World

The Bush Bandwagon

George ‘Dub-ya' races out of the starting gates for the 2000 presidential election

Andrew Phillips July 12 1999
World

The Bush Bandwagon

George ‘Dub-ya' races out of the starting gates for the 2000 presidential election

Andrew Phillips July 12 1999

The Bush Bandwagon

World

George ‘Dub-ya' races out of the starting gates for the 2000 presidential election

Andrew Phillips

George W. Bush has been running for president for barely a month, but already the legend of the Reluctant Candidate is being buffed to a high sheen. The people who know him well are full of stories. How he never really thought about the big job. How he was genuinely surprised—“dumbfounded” in the words of one old friend—that folks were thinking of him like that. How he finally concluded that he had a duty—even a “calling”—to go for it. Clay Johnson, Bushs onetime roommate and current executive assistant, adds his version of the tale. A friend of the Bush family took her concerns to the Texas governor early this year. Wouldn’t campaigning for the presidency open up his wife and teenage daughters to all kinds of unwelcome attention? she asked. “He was afraid of that,” Johnson recalls, “but he said, Tf I don’t run, who will? If not me, who?’ ” Who indeed? The candidacy of the man known, to distinguish him from his famous father, as “W”—or “Dub-ya” as they say in Texas—is a genuine political phenomenon. His rivals for the Republican nomination in 2000 are eating his dust. A recent poll gives him a staggering 61 per cent of the vote among Republican contenders (Elizabeth Dole is a distant second at 11 per cent). He handily beats Al Gore, the leading Democrat, in every matchup. Political professionals in Washington and Austin, the state capital, say they’ve never seen anything like it. The closest parallel goes back to 1952, when the Republicans laid their nomination at the feet of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who had done nothing less than save the world from fascism. There is no mystery—the party smells victory after enduring eight years of Bill Clinton in the White House. “There’s a thirst for a winner,” says Reggie Bashur, a Republican consultant in Austin who has worked with both George Bush es, père et fils. “This is a man who has proven he can win.”

It takes a rare combination of factors to soar so high—with so little apparent effort. A famous name, to be sure: he was buoyed in early polls because many people confused him with his father, the president defeated by Clinton in 1992. A built-in political network: the Bush family’s legendary Rolodex is at his disposal. A solid record in a major state: he is just six months into his second term as governor of Texas. An attractive if ambiguous message: his slogan of “compassionate conservatism” appeals to voters weary of sour-puss lectures from the right. And, importantly, a cheerful, winning personality: he’s a natural on the campaign trail.

That has been obvious ever since Bush began formally appealing for votes in mid-June. Last week, it

was California, where he took aim at the increasingly important Hispanic vote (“ sueno Americano"—the American dream—is for you, too, he assured them in his serviceable Spanish). But he started, as every candidate must, in Iowa and New Hampshire, which will hold the first votes early in the new year. On a foggy morning in New Casde, N.H., with the salt tang of the Adantic in the air, Bush set out on the trail he hopes will lead to victory in 16 months. Up close with some of the most sophisticated voters in the United States, the ones who actually get to meet presidential candidates in their living rooms and church halls instead of just seeing them in TV ads, he managed to look like there was no place he would rather be.

Jeff Howard, an adviser to the Bush campaign in New Hampshire, was beside himself with glee. “This is a hard state to get enthusiasm out of,” he said. “No matter what it is, we’re agin it. We’re used to shaking a politician’s hand three times before we make up our minds. But he’s got the magic.” At a sold-out lunch for Republican women in Manchester, state Representative Susan Franks voiced the common yearning. “We keep losing because we’re not appealing to the middle,” she said. “We need someone who can bring us back to the centre, and it looks like we’ve found him.”

All that translates into unprecedented numbers of endorsements and, most importantly, record amounts of cash. In the early summer of the year before the election, Republican officeholders are tripping over themselves to jump on his bandwagon. Twenty governors and 126 congressmen have endorsed Bush. He has raised more money in a shorter period of time than anyone before him—a staggering $36.3 million (U.S.) in the first half of 1999, twice Gore’s take. Each week, he scoops up more—$2 million at a single event in Washington. His rivals are withering on the vine, and Bush seems to be fighting the general election already. Conventional wisdom dictates that candidates appeal to the party faithful to win the nomination, then move to the centre. By coming out of the starting gate so hard and fast, Bush is effectively skipping the first stage. Rather than tack right to win over Republican activists, he is pitching his message at the middle and taking on Gore right away.

