George Walker Bush, Driving on the Right
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 1998; Page B01
BOWIE, Tex. By noon, his tan suit coat is visibly drenched, but the busloads of giddy schoolchildren and white-haired ladies don't care. They plead for autographs and ask after his momma, and line up 200 deep to shake his hand and tell him that he ought to run for president. Like his daddy.
"You go to the same hair stylist as my mother!" George W. Bush blurts to one startled woman with a thick mane of freshly lacquered snow-white hair. Earlier, he'd personally organized a gaggle of grade schoolers on the courthouse steps into his own photo op. At another stop, he bellowed "You're back!" to a woman who had shown up at two different events to have her picture taken with him. Not missing a beat, he draped his arm around her again as the flash popped.
By the end of this hot campaign swing in north Texas, the governor has made a half-dozen stops and easily shaken 2,000 hands. Every hand in every room, in fact.
George Walker Bush, the 52-year-old son of George and Barbara, is running hard these days although not exactly for president. Yet. Right now, he says he simply wants to become the first governor in Texas history to be reelected to a consecutive four-year term. There seems to be little doubt he will succeed, as he leads his Democratic opponent by about 50 points in the polls.
But this is not your run-of-the mill gubernatorial race. His well-funded, tightly controlled organization has the familiar feel of a high-flying presidential campaign the handlers, the huge and adoring crowds, the waving American flags. And, of course, the ever-pres ent "Bush for President" signs.
He is asked at virtually every stop about the White House sex scandal and he says he finds it all very "embarrassing" and "corrosive." He pushes a message of family values, preaching the gospel of sexual abstinence before marriage and the need to "usher in the responsibility era." This is not a new morality theme from Bush, but it still irks some Democrats who believe that he may have some explaining of his own to do about his free-wheeling younger days.
But for now, the world of big-time politics seems more intrigued with the notion that he could be the first man since John Quincy Adams to follow his father to the White House. After only four years in elective office, he is leading the field of likely Republican presidential candidates, and some polls even have him edging out Vice President Gore.
His detractors sniff that he is merely being confused with his dad in the surveys. But Bush just shrugs as his plane descends through the cotton clouds into this small Texas town. "It doesn't matter," he says. And he may be right.
As President Clinton girds against the possibility of impeachment, the ultimate fallout from a steamy Oval Office sexcapade, the name George Bush whichever one may be sounding pretty good these days.
George the Younger
He is called "George W" or "Junior" and sometimes just "W" so as not to confuse him with his father. But actually he is not a junior because he lacks the requisite "Herbert" in his middle name. And in truth there is no confusing father and son. Except maybe around the eyes.
The oldest of the five Bush kids, he is the one known as the smart-mouth, the truest Texan and a blunt operator both in business and in politics. He earned a place in Washington annals when he became the first to inform John Sununu that his days were numbered as President Bush's chief of staff.
Today, the younger Bush, who for years served as his father's political eyes and ears, refuses to engage in any substantive comparisons between himself and his father, saying only, "He is a great man and I love him dearly."
Stylistically, he will agree, they are quite different. "He was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I was raised in Midland, Texas. And there's a world of difference between the two cities," says Bush, who startled the Beltway "suits" when he showed up to help on his father's campaign chewing tobacco.
"I am a product of the West and I think that way," he says. "I'm not sure how that translates into behavior or leadership qualities."
That analysis he leaves for those who would like to see him president and who have no such hesitancy about distancing the son from the father. His allies will tell you the younger man is more decisive, that he is not relying on his father's old, tired advisers, and most important, that he is ideologically much more conservative than his father. Translation: Conservative enough to satisfy the religious right in a presidential race.
For those who have had a front-row seat watching George W. grow up, it has been an eventful three decades for the former hard-drinking party boy who followed his father to Andover and Yale, made a small fortune in the diverse fields of oil and baseball, and a decade ago unflinchingly bullied reporters and anyone else critical of his dad.
Today he is married to a former librarian, has 16-year-old twin daughters and has transformed himself into a serious, focused adult and a political force.
The assumption is that he is going to run for president in 2000, and that all his disclaimers about not having decided are intended only to buy him time to win his gubernatorial race in November.
