This week, Texas Governor George W. Bush heads to Philadelphia to receive the Republican party's presidential nomination. During one of his last campaign swings before the Republican National Convention, Bush talked with National Journal staff correspondent James A. Barnes between bites of airline food. The following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
NJ: How do you think your approach to leading would differ from Al Gore's?
Bush: I think that Al Gore is a part of a scene in Washington that believes that when you tear something down, when you attack, you get ahead. I don't believe you can lead doing that. I don't think you can solve Social Security's problems by creating an environment of distrust. And there's nothing in this campaign thus far that has shown me there would be a different type of attitude in Washington, D.C., than that attitude of polarization. It's one thing to criticize, it's another thing to put everything in such personal matters. I think a President has got to set a different tone. And this country is starved for a different tone, one of the reasons I'm going to get elected.
NJ: In Knoxville, Tenn., last month, you called for a new approach to the way Washington works and said that "leaving yesterday's quarrels behind" would help achieve that goal.
NJ: Is there something Republicans should let go of?
Bush: Yeah. There is a real bitterness about some Republicans, [who] are so used to the squabbles and the finger-pointing. In a speech I gave at the big gala in Washington, I basically said both parties are to blame. I happen to believe most of the onus is on the President. I think a President can set a tone. I wouldn't have run for the presidency if I did not believe an administration can change a tone and an atmosphere in Washington, I firmly believe that. On the other hand, the Congress has responded at times, too, in like kind.
NJ: You also said in Knoxville that if elected you would ask the Senate to act on your nominations in 60 days.
NJ: Thinking about the good will you said is important to establish in Washington, why wait until next year? Why shouldn't the Senate act in this session on President Clinton's nominees whose names were submitted at least 60 days ago?
Bush: That's a very good question. And I would hope that Republicans would hear my call. Now, there's going to be special circumstances in some of the cases. I mean, some judges may be deemed to be incompetent, but I hope there is expeditious review.
NJ: In this session?
NJ: And at least hearings for judicial nominees?
Bush: Yeah, if it's good enough for me, it's good enough for the President.
NJ: In terms of letting things go, how about Republican calls for a special counsel investigation of the Clinton-Gore fund raising and their criticism of the Attorney General as being derelict in duty for not moving forward with one?
Bush: Well, there's a great deal of suspicion in Washington. There are folks that have completely overstepped the bounds of fund raising and yet there's been no real accountability. I can understand why Republicans are frustrated. Right after the primaries, my opponent said he wants to ban "soft money," the very same day the President is out raising soft money. These are sleight-of-hand experts. There has been no full accountability of the involvement. I mean, yesterday the Vice President says at the Buddhist temple no money changed hands. My only point is, in the face of a call for campaign funding reform, the best campaign funding reform is going to have honest people.
NJ: It's your first week in the White House.…
Bush: Yes, thank you. I love an optimist. You're the only guy that's ever asked me that question.
… what are some of the first things you do in the office?
Obviously, Step 1 is to bring what is going to be a really interesting, smart, capable Cabinet and staff together and begin the process of doing something I did as governor- of building a team. I haven't thought this far ahead. One of the first things I did was have a full ethics briefing. I said this is the standard, the highest and all that, and attorneys briefed our staff on what to look for, what things to be careful about. Another thing is to start reaching out to Congress to prepare a legislative agenda. The first 100 days, 90 days, or 110 days will be very important. There are some executive directives like getting the Secretary of Defense started on a long-term strategic plan for what the military is going to look like. We have a chance to redefine war and, therefore, enhance peace. I really want our government and our country spending money on the military in a wise, focused fashion. Spending needs to be based upon a strategic vision that says today's military will be high in morale. We'll pay soldiers better and have better training, less deployment. This military needs to look different 30 years from now, so let's start the process today. That requires executive direction.
NJ: If elected, do you plan to use the Reagan model of quick action on major legislation?
NJ: Would Social Security reform be a hundred days agenda item?
Bush: It would be wonderful if it could be, but I think Social Security reform is going to require first and foremost a bipartisan commission, which I would hope to get in place quickly. John McCain had a very good idea on the commission. I don't know whether their recommendations could come out in the first 100 days.
NJ: Would you put McCain on the commission?
Bush: Depends on where he is. I'm not telling you.
NJ: Why haven't you done more in conjunction with Republican congressional leaders in the campaign?
Bush: You mean why haven't I campaigned with them? It's not intentional. They are where they are in Washington, and I'm out in the hustings. They're friends, they're going to be allies. But there is something else here. They asked me yesterday on TV, "Are you for the President's swap on marriage penalty for prescription drugs?" This is up to the Congress and this President to resolve.
NJ: Are you concerned that the Republican Congress and President Clinton might cut some legislative deals to benefit both of them politically, as they did in 1996, which undercut Bob Dole's presidential campaign?
Bush: I expect it. But if it's good for the country, it doesn't concern me. I don't know what you have in mind, but I will tell an example of where I thought the Congress stood strong, and deservedly so, was on eliminating the death tax. In other words, it was a pure bill.
NJ: How much difference ideologically do you see between congressional Republicans and GOP governors?
