Another Bush in Line?
By Sue Anne Pressley
He does not want to talk about Washington. He does not care what "they" are saying in Washington.
What Gov. George W. Bush (R) cares about these days, as he repeats tirelessly to reporters, state legislators, Rotary clubs and cattle ranchers' associations, is that 30 percent of Texas children can barely read. He cares, he says, that his generation has failed to accept "responsibility." He really cares that because of high property taxes, "people who work for a living are being priced out of their homes." But talk that he is on a short list of Republican contenders for the presidency in 2000 or about whether his policies are in line with the national party seems to exasperate him greatly.
"Forget Washington!" he declared in a recent interview, during a unusual moment of testiness for someone who usually cultivates his easygoing image. "I don't think in terms of national or Republican. I think in terms of what is best for the state of Texas. . . . I'm serious. I've got my hands full. It's a big state."
Midway through his first term as governor of the nation's second most populous state and the world's 11th largest economy Bush is in a rare risky position, as state legislators battle over a property-tax restructuring that he initiated. Whether his display of disinterest in other political jobs is the full story, it is at least perfectly in keeping with the persona of "I'm just a Texan looking out for other Texans" that Bush has ridden to popularity and success in this usually contentious state.
By presenting himself as an eager and respectful pupil, he has managed to work well with the state's leading Democrats, notably House Speaker Pete Laney and the legendarily terse and strong-willed Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. And by zeroing in on issues that few Democrats or Republicans can quarrel with tort reform, juvenile crime, illiteracy he has emerged with an image as a doer.
Bush, 50, fashions himself an affable and informal governor, horning in charmingly on tourists' picture-taking sessions, remembering nearly everyone's name and keeping such a packed schedule that associates call him "the Energizer Bunny." Viewed as a conservative without hard edges, he is more likely to draw opposition from his party's right wing than from the Democrats. But his approval ratings hover at nearly 70 percent, and a second term if he wants it at this point seems virtually assured.
"George Bush has two things going for him he has an excellent staff and he gets good advice, in terms of the media and not getting overexposed," said Anne Marie Kilday, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. "And he takes that advice. He is well-handled."
Even while protesting that his mind is strictly on Texas, however, the governor has been making a few out-of-state trips, to party fund-raisers in South Carolina and California, perhaps capitalizing on the recognition he received last summer as co-chairman of the Republican National Convention.
"He goes to gatherings where you could probably rightly say he's doing some fishing," said George Christian, an Austin political consultant who was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "But he's pretty well kept that under wraps. The best politics is easygoing politics. Some of these fellas overdo it when they decide they want to run for something." From the time he was 2, George W. Bush has considered himself a Texan, his home in Midland, a virtually treeless expanse of big sky and now-dwindling oil reserves. The major difference between him and his patrician, New England-bred father, Bush usually says, is that the former president "didn't go to San Jacinto Junior High School."
Bush returned to West Texas after Yale and Harvard Business School to make his fortune, sort of, in the oil business. Friends from that time note his long, winding road to maturity. Bush gets much mileage by recalling his former carousing days, how he was redeemed by the love of a good woman (Texas first lady Laura Bush, a former public school librarian), turned into a devoted family man with the birth of twin daughters 15 years ago, and learned to discipline his energies.
"When he got out of college, I don't think he was focused on what he wanted to do. Now he's a very focused individual, the same fun person, maybe a little tamer. Laura's got him dressing a little better," said Tom Craddick, ranking Republican in the Texas House, who has known Bush 25 years. "When George moved back to Midland, he bummed an office, he bummed golf clubs, bummed shoes. You were lucky if you saw him in a fresh shirt."
Bush went on to make one failed and all-but-forgotten run for Congress. He became a co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team; his statehouse office is decorated with autographed balls. In 1994, he launched what seemed a daring bid to unseat Democrat Ann Richards, the wise-cracking governor who had a 70 percent popularity rating, although increasingly mixed reviews from local politicians and reporters. Political insiders say he ran a near-flawless campaign, tightly focused on his four principles of limited government, local control of schools, family values and individual responsibility, while Richards seemed uncharacteristically listless. After a comfortable victory, the real test began.
"Some people thought he was not the brightest porch light on the block, and they were wrong about that," Kilday said. "He has been astute in his dealings with the legislature, and Bob Bullock loves the guy."
The centerpiece of Bush's second legislative session is his proposal to slash property taxes by raising or creating other statewide taxes. Some analysts said he was seeking a signature issue that would sell well in a New Hampshire primary, although it could just as easily be portrayed as one that raises taxes. Last fall, Bush made a rare misstep by unveiling the plan without consulting with Bullock and Laney, leaving them grumbling, though he has smoothed their feathers since through his usual technique of breakfast meetings and devoted personal attention.
Taxes are a big headache to almost any governor but, in Texas, where there is no personal income tax and school financing relies heavily on local property taxes, it is an especially thorny issue. Whatever revenue the schools lose from reduced property taxes must be made up by new taxes, and any jiggling of the system requires a new formula for school financing. Critics abounded and, in typical fashion when controversy has begun to swirl, Bush has distanced himself from the fray, saying the tax proposal was intended as an outline on which legislators should work their will. "It's a bad bill it's a tax hike, not a tax cut," said Tom Pauken, a staunch conservative who chairs the Texas Republican Party. Pauken has made no secret of his belief the party is undergoing a debate on whether "to stand for conservative principles or take a more pragmatic course," as represented by Bush. "It seems what you would expect from a liberal Democrat."
Pauken is unusual in that he has been outspoken in his disagreements with Bush. In fact, Bush has engendered little criticism as governor, in part because he has worked to round the edges of his conservatism and produce a cooperative tone. While that has been effective up to now in this state where Democrats still wield a lot a power, it remains unclear whether his ability to get along would serve him well on a national stage that demands more definition.
But the smooth sailing Bush desires may elude him in coming weeks, as the legislative session roars to a close.
He faced new attacks this week when reports emerged that some Texas House members felt betrayed that he was not effusively supporting their tax bill as a Senate committee began wrestling with it and making controversial changes that favor business. That is perhaps the most vehement behind-closed-doors criticism of the governor, that in his quest to be liked, his careful neutrality sometimes backfires or makes him seem noncommittal.
It did not escape the notice of some critics either that Bush remained silent on the recent Republic of Texas standoff with state police, emerging only after the leader's peaceful surrender on Saturday to say that "you better not arm up and hurt innocent citizens because we'll enforce the law in our state."
Still, Bush is credited with pushing many issues, not insignificantly the tax issue, out front. "You walk around the Capitol grounds," Laney said, "and there's not any monument built to a governor who tried to change the tax system, and he's not going to get a monument built to him. If it's passed, though, the results will be a better system in Texas."
Whatever the governor's disclaimers, however, even his old friends have begun to wonder if Austin is his final political home. "My guess is, he's interested [in running for president]," said Bob Barnes, an Odessa developer and restaurateur, who has known Bush since his oil business days in West Texas. "I've asked him and he says, 'We'll see where the future leads.' Then I looked at his face and I think he's given a lot of thought to it. . . . It would be pretty dang exciting to see him in the White House."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush
Education: BA, Yale University '68; MBA, Harvard University '75
Career highlights: Texas governor, 1995-present
Managing general partner, Texas Rangers baseball team, 1989-94
Senior adviser, Bush presidential campaign, 1988
Founder and CEO, Bush Exploration oil and gas company, 1975-1987
Military: Texas Air National Guard fighter pilot, 1968-73
Family: Married, twin daughters
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