But those who know him well, and those who don't know him at all, speculate that there may be something to his hesitation. Bush recently called the Clinton scandal "depressing" and the process "sullied," causing the pundits to wonder whether he is really weighing whether he can and is willing to withstand the personal scrutiny. He says he has already felt the heat as the son of a president and as governor. Furthermore, he says, he has nothing to hide.
Still, Bush also undoubtedly knows better than most that if he moves into the national arena, the intrusive glare of the media and the opposition will be far more intense. "He has never been tested in a serious adversarial way," says George Shipley, a veteran Democratic political consultant from Austin. "He has never endured The Scrutiny capital T, capital S that accompanies national politics."
He is getting the idea, however.
On the day that Clinton testified before Kenneth Starr's grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, ubiquitous presidential defender Lanny Davis watched dumbstruck from an MSNBC studio as Bush flashed on the screen calling the scandal a national embarrassment. Davis who, in the small-world category, was at Yale with Bush strongly suggested on air that Bush was playing with fire. "I was in college with George Bush Jr.," Davis said. "And if we start seeing smug, sanctimonious comments from political officials, especially Governor Bush, throwing stones in glass houses‚. . ."
Davis later backpedaled, noting that he knew of no specific misdeeds on Bush's part, and Bush dismissed the swipe. But he knows there may be more to come.
Asked if indeed he is ready for those kinds of partisan knives, and for reporters delving into his life and marriage, Bush responds succinctly:
"I have been faithful to my wife."
He has tried a preemptive strike on other aspects of his personal life by telling reporters flat-out that he had a footloose youth, which included brushes with the law for rowdiness one for pulling up a goalpost after a college football game, another for "borrowing" a Christmas wreath from a store door in New Haven with some buddies. Bush has also revealed that he drank more than he should have as an adult, and abruptly gave up alcohol the day after his 40th birthday bash in Colorado Springs.
In all, though, he has offered few details about his personal life and he believes that's the way it should stay.
"It's important for me to say I have made mistakes in life," he says. "But I think laying out all the indiscretions when I was a youth sends a counter-message. It sends a message that says, wait a minute, Governor Bush did XYZ, maybe I will try it. I feel like it is a mistake for people in leadership positions to feel like they've got to inventory all the indiscretions that took place when they were young."
He has a well-formulated response for those who do push too far into his past:
"Once you put your hand on the Bible and swear in [to public office], you must set a high standard and be responsible for your own actions. I have said that I was irresponsible at times. No question about it. And the question that baby boomers must be asked and must answer is, 'Have you learned from your mistakes?' not whether we have made mistakes. It's whether we have learned from the mistakes."
So are we to conclude that he believes there is a statute of limitations on his pre-gubernatorial behavior?
"That," he says, "is for the press to decide."
The Growth of a Bush
On this recent campaign swing, there is no sign of the reputation that has shadowed George W. for years, one of a shoot-from-the-hip, self-important scion of a prominent family. Today, during several hours of interviews, he is gracious and talkative, but cautious. At every small airport he makes a beeline for the ground staff, talking sports, signing napkins and always watching the clock. "Late is rude, just rude," he tells an aide. "People are doing me a favor by coming out."
In contrast to his father, who never seemed entirely comfortable on the stump, Bush is an impressive retail campaigner and truly seems to relish the flesh-pressing part of the job.
"How many people you think we saw so far today?" he asks a reporter mid-trip. Noticeably disappointed with her response of 1,000, he counters, "I think it was more like 1,200."
His longtime friends and staff are fiercely loyal to him, describing a committed friend, a doting dad and an electric personality. Even those who only recently joined his entourage say they have been surprised by what they found.
"I had heard all the conventional mythology the rich kid who had inherited all he had," says Mark McKinnon, a Democratic consultant Bush persuaded to produce his media ads. "What I found was someone who really tries to understand the human side and human consequences of politics. He's candid and self-deprecating. . . . All my reservations melted when I met him. He is a product of his upbringing in all the positive ways."
George Bush was 2 years old in 1948 when his parents headed to West Texas to pursue the oil boom. This was long before his father ventured into public life, long before the name Bush was a household word. Young George was not raised in the "bubble" as he calls the fishbowl of public life but in the idyllic security of an upper-middle-class home in Midland, and later Houston.