Bush: It's just a difference. I thought you were going to say between the House and the Senate, and my answer to that was it's hard to tell because of the procedural nature of both houses. You can take the same person with the same philosophy, but because the rules are different, there's a lot of procedural differences that tend to set the tenor of each body. Same with governors. We're all conservative people, but there's such a difference between a governor and a legislator. It's just a different mentality. The governors are decision-makers, they're doers, they play the hand they've been dealt, and the legislative body tends to be more reactive. I tease people, saying appropriators are appropriators. If you think they are going to take surpluses and pay down debt, you don't understand the nature of an appropriator. Both Republican and Democrat appropriators appropriate. That's why I have no faith that unspent money, is going to be spent on what people want.
NJ: Have you ever voted for a Democrat?
Bush: Well, my stock answer is they always put the curtains on the booth for a reason, but, yes, I have, in Texas.
NJ: Who are some Democrats you admire?
Bush: I greatly admired [late Texas Lt. Gov.] Bob Bullock a lot. And he passed as a close friend. When he went it was a tearful moment. Speaker Pete Laney of the Texas House, I admire Pete. We have our differences, sometimes, but I think he's been a very good speaker, and I think the success of my tenure as governor is a result of me being able to work with Pete.
NJ: Democrats outside of Texas?
Bush: I had a good visit with [Sen.] Bob Kerreythe other day. And I found him to be a very interesting man. Just willing to think anew. Bob's an interesting guy. I was very impressed by him.
NJ: Do you think the nominating process should be changed so it's not so compressed?
Bush: That's a really hard question to ask somebody that's just come through the process. We're people who get mikes stuck in our face and[asked], "Will you promise to keep Iowa and New Hampshire first?" as you're campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. I mean, you know, hello? And so we're fresh off of promises to these states. Yeah, something has to be done, I think. I don't know what the solution is. I know this, though: It was a pretty tough process, physically. I'm in great condition, and it was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. Maybe it's because it was so compressed. I mean, remember-we're flying across the country, going from New York to California to Ohio to Missouri to California to New York, and it was a lot of work. I'm not averse to work, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining, but it was tough. I think the process is good in many ways, though. It gave voters a chance to look at me. You didn't know me from Adam. You're probably wondering what this guy is all about. You now have a different set of data points. You saw me lose. You saw me lose, hopefully, gracefully. You saw me turn around and win. Everything looked like it was heading right to victory and all of a sudden I lost again.
NJ: How about what phase in the campaign, like after you lost New Hampshire?
Bush: That was a learning experience. On the road to the presidency, there are certain moments that help define who I am to the public and who I am to myself. I believe that I am growing into the presidency. And I think there's a series of steps toward that. And, there's a certain internal, hard to describe what's happening to me, because you're talking in midprocess. But there's a certain internal, certain events that…
NJ: Steel you?
Bush: Yeah, that steel you; convince you that it's meant to be. Defeat is part of it. You see the primaries are this. You wake up in New Hampshire the next morning, you just got clobbered. Then you're down in Delaware and South Carolina. And you win Delaware, and the next moment it's South Carolina, and you win South Carolina, and then it's Michigan. Those of us who have run for office before remember the victories and then remember a little time off between the victories and the transition. In other words, there's a moment. And the final moment doesn't arrive for the presidency until November. So there's a series of these emotional ups and downs, and it's like a marathon. It's like a very-long-distance race. I've come away realizing that this process requires the utmost of discipline and focus and patience, something I have not been long on in my life. But I'm becoming a much more patient person, which I think will stand me in good stead to be the President. Patience is very important, because with patience comes the confidence-confidence in the strategy, confidence in the wisdom of the American people, confidence in my own abilities.
NJ: How important do you think the debates will be?
Bush: What debates? Just kidding. I think they'll be important, part of the puzzle. I think the selection of the Vice President will be very important. I think the acceptance speech will be important, and I think some of the debates will be important. But I think the Sunday Gore and I appeared on interview shows was important. For those who were paying attention, I think people got to see me under questioning and got to see Gore. It's kind of an interesting side-by-side comparison.
But you pick moments, this is a moment. You walk away saying, you know, "complete idiot" or "maybe I will vote for him." And so do the voters. They pick up glimpses. People decide all kinds of different ways. The debates will have some importance. I found the debates in the primaries to be very important moments, important for me, important for my campaign. We got exposure. People paid attention, but they weren't deciding.
NJ: What lessons did you take from your father's loss in 1992?
Bush: That incumbency, if not properly defended, is fragile.
NJ: And his victory in '88?
Bush: That it's important to drive the agenda.
NJ: How are you like your father?
Bush: Call up people who know us both.
NJ: Same for your mother?
Bush: Sure. I don't know. A lot of people say I'm a lot like my mom. That's a hard question for me to answer. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure me out, particularly in terms of what my genetic disposition is, and my personality is, relative to my parents. I'm just not into psychobabble. But Beverly Kaufman, the county clerk in Harris County, said one time when she was introducing me, she said, "I'm introducing a very great governor, an interesting man-he's got his daddy's eyes and his mother's mouth."