The message, summed up in his catchphrase of “compassionate conservatism,” is part image, part substance. On the stump, Bush talks about things that have been absent from Republican rhetoric— helping the poor, minorities, new immigrants. “Prosperity without purpose,” he says, “is simple materi-

‘ When I was young and irresponsible, 1 was young and irresponsible, says Bush, but he won t give details

alism.” He distances himself from signature Republican positions of the mid-’90s, such as opposition to affirmative action and cracking down on illegal immigrants. He refuses to make opposition to abortion a so-called litmus test for appointing judges to the Supreme Court. Some hardline conservatives are outraged; a few are already talking about quitting the Republicans and backing a third-party candidate.

No one should be fooled, though, by the “compassionate” speeches. Bushs record in Texas shows he is a true conservative—further right than his New England-raised father ever was. He is pro-life, pro-gun and staunchly pro-death penalty. He believes strongly in free trade, and cultivated closer business relations with his NAFTA neighbour Mexico. On his watch, Texas enacted its biggest tax cut ever—$2 billion (U.S.) —and enjoys a budget surplus of $6.4 billion. He is a committed Christian. He has often talked of how he “came to the Lord” at the age of 39 after a conversation with Billy Graham. He reads the Bible every day, and has said a key moment in his decision to seek the presidency came in January when he attended a private family service and heard the pastor talk about the reluctance of Moses to become a leader. “The sermon spoke direcdy to my heart,” Bush said later. He makes frequent speeches urging young people to resist temptation and embrace sexual abstinence until marriage.

As governor, too, Bush pushed conservative issues like making schools more accountable for students’ performance and enlisting private “faith-based” organizations in solving social issues. He did it, though, in a way that won him friends in both parties. The governor’s office in Texas is comparatively weak; anyone who holds the job must work closely with the legislature to get anything done. Bush invited the speakers of the state house of representatives and senate (both Democrats for most of his term) to weekly breakfasts at the governor’s mansion—a gesture that paid off in legislative achievements. He’s a backslapper and a jokester who coins a

corny nickname for anyone he deals with (David Weeks, a political consultant in Austin who shoots quail with the governor, is “Weeksy”). Almost no one has a bad word about him. When he was re-elected in a landslide last November, he won 49 per cent of votes cast by Hispanics and 27 per cent by blacks, two groups long allergic to Republicans.

All that would be remarkable enough from anyone—let alone a man whose own cousin, John Ellis, once said was “on the road to nowhere at age 40.” George W., 33 on July 6, was, to say the least, a late bloomer. Those who know the Bush family agree he showed no political ambition as a young man. It was his studious younger brother Jeb, now governor of Florida, whom the family looked to as the son most likely to succeed. Young George, though the elder son, drifted through his 20s and much of his 30s. Clay Johnson, now the governor’s top aide, met him at age 15 when they roomed together at the Phillips Academy, a tony prep school in Andover, Mass. Two Texans thrown together in what amounted to boot camp for the eastern Establishment, they bonded immediately. George, Johnson recalled in his office in the Texas Capitol in Austin, was the same then as he is now—energetic, enthusiastic, funny, a people person rather than a scholar. “There were the usual cliques—athletes versus the brains,” Johnson remembers, “but George functioned across all the lines.”

The two went on to Yale University, and roomed there as well. They were fraternity brothers at Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as the Dekes. Bush was interested in football, beer and girls. “I thought Animal House was written about the Dekes at Yale,” says Johnson. They graduated in the spring of 1967; protests against the Vietnam war were raging across U.S. campuses but Bush, says Johnson, took no interest.