But his childhood was not pain-free. His younger sister, Robin, died of leukemia when he was in second grade, before the rest of the Bush children were born. Years later Barbara Bush would fondly remember overhearing her 7-year-old son tell a buddy on the phone that he couldn't play because he had to stay in and care for his grieving mother. (George and Barbara Bush declined to be interviewed for this article.)
At Yale, even Lanny Davis concedes, Bush was quite popular, literally the life of the party, and was elected president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon. He was also tapped for Skull and Bones, the prestigious secret society to which his father had belonged. Bush was not, he says, part of the '60s counterculture, but fairly conservative.
"Everybody knew George and George knew everybody," recalls Clay Johnson, who was with Bush at Phillips Academy in Andover and later at Yale, and who now works in the governor's office. "People just wanted to be around him. . . . And this is before the name George Bush was known."
Bush is six weeks older than Bill Clinton, and like the president he was faced with the draft and the Vietnam War. In 1968, upon graduating and losing his college deferment, Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard and flew F-102 fighters. He never directly addresses whether he was avoiding the draft, but says that "had my unit been called I would have gone."
His commander at the time says that Bush was promptly accepted into the Guard despite a waiting list because there were openings for pilots. "Most of the guys didn't want to be pilots because it was a commitment there was a long training period," Walter Staudt says. "He had to go through an interview process with the [pilot] board they decide if you're the kind of person they want to fly with. And I'll tell you, this kid was an asset. . . . Anyone who suggests there was family influence to get him in is a damn liar."
Bush has called the ensuing years his "nomadic" period, as he drifted through his twenties looking for a career. There was a job counseling inner-city kids in Houston, and another working for an agricultural business. Eventually he headed back east to earn his MBA from Harvard. He told The Post in 1989 that he spent some time trying to "reconcile who I was and who my dad was, to establish my own identity in my own way."
By 1975, with the ink barely dry on his Harvard degree, the 28-year-old Bush decided to try his hand at oil. He packed his belongings into his Cutlass in Cambridge, and with "no job, no nothing" as he once said he returned home again, this time setting up his new life in a garage apartment in Midland.
Don Evans, who first met Bush then and has remained a friend and adviser, says he never understood all the talk that everything was handed to him: "He didn't have anything as far as I could see. . . . He lived in a dump. He used to bring his laundry over to our house. We were just fresh faces dreaming about finding an oil field somewhere."
What Bush did have was the nervous intensity to succeed, and some Midland connections. He started out like most of his contemporaries as an entry-level landman studying properties, negotiating mineral rights and researching deeds. This was also the height of Bush's bachelor days and he earned a reputation as a man about town. Within a couple of struggling years he had started his own business, which he eventually merged with other companies, keeping him in oil through the mid-'80s.
He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1977, the year he married Laura Welch. A decade later he returned to politics as an unpaid but powerful watchdog for his father.
Asked about his reputation as a hothead during this period, Bush says he had a very specific role to play. "One of my jobs was to defend my dad and I defended him against press reports that I thought were terribly unfair," he says. "I defended him against allies that were jumping ship before the ship had docked. I defended him against his enemies."
After his father won the 1988 election, George W. returned to Texas and went on to yet another career. With $600,000 of his own money he assembled an investment team to purchase the Texas Rangers in 1989. He became the baseball franchise's general managing partner, until he stepped aside in 1994 to challenge popular Democratic governor Ann Richards.
The Richards campaign grossly underestimated Bush, seeing him as a novice, unfocused candidate merely trading on his family name. Richards dismissively called him a "shrub" and "some jerk who's running for public office." But none of it stuck. In a remarkable upset, Bush beat Richards 53 to 46 percent.
Says a former senior Richards campaign aide today: "We didn't think he had the discipline. . . . Anyone who takes this man lightly and doesn't think he is a serious, extremely disciplined candidate would be making a very big miscalculation."
A Plan of Action
A few weeks after Bush took office, Paul Sadler, a prominent Democratic member of the state legislature and chairman of the public education committee, was heading home when his car phone rang. A stunned Sadler found the new governor on the line inviting him to dinner at the executive mansion that night.
