Learn a thing or two from Chilly Willy

In the 1980s, Robert Fulghum stirred the publishing world with his blockbuster book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I may try to duplicate Fulgham’s success.

In the 1980s, Robert Fulghum stirred the publishing world with his blockbuster book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I may try to duplicate Fulgham’s success.

My copycat book — All I Need to Know I Learned From Reality TV — will be a fresh take on the self-help genre. And as soon as the first copy comes off the presses, I’m going to mail it to President Bush.

Actually, I’m kidding about the book. But I do have some thoughts on likability gleaned from reality TV that I might share with the president.

Because it’s really important that Bush’s job approval and favorable ratings get better, we all need to brainstorm. The hopes and fears of many Republican candidates may hinge on the president’s standing in the polls come November, so I’m looking everywhere for inspiration.

While watching an episode of one of the best reality shows, “The King of Cars” on A&E, I learned a few things about handling negative perceptions. The king of cars is the Chopper, a former rapper running Towbin Dodge in Las Vegas. Chop’s general sales manager is Will Tooros, an Armenian-born immigrant also known as Chilly Willy. These guys know how to “move metal.”

But Towbin’s sales staff also knows that being a car salesman is a lot like being a politician with low poll numbers. As Tooros noted recently, customers loathe car salesmen. The cameras routinely catch buyers treating Chilly Willy with Howard Dean-like contempt.

But rather than bemoaning such treatment, Tooros accepts his customers’ disdain as a challenge. He embraces the quest of getting customers to like him. The sales manager finds common ground such as family or past work experiences to bond with the customer and be liked.

George Bush is probably as likable and down-to-earth as any human being who has ever occupied the Oval Office, but too often that reality doesn’t seem to come through. I was reminded of the problem while watching his immigration speech. Prominently over his right shoulder was a picture of daughters, Jenna and Barbara. For millions who share fatherhood with the president, this simple connection could be something that sparks camaraderie and amity with the first father.

But the twins haven’t been seen much lately. I went back and checked. Using the Factiva database of U.S. and international newspaper archives, I found that there were 1,886 articles mentioning Jenna Bush between January 2001 and May 15, 2002, during the president’s first 16 months in office. During the past 16 months there were only 806 articles, a decline of more than 50 percent.

The best rhetoric of Bush’s immigration speech was his personal mentions of immigrant parents and grandparents and his visit with Guadalupe Denogean, a wounded Marine master gunnery sergeant. It poignantly reminded every American of a Mexican immigrant whom they know who gives more than they get from this country. These intimate touches enhanced the likeability of Bush and his message more than the detailed points of his proposals.

I’m not suggesting that the president should cynically exploit his family or wounded Marine immigrants for political gain. But when Americans see the president as a compassionate family man it helps build bonds with voters. If such bonds can make consumers trust car salesmen like Chilly Willy, there’s no reason they won’t build faith in a principled president, too. And like car buyers, most voters are more likely to be moved by Bush’s likability than by his descriptions of border surveillance and the technology behind temporary-worker IDs.

The specifics are better left to others. Let the president be one with us.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.