Back in 1980, when George Bush was a candidate for president, satirist Mark Russell used to amuse audiences with a little ditty he called "Two-Gun Georgie Bush."
It was sung to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas," and went this way: "He'll tell you he's a Texan though he's got those Eastern ways, eatin' lots of barbecue with a sauce that's called bearnaise."
Now Vice President Bush is an all-but-announced presidential candidate once again, and the satire has flipped around. This time he is getting zinged, not for being a tinhorn Texan, but the real thing.
Bush kicked up a political dust storm when he publicly fretted, both before and during an eight-day trip to the Middle East, that a free fall in the world price of oil endangered national security and inflicted economic hardship on the American Southwest.
Critics accused Bush of trying to resurrect OPEC and bail out his Texas oil friends, even though he stated emphatically that he was committed to letting market forces have free rein.
Interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, Bush acknowledged that his comments on the oil-price slide had caused "a lot of flak," but he discounted the possible long-term political damage to him from the controversy.
"I have a great fundamental feeling that the American people are fair," he said. "When they heard the president say that he's read everything I have said and agrees with it, I think that helps with some of the flak that heretofore has been filling the air."
Even if the episode was closed by President Reagan's comment last week, it leaves a lingering question about how deeply Bush's political judgments and loyalties have been shaped by the 16 years he spent, from 1951 to 1967, making his fortune in the Texas oil patch.
The record shows that Bush's Texas ties are strong. Last year, of the $3.9 million raised by Bush's political action committee, the Fund for America's Future, $811,745, or 20.5 per cent, came from 505 major contributors from Texas -- who gave an average of $1,607 apiece. No other state was in the same ballpark for generosity.
Federal Election Commission records also show that at least $135,095 came from 75 oil industry executives. Because donors' occupations are not always listed on the FEC records and because the contributions of their relatives are not counted, the figures probably understate the industry's munificence.
In his years as vice president, Bush has been a good friend to the oil industry. Last spring, for example, at a White House meeting to set the final shape of the Treasury II tax plan, he made a pitch to restore two key tax breaks for oil and gas drillers that had been curtailed in the earlier Treasury I proposal, according to an account in The Wall Street Journal. White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan reportedly argued against any restoration, causing Reagan to mutter, "Oh, Lord," at the dilemma he faced. He sided with Bush.
Bush's sense of integrity is too widely respected for anyone to even hint that there was any kind of quid pro quo behind his stance on the tax breaks.
"The issue is affinity of outlook, rather than special pleading," said David Keene, a GOP operative who used to work for Bush and now is a political consultant to Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.)
Born to a patrician and politically prominent Connecticut family, Bush chose as a young man with a fresh degree from Yale to forsake the presumed path to affluence awaiting him on the East Coast and make his way in the distant Texas oilfields.
First in Odessa and later in Houston, he reared his family and made his fortune. Texas is where he counts most of his close friends. And though he no longer lives in the state, he takes pains (for reasons that have to do with taxes, as well as politics) to still call "home" the two lots that he owns in Houston.
Certainly, Texas oilmen still think of Bush as one of theirs.
"I always find that when I talk to George about the oil and gas business, he's up to speed," said Robert Mosbacher Sr., a Houston oilman who serves as national finance chairman of Bush's PAC. "He has two sons in the business, and he stays in touch through them."
Mosbacher shrugged off suggestions that Bush had made his oil price comments at the urging of his industry friends.
"Luckily, I was out of the country before the press conference," Mosbacher quipped, adding that he knew of no group of oilmen who had taken their concerns about price to Bush.
Indeed, the oil industry has always been fiercely free-market in its ecomomic orientation. Even though the price of oil has dropped from a peak of $39 a barrel to the $12 range, the Independent Producers Association of America opposes an oil import fee and believes that "the government should not do anything with regard to price," said Harold B. Scoggins Jr., the association's general counsel.
Some others in the industry are less pristine about government intervention and, among politicians of both parties in the oil states, support for an import fee is the mainstream position.
Given this ambivalence, the question persists: If not responding to overwhelming pressures from his consituency, why would a politician with Bush's seasoning and aspirations make comments guaranteed to raise the hackles of oil consumers across the nation?
The answer from the Bush camp is that he spoke "from the heart" and "without political calculation," that his remarks were taken out of context, and that what he said was true.
Bush, in the view of friends, also takes the national security argument very seriously.
"George understands very well that you're going to lose a certain percentage of production permanently if the price goes too low," said William Liedtke, president of Pogo Producing Co. in Houston. "Ever since I have known him, going back to the Eisenhower era, he has been very sensitive to the connection between a strong industry and national security."
Liedtke, his brother Hugh, who is now chairman of Pennzoil, and Bush cofounded Zapata Petroleum (named for the then-current Marlon Brando film, "Viva Zapata!") in 1953. Bush eventually split from the two to run Zapata Offshore, a Houston-based offshore drilling company. He sold his interest in the the company in 1966. In 1979, the year before he ran for president, his net worth was $1.8 million, and his holdings currently are in a blind trust.
As the flap over Bush's oil connections seemed to pass by the week's end, some of his supporters strained to find a silver lining.
The most hopeful assessment came from Peter Secchia, a GOP national committeeman and leading Bush supporter in Michigan.
"Before, you'd ask people where Bush is from and I don't think they had any idea," Secchia said. "Connecticut? Maine? Texas?
"Now I think he's finally gotten the message across: He's all Texan."
For better or worse.