Sadler says Bush thanked him for not being partisan during the campaign, and asked if they could work together. They talked long into the night about life and politics. Sadler was hooked.
Their new friendship was tested quickly when, with Sadler's support, Bush pushed a measure to significantly lower property taxes while filling the gap for education funding with higher sales and business taxes. The right flank of the Republican Party assailed the plan as a complicated tax shift instead of a cut and it ultimately failed. But when Sadler was singled out for attack, Bush's allies jumped to his defense with a newspaper ad praising him.
"I'll tell you this," Sadler says today. "If I'm in a foxhole and we're being attacked with mortar shells, it is fine with me if George Bush is covering my backside. He's a straight shooter. And I know he's my friend."
Indeed, Bush has aggressively courted and supported and befriended Democrats whom he needed for his key reforms, such as toughening the juvenile justice code and an overhaul of the education system that empowered local districts. As a payback to those legislators, he has refused to campaign for their Republican opponents quite a gift, given Bush's popularity.
This bipartisanship has reaped huge dividends for him in Texas. In a blow to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Garry Mauro, the powerful Democratic lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, endorsed Bush for another term. It was hard to swallow as a political statement, but for Mauro the state land commissioner and a Bullock protege the endorsement stung personally, since Bullock is godfather to his daughter. Bush has also picked up an unprecedented number of endorsements from more than 120 high-profile state Democratic officials mayors, legislators, district attorneys.
The real question for Bush on a national level, however, will be whether he can reach out to various political factions while appealing to the hard right, whose support he must have to win the nomination.
Bush calls himself a "compassionate conservative," an almost catch-all label that enables him to solidify a moderate centrist base while trying to assure the right he is one of them. On hot-button social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriages and school prayer, his stated positions are in sync with the conservative wing of the party.
But he also studiously avoids the seemingly harsh and exclusionary rhetoric often associated with the religious right.
For example, he calls himself a pro-life governor but also states that the Supreme Court has already "settled" the matter of abortion, which has been interpreted as a signal that he has no intention making it an issue. In addition, he supports immigration, favors bilingual education, and while he is opposed to gay marriages he cautions that it is important to "treat every person with respect and dignity."
"The reason I believe that is you cannot lead unless you unite people," he explains. "People don't want to follow someone who's divisive. People will not follow someone who lumps people into groups. . . . I judge individuals based upon their hearts and souls."
The concern among some on the far right, of course, is whether he is a true believer or a moderate like his father, merely paying lip service to get elected.
"The son is a conservative politician driven by core conservative principles," insists Karl Rove, Bush's political consultant and key adviser.
Rove cites as a road map to Bush's conservative philosophy Myron Magnet's "The Dream and the Nightmare," a 1993 book that blames the '60s cultural revolution for the nation's economic inequities and maintains that despite the liberal elite's stated desire for a more equal society, the if-it-feels-good-do-it culture failed to provide the underclass with the tools for taking responsibility for their own lives.
Still, for some high-profile conservatives, the jury is still out on Bush. "We don't know yet," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "He is a far better politician than his father. . . . And Texas is certainly the linchpin of Republican hopes to get back the White House. But the question is not has he done a decent job in Texas, but whether he believes what he is saying."
Asked if he has concerns that Bush's personal life could withstand the scrutiny, Keene laughs. "Not really. The bar is so low."
The Big Decision
Bush says he'll decide on a run for the presidency after this election, that at this juncture he is primarily weighing personal considerations and that he has serious concerns about exposing his daughters Barbara and Jenna to life in the fishbowl.
He does concede that having financial security allows him some freedom to make the hard choices. When the Texas Rangers were sold last year, Bush revealed that he earned nearly $15 million for his stake in the franchise.
In addition, for all the talk that this is not Bush Redux, having a recognizable name and the vast Bush organization already in place nationally for fund-raising and field support does give him the luxury of making an announcement in his own good time.
And so he is asked about his plans one final time. Will he pull together a vision for the country soon, a reason why he wants to be president, why he should be elected?
"Absolutely. You gotta have a reason. But I ha " he says, then catches himself getting too far out there. He just laughs as he strides into his last event of the day.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company