be Democrats. If Bush insists on a Republican, that will be harder.

So stay tuned. The speech begins on national television at 9 p.m. Tuesday. The mystery guest usually is called upon within the first 20 minutes.

Recent coverage

President clearly uneasy in first news conference (February 23, 2001)

Wealthy activists working to save estate tax (February 21, 2001)

Democrats unveil more modest tax plan (February 16, 2001)

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