He moved to Houston and took a long time to find himself. He did his military service with the Texas Air National Guard, flying F-102 fighter jets. He helped run a mentoring program for inner-city youth in Houston. He spent much of his 20s living at a Houston singles complex called Château Dijon, partying and pursuing women. He has said, famously, that “when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible”—but draws the line at filling in the details. Rumours abound, but teams of reporters and opposition researchers have failed to turn up much. In May, The Wallstreet Journal published one of the more curious examples of modern political coverage—a front-page article detailing gossip that Bush used illegal drugs, was photographed dancing naked on a bar, and bought cocaine at his fathers presidential inauguration in 1988. The paper then concluded that it could find no one to substantiate the rumours. Johnson, his old friend, firmly believes that the talk is gready exaggerated. One of the governor’s fund-raisers, he says, asked Bush directly what he meant by being “young and irresponsible.” “The answer was, ‘I drank beer and chased women.’ The guy said, ‘That’s what I hoped you’d say.’ ”

Hillary homes in on New York

When Hillary Clinton and her husband went to New York City last week, the President unexpectedly sat alone at a fund-raising matinee performance of The Iceman Cometh. Hillary, it emerged, had ducked out to shop for a new house with her daughter, Chelsea, in the city and its suburbs. This week, she takes another step towards running for the Senate from New York by conducting a so-called listening tour through upstate communities. One thing she won’t have to worry about is being called as a witness in a trial arising from the Whitewater land scandal. Webster Hubbell, her onetime business associate in Arkansas, pleaded guilty to two charges of lying and tax fraud—making a trial unnecessary. The Watergate-era law empowering her archnemesis, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, officially expired last week, but their sparring isn t quite over. He will continue investigating her over the firing of White House travel staff in 1993.

Bush does get asked, though, how he squares his lectures to young people about morality and abstinence with his rowdy past. His stock answer: I’ve learned from my mistakes. One of the big questions of the age, he told a TV interviewer last week, is: “Will the baby boomers grow up?”—a question that neatly contrasts his upright current lifestyle to Clintons scandalous private life. What finally straightened him out, says Bush, was “children, having a wife, and religion.” He married Laura Welch, a librarian from Midland, Tex., in 1977; they have twin 16-year-old daughters, Barbara and Jenna. He gave up drinking, he says, the morning after his 40th birthday— a few months after he got religion with Billy Graham.

The other question mark over Bush’s early career involves money—and how much he traded on his family name to become rich. In 1975, after earning an MBA from Harvard, he set out for Midland to make money in the oil business, as his father had done before him. He was not a great success. He started a company called Arbusto Energy (,arbusto is Spanish for bush). An uncle, New York City money manager Jonathan Bush, recruited investors. Many of them, according to The Dallas Morning News, were friends and associates of the Bush family—whose patriarch, George Sr., was a candidate for president and then Ronald Reagan’s vice-president. In 1986, George Jr. sold his stake to Harken Oil & Gas of Texas in a sweetheart deal that netted him $320,000 (U.S.). Critics charged then that Harken was really after drilling leases in the Persian Gulf and wanted the goodwill of his powerful father.

What made George W. rich, though, was not oil but baseball. After an unhappy period in Washington as a political fixer for his father, he returned to Texas in 1989. Bush had always been obsessed with baseball (one of his standard lines is that he didn’t want to be president, he wanted to be Willie Mays). He used his family and political connections to put together a group to buy the Texas Rangers, then a struggling franchise. Over the next several years, he and his partners led a campaign to use taxpayers’ money to build a handsome new stadium, The Ballpark in Arlington. That transformed the team into a money-spinner. Bush’s original investment of just $606,000 (U.S.) turned into a payoff of $15 million when he sold his share in the Rangers last year.

Criticisms of his rise, however, now seem like the carping of sore losers. Bush showed he could win big by beating popular Democrat Ann Richards (who derided him as “Shrub” —the little Bush) for the governor’s seat in 1994, then winning re-election last year. Now, though, he faces a test on a far bigger stage. He has made a few mistakes—speaking mysteriously of “Kosovians” and “Grecians” while discussing the Balkan war, and mixing up Slovakia and Slovenia. His mystique, though, is big enough and the campaign is young enough that those slips have not been held against him. Yet. With 16 months before voting day, there is ample time for things to go wrong—a major gaffe, a new scandal, a thirdparty revolt that would split the conservative vote and help the Democrats. The hard reality is that anyone who flies so high, so fast, has a long way to fall. Even a man who insists he never really wanted the job. CD

Big money, earlier than ever Funds raised by June 30 for leading presidential candidates, in U.S. dollars: George W. Bush...............$36.3 million AI Gore........................$18.2 million Bill Bradley....................$11.5 million John McCain....................$6.1 million Elizabeth Dole..................$3.4 million Preliminary figures ■I Republican : Democrat