Bush's Move Up to the Majors
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 31, 1999; Page A1
Last of a series
George W. Bush was going to be without a job the day after his father was elected president in 1988, but he knew one thing for sure: He had to get out of Washington.
"He wanted to do something on his own," recalls Roland Betts, Bush's Yale fraternity brother and friend of 35 years. "It was time."
But time for what?
Serving as a paid campaign adviser to his father for 18 months had given Bush new confidence in his own political acumen. He had helped get a president elected. His father had relied on his advice.
Joe O'Neill had visited the Bushes and heard his friend's complaints about Washington, but he noticed something else. "He loved the arena," he said. "He liked the action, the game . . . being in on it."
With the governor's race in Texas only two years away, Bush was tempted to become a candidate himself. But he hadn't come close to laying the groundwork – politically or personally – for such a big leap. There was, for one thing, the question of personal resources. He had made a nice deal for himself when he sold out his small oil business to Harken Energy a few years earlier, but did he have enough of a nest egg to turn his life over to public service?
More important, he was aware that, at 42, he had yet to establish an identity separate from his father's, that he had not answered the question – as he later put it – of "what's the boy ever done?"
So when a former business partner phoned Bush shortly before the 1988 election to gauge his interest in putting together a group to buy the Texas Rangers, the Major League Baseball team that played in the Dallas suburbs, Bush's response was enthusiastic. It was a prospect that could give him the financial security he sought and the stature and visibility he needed if he ever hoped to launch a political career.
For the first time in his life, Bush had a career plan. And to carry it out, he could draw on the self-discipline he had developed after giving up drinking in 1986 and the spark and enthusiasm his father's winning campaign had instilled in him.
"He's always possessed an amazing amount of energy," said his younger brother Marvin, "but today I think he's learned how to channel that energy in positive ways."
At the same time, Bush was following a familiar pattern. Once again, his name and his family connections would provide him with an unusual opportunity. But this time, he seized it and made it his own. The baseball team would propel him to the Texas governor's office and onto the national stage.
At 48, George W. Bush finally reconciled the expectations the world had placed on him with the success he had long sought.
Cutting His Teeth
For years Bush had played a minor role in his father's political career, available to campaign sporadically, on hand for election nights. But when the oil industry collapsed in 1986, just as his father was beginning another run for president, the timing seemed right to do something more ambitious. The idea had come the year before, not from his father but from one of his father's aides.
The Bush family had gathered at Camp David in April 1985 to hear from Lee Atwater, the talented but self-promoting strategist who would run the 1988 presidential campaign. The siblings had reservations about Atwater because his consulting firm was also working for a presidential rival, Jack Kemp – and they told him so.
"How can we trust you?" George W. asked Atwater.
"If you think it's a problem, why don't one of you come to Washington and watch me?" Atwater dared. "If I'm disloyal, you can run me off."
His father, Bush said in an interview, never directly asked for his assistance, because "he's the kind of person who is real mindful about, you know, not, kind of overly influencing people. . . . He didn't want me to disrupt my life for him, when in fact I was looking for, you know, the invitation to come and go to battle with him."
In 1986, as Bush was working out the details of selling Spectrum 7, his oil exploration and development company, to Harken Energy, he talked to his father about coming to Washington, and asked him what his title would be on the campaign.
"You don't need a title," the vice president told his son. "Everyone will know who you are."
His father was right – his role became clear. One of his first duties that December was to confront Atwater over a story about him in Esquire magazine in which the writer described interviewing Atwater while the vice president's chief political adviser was in his underwear and in the bathroom. "You're representing a great man," Bush told Atwater, who lost no time writing a note of apology to Barbara Bush.
"Junior" was hard to miss. In April 1987, after moving his family to a town house on Massachusetts Avenue, a mile from the vice president's residence, he showed up at campaign headquarters in a jogging suit, dipping snuff and spitting the tobacco in waste cans.
Bush had a direct, sometimes confrontational style, and he turned himself into a self-appointed "loyalty enforcer, never hesitating to let aides and reporters know when they hadn't shown due respect for his father. Bush even had a name for the tongue-lashings: "Feisting out."
And when rumors of his father's infidelity swirled around Washington, it was Bush who was chosen to put them to rest, telling Newsweek in June 1987, "The answer to the big 'A' question is N-O."
Laura Bush believes it was a critical time for her husband in coming to terms with his father, "an opportunity to be an adult with an adult parent."
"I think working with his dad, like George got to do in 1988 . . . if there was any sort of leftover competition with being named George Bush and being the eldest, that it really at that point was resolved," Laura Bush said.
By 1988, the vice president's campaign staff began openly musing about Bush running for governor, and George W. didn't discourage the talk. After his father was elected president and as Bush was mulling over his next move, his friends and advisers immediately saw the political advantages of becoming a high-profile managing partner of a sports franchise.
"You need to do something on your own, need to get your own name out there and develop your own reputation," Betts, the fraternity brother, told his friend. "With this thing, you're going to be in newspapers all the time. . . . It will have a positive effect on the community. You will be establishing yourself.'‚"
Karl Rove, then as now Bush's chief political adviser, was also pushing Bush to become involved. Months before the baseball deal was even done, Rove was telling reporters that ownership of the Rangers "anchors him clearly as a Texas businessman."
"It gives him . . . exposure and gives him something that will be easily recalled by people," Rove said.
The feeler about the Rangers had come from William O. DeWitt Jr., a friend who in 1984 had merged Bush's small company with his own oil exploration operation, Spectrum 7. The team's owner, Eddie Chiles, an old friend of the Bushes', was in financial trouble and was eager to sell. The task for Bush and DeWitt was to line up investors.
The van showed up in Washington on Dec. 1 to move the Bushes back to Texas, this time to Dallas. Laura Bush went ahead to meet the truck at their new home, while Bush and their 7-year-old twins, Jenna and Barbara, stayed for another week with the president-elect and future first lady. He flew to Dallas with the girls on Dec. 8 to a still-uncertain future – and no job.
Within weeks, Bush was working two fronts: politics and baseball.
Negotiations with Chiles went forward in early winter, with Bush and DeWitt rounding up investors, virtually all from the East. Bush's investment was to be relatively small – a half-million dollars, obtained in a loan in which he put up his stock in Harken Energy as collateral.
Bush, like his father, adored baseball and played it in school, and had a formidable capacity for trivia. He and DeWitt – whose father had owned the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-'60s – had often dreamed about buying a franchise. The Rangers were a second-string ballclub, financially and on the field, but the team clearly had potential. With a larger, fancier stadium, the club could generate the revenue to attract first-rate players.
But Bush still hadn't put to rest his political ambitions. That winter and spring, he met with GOP leaders and fund-raisers and traveled around the state. There was plenty of evidence suggesting he should not run then, if ever.
He was personable enough; like his father, he had a multitude of friends. But he was still known to be a bundle of nervous energy, brash and loud, and wont to speak his mind. Rumors of a quick temper reached potential opponents. He had the natural instincts for strategy and politics, but he seemed to lack patience for the details of policy.
In his only try for office – an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1978 – he had shown remarkable stamina and presence for a novice, managing to win 47 percent of the vote. But the election left him burned out. His father had been a significant issue in the congressional race, and now, as president, he would cast an even larger shadow. Running while his father was in office could pose problems for both of them.
Bush spent hours thinking and talking about the 1990 race, but the advice from those closest to him was ultimately summed up by his mother, who sent a very public signal that she thought her son should do one thing at a time. "When you make a major commitment like that [to baseball]," she told reporters during a White House lunch, "I think maybe you won't be running for governor."
Barbara Bush also was Jim Francis, a former aide to his father with whom he consulted, delivered the verdict to him bluntly one day at lunch. "He needed to spend some time . . . becoming his own person with his own credentials, as opposed to the son of a president," Francis said.
Even Betts, while assuring Bush that becoming managing partner of the Rangers would pave the way for a political future, expressed concerns about Bush's timing. "I don't want to make the investment, if you plan to run in two years," said Betts, a New York entertainment mogul, who became the largest single investor in the Rangers.
In early August, Bush made it official: He would pass on the 1990 governor's race.
By then he was already a part-owner of the Rangers, a deal signed on April 21. His team of investors had purchased 86 percent of the team for about $75 million. He and DeWitt raised half of the money, with Betts being the main investor; the other half came from a group led by Texas financiers Richard Rainwater and Edward "Rusty" Rose III. Rainwater and Rose had joined with Bush after Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth concluded that Bush and DeWitt hadn't raised enough Texas money.
Bush and Rose, it was agreed, would have joint power in running the franchise, with Rose behind the scenes and Bush serving as the ownership's public face. Bush's total investment eventually would reach $606,302. For putting the deal together and running the club, Bush would receive an additional 10 percent return when the team was sold.
Baseball experts say the new ownership team enhanced the value of the franchise. Gross revenue more than doubled from $28 million to $62 million in a few years, and after the new stadium opened in 1994, it nearly doubled again – to $116 million last year. The club went from a mom-and-pop operation with 30 front-office employees and a consistently mediocre record on the field since moving to Texas from Washington in 1971 to a major corporation that now has 170 employees. In 1996, the Rangers made it to the playoffs for the first time, ultimately losing to the New York Yankees.
And for Bush, Rove and Betts's predictions proved accurate. For the first time, he became a public figure in his own right, attending ownership meetings, speaking at the Rotary Club, sitting in the stands at all the games and handing out baseball cards with his picture on them. Fans by the dozens would line up by his seat for autographs, just as they would for the team's superstar pitcher, Nolan Ryan.
Having a father in the White House didn't hurt, and Bush made the most of his opportunity. "The name brought a celebrity element," said Tom Schieffer, former president of the franchise and an investor. "But it wasn't the only thing he brought to the franchise. He brought his ability to speak to people and tell them why it was fun to come to baseball games. The public persona of the franchise was greatly enhanced because of George Bush."
Other team owners and former Ranger employees say Bush brought an instinctive feel and passion for the sport to his job, and managed to garner loyalty from players as well as hot dog vendors – all of whom he knew by name.
"You know, this guy fired me," said Bobby Valentine, a former Ranger manager now managing the New York Mets. "The honest truth is that I would campaign barefoot for him today."
The key to the franchise's new revenue stream was the $190 million Ballpark in Arlington, which replaced the team's dowdy converted minor league park in the same city. Under a controversial public-private financing deal, Arlington was to provide $135 million to build the park, raised by imposing a half-penny sales tax. The Rangers were to put up in the neighborhood of $50 million, generated in part from a $1 surcharge on ticket sales.
Critics savaged the project as "local socialism" because the public would pay for most of the stadium, while the Rangers could buy it back at a vastly reduced price and count the rent it paid toward the purchase.
A major marketing effort was launched to sell the plan to residents – the only time Bush kept a decidedly low public profile. In the end, Arlington residents resoundingly approved the sales tax in a referendum in January 1991.
Fielding a Team
By 1993, the conditions that had persuaded Bush not to reenter politics had begun to change. With the new stadium scheduled to open the next year, it was virtually guaranteed the Rangers would appreciate substantially in value, eventually providing him the financial security he had long sought. And with his father's defeat in 1992, Bush was finally out of his shadow.
Bush once again began thinking of running for governor against Ann Richards, a Democrat who four years earlier had won in an upset over Republican Clayton Williams.
Laura Bush was not enthusiastic about the idea, and she pressed her husband to examine his motives. She knew that when Bush wanted to do something, he liked to act fast. But while she found his instincts to be good, she was always the one who got him to take a deep breath, to think through the "why."
"She wanted to make sure this was something I really wanted to do and that I wasn't being drug in as a result of friends or 'Well, you're supposed to do it in order to prove yourself, vis-a-vis your father,'‚" Bush told an interviewer. "That's why she was the last person to sign on."
Strategically, Bush's advisers saw Laura Bush as playing a critical role in the campaign because her famous in-laws were going to stay far in the background. When the Richards campaign started harping that Bush was running on his father's name and resume, the message had to be clear that he was his own person.
In the spring of 1993, Bush and Rove started setting up meetings around the state. Bush invited Francis to go fishing with him at his vacation home at Rainbo Lake, an exclusive retreat in East Texas.
"We had both reached the conclusion that people liked Governor Richards in the personal sense, but that they disagreed with a lot of her policies," recalled Francis, who agreed to become general chairman of his fledgling campaign.
"He worked the politics of the situation very quickly – his dad was out of the White House, he got the Rangers deal done – fewer people were saying he was running because of his dad," said Rove. "But there was two other questions he had to answer for himself: 'Why would I want to do this, and is the reason going to matter to someone? Is it big enough?'‚"
Bush was indeed determined to have a clear agenda before he would even consider running. "My father let Bill Clinton decide what issues the two of them were going to talk about," he once said, "and I wasn't going to let that happen to me."
As Bush was weighing the run, Texas school financing was in crisis, dominating the daily news. On May 1, voters roundly defeated a measure that would have allowed the state to balance school funding by shifting property tax revenue from wealthy districts to poorer districts. Opponents had argued that the measure shifted wealth but did nothing to improve the quality of education.
It was a major defeat for Richards, who had pushed the measure, and Bush saw his opportunity.
Bush consulted with legislators and educators, and came up with his own proposal. He would promote decentralizing public education to give local jurisdictions more control, and he would promise more funding. With similar intensity, he began fashioning a plan to overhaul the state's juvenile justice system – more facilities, tougher sentencing guidelines. Welfare and tort reform were hot national issues at the time. They also became part of his agenda.
That June, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison won a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen when he joined the Clinton Cabinet. Bush was roaming through the ballroom of the Dallas hotel where Hutchison's victory party was taking place when he ran into Brian Berry, her campaign manager and a longtime Bush political ally.
"Hey, buddy, are you ready for another one?" Bush asked Berry.
Bush began looking around for his own team that summer. He wanted to avoid the Washington types closely identified with his father's defeat. He also wanted to find people who were loyal to him, not driven by their own career advancement.
At one meeting in his conference room at the Rangers offices, Bush told Rove that they had to run an active campaign that relied on a message.
"We're never going to attack her because she would be a fabulous victim," he told Rove. "We're going to treat her with respect and dignity. This is how we're going to win."
By late August, it was clear to state party leaders that Bush was in – and that he would be a formidable candidate. One by one, potential rivals opted not to challenge Bush, until he was left with one unknown primary opponent.
Meanwhile, Bush had settled on Berry as his campaign manager, telling him that he never wanted Richards to be able to accuse him of "not being ready for prime time." He also made it clear that he was in charge but that he had no interest in micro-managing.
"I run a baseball team," Bush told his new aide that fall. "I don't pick up a phone and criticize the players when they screw up in the outfield. That's my manager's job. I'll let you and Jim Francis run the campaign. But I'm in charge."
Berry stayed only six months, resigning over differences with Francis. Bush turned to Joe Allbaugh, who had run Republican Henry Bellmon's 1986 successful gubernatorial race in Oklahoma. The two had met in 1988 when Bush came through Oklahoma as a surrogate for his father. Bush asked him to come down and meet with him, Laura and Francis in late February. Two weeks later Allbaugh was ensconced in Austin – where he has been ever since, today running the presidential effort.
Allbaugh immediately saw the need for a tighter structure.effectively executed by the campaign. It didn't take him long to understand that Bush was action oriented, not one to agonize over 30-page strategy memos. He wanted the one-page executive summary and a decision. Cut to the chase.
At Last, an Office
Richards knew she had trouble. Although the stories about Bush's temper and thin political resume raised eyebrows about his candidacy, the poll numbers told another story.
A year before the election, the benchmark Texas Poll showed that although a majority of voters liked Richards personally, they weren't impressed with her job performance. In addition, 45 percent of potential Texas voters had a "favorable" view of Bush.
"There was no other tougher candidate in the GOP galaxy in our view," said Kirk Adams, Richards's son-in-law and a senior campaign aide.
As state treasurer, Richards had been catapulted onto the national scene in 1988 when she ridiculed Bush's father with the most memorable line of the Democratic National Convention. "Poor George," she drawled in her Waco twang, "he can't help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
But the Bush family saw the speech as a personal attack. Some of George W.'s friends to this day believe it is one of the reasons he challenged Richards.
"That's a perfect example of George's growth as a human being," said brother Marvin. "Fifteen years ago, his emotions related to Ann Richards's statements about my father would have been transparent. It may have gotten to him. He may have publicly said something that he would regret. By the time the election rolled around in 1994, he was a different guy. He was disciplined. I think he surprised a lot of people who didn't know him."
He certainly surprised the Richards campaign, which was banking on a strategy that had worked beautifully for her in the 1990 race against Williams. Richards had played off of a string of Williams gaffes, including a tasteless joke about rape, his refusal to shake Richards's hand and his vow to voters that he would "head her and hoof her and drag her through the dirt."
Richards had also successfully raised questions about Williams's business dealings. Williams, favored to win up until a month before the election, lost by 100,000 votes.
Bush seemed ripe for similar mishaps. The Richards camp figured he eventually would lose his cool publicly. And there were persistent rumors about his past drinking and partying, in part fueled by Bush himself, who for the first time made reference to his "irresponsible" youth.
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. What's the relevance?" he replied to the Houston Chronicle in May 1994 when asked about illegal drug use. "How I behaved as an irresponsible youth is irrelevant to this campaign."
The Richards campaign also was convinced that Bush had engaged in questionable business practices and had benefited from a sweetheart deal from the Rangers ownership group after making only a small personal investment in the franchise. In all, the campaign ended up spending more than $200,000 on "opposition research."
But sources close to Richards said that although questions were raised, there was no smoking gun. "People came to us with [personal] stuff, but it was a lot of rumors and hearsay," said a former senior Richards aide. As for his business dealings, the aide said, "It was all too complicated to convey."
A recovering alcoholic who had worked her way up in government, Richards believed that the voters ultimately would see Bush as she did – as someone who had never accomplished anything on his own and who was riding on his father's coattails. She dismissively referred to him as "shrub."
The more Bush stayed on message, the more Richards seemed to show her disdain. Minutes before their only debate, she told her younger opponent, "Oh, I'm sorry this night's going to be tough on you, George."
But Bush never responded.
"We tried to get under his skin and he kept his powder dry," said Chuck McDonald, a media consultant who was Richards's spokesman.
Instead, he deferentially called her "governor" and never strayed from his three or four issues. A former teacher who had presented herself as the "education governor," Richards found herself reacting to his agenda.
"Well, it wasn't, as I recall, much of a debate in reality," Richards said on "Larry King Live" this week. "And I don't mean that snidely or unkindly. I think that the talent that George Bush has – and I say this with real respect – is that rather than tell you the intricacies of what he knows or what he intends to do, he is very good at saying things that are rather all-encompassing. You know, if you said to George, 'What time is it?' he would say, 'We must teach our children to read.'‚"
In the end, even her allies say Richards may have been defeated in part by her own pride. "It bothered her that she had to go through a race where they were viewed as equals for the job," said McDonald. "In her view, here she was governor and he had never run for statewide office and never done much in private life."
In mid-August, Richards, who declined to be interviewed for this story, may have delivered her own death blow. At a rally in Texarkana, she told a group of teachers, "You just work like a dog, you do well . . . and all of a sudden you've got some jerk who's running for public office telling everybody it's all a sham."
Joe Allbaugh called his wife and told her it was all over.
"It showed that she was consumed with him . . . her focus was on trying to prod him and so we knew that we had her," said Rove. "As long as we kept our discipline not to be provoked, then we were in great shape."
Bush won the election 53 percent to 46 percent. Exit polls indicated he made a strong showing with white men. But Bush also showed he could attract women, younger voters and Hispanics.
After the election, Bush withdrew from the day-to-day operations of the Rangers and put his interest in a trust. With a presidential bid looming, the partners eventually decided to sell the team. A year ago, Dallas businessman Thomas O. Hicks purchased the Rangers for $250 million. Bush received a check for $14.9 million and could receive an addition $1 million to $2 million when all the accounts are settled.
The day the sale was announced, his childhood friend, Joe O'Neill, called and told him his financial future was set, he would never have to give speeches to pay the bills.
"Congratulations," O'Neill told Bush. "You hit the long ball. Now you can run for president and you'll never have to depend on the rubber chicken circuit. You're free."
Staff researchers Richard Drezen, Madonna Lebling and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company