The Book on Bush

The Book on Bush

In the Reagan years, hard-liners on the Republican Right applied a succinct slur to White House aides they deemed insufficiently conservative. "Pragmatists," these suspected moderates were called, a term sometimes shortened to the more sinister-sounding "Prags." The prags were everywhere, it seemed, preventing Reagan from being Reagan and thwarting the best-laid plans of movement conservatives. If White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III was the moderates' operational commander, Vice President George Bush was their inspirational leader.

These days, "pragmatic" is the word most often used to describe the governing style and thought process of George Bush's eldest son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP's high-flying front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination. That term is used by dozens of those who know him best, friend and foe alike. Even some conservatives, seven years into their exile to executive branch purgatory, use this term without extreme prejudice.

"If you look at his rhetoric and his record, he cannot be defined a conservative or a moderate or a liberal," says David Guenthner, managing editor of The Lone Star Report, a conservative online newsletter covering Texas politics. "When you look at George W. Bush, you are looