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W is for wink

Michael Sandler (St. Petersburg Times) -- A wink has come to Washington.

Have you noticed it? In a city where wingtips and blue blazers fashion the trend from Farragut West to Eastern Market, a certain interloper has brought a timeless sign of charm and cheese.

Perhaps that "W" stands for something other than Walker.

A flash of the eyelid surfaced nationally last year by way of Texas. A fluttering lash has since made its way into the White House. When President Bush takes the podium, he's not afraid to offer a wink and a smile during speeches, press outings and photo ops.

George W., the first winker.

"You can't help but notice it," says Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio).

Ah, the many winks of George W. Bush.

Colleagues interpret them as a sign of confidence and bonhomie. Critics dismiss them as the stylings of a brash fraternity boy turned leader of the free world.

Call them strategic. Call them corny. Call them just plain embarrassing to watch.

But two things are certain: Our president is a winker, and we can expect plenty of winks during the next four years.

"It's just a way he acknowledges you are there," says Ken Herman, Washington correspondent for the Austin American-Statesman. "If he sees someone he knows, he does not let it go unnoticed."

Those of us in the public don't miss much either, especially when it comes to the president.

President watching has become sport in America. From the moment Franklin Roosevelt jauntily clenched a cigarette holder between his teeth, the nation began studying and analyzing the man. The rise of mass media, particularly television, changed the way we view our leaders. Now, the president's legacy can depend largely on physical presentation, perhaps more so than political action.

Nixon lost sweating profusely and won poking the air with peace signs. Ford fell from grace after tripping in public. The nation mocked Carter's Southern accent and embraced Reagan's pauses after pronouncing his patented "well."

We read the senior George Bush's lips. We monitored Bill Clinton's Diet Cokes.

Now we watch Dubya wink.

"He knows what he is doing, but he is sincere about it," says Wentworth, the Texas state senator who has known the Bush family since 1966, when the elder Bush recommended him for his first staff campaign job. Wentworth met the younger Bush in 1986 and worked closely with him when Bush was governor of Texas.

"Every individual who has held presidency of the United States is a unique individual, and that's who George Bush is, and I wouldn't change it," he says.

Winkers abound in public life. Paul Newman, Pat Buchanan and Ted Turner have all been known to do it. Harry Lee Coe, the former state attorney from Tampa who took his own life last year, was expert at making supporters feel special by tipping a wink across a crowded room.

And now, a White House winker.

With his penchant for nicknames and folksy dialogue, Bush has introduced a casual manner to Washington that is refreshing to some and unpresidential to others.

When making his point, he often scans the audience for a familiar face. When their eyes meet, he lets loose with a wink. Observers say that's his way of making a connection with the group and delivering his point.

"His strength is retail politics," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

"He himself is more comfortable when things are on a friendly, informal basis, rather than confrontational, angry or sober. He noticed right away it makes other people more comfortable and increases their tendency to like him, which is a huge political resource."

But it can be tough dealing with a diverse nation of nearly 300-million people. The president's face is open to the public's scrutiny, and as with all politics, people don't always agree.

"His face looks to me kind of inflexible, as if he was kind of locked in," said Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "I would have described his face as all screwed up, and a wink is part of that -- like he just ate a lemon. I don't feel you get to the heart of the man."

Those who know him say that's just Bush, a man who grew up in the political spotlight even before embracing his own career in politics.

"He's always been a guy who's standing behind someone else who's talking," said Herman, the reporter who began covering Bush in 1993. He has followed Bush from baseball entrepreneur to governor to president.

"If he's not mugging (for) them, there's some unspoken gesture or fidgeting. It's not bad behavior. He's just a fidgety guy who does not like to stand still for very long."

Bush is a man possessed of both Texas charm and Ivy League locker room braggadocio. Those who like his style accept his wink. Those who don't question it.

"It's in the eye of the beholder," said Herman. "There are some people who think he's a cocky, arrogant man, and that confirms it. And there are some people who think he is a confident man who is on track."

That just comes with being president.

"If winking is all he does, I think we are in pretty good shape," says John Thrasher, the former Florida House Speaker and a Bush acquaintance.

"By the time you get elected president, you've got some habits. I think he is particularly comfortable around people he knows."

So can we expect to see more winking in Washington?

"I think if another politician tried winking at people in the audience," says Wentworth, "they'd say he's trying to be George W."

(c) 2001 St. Petersburg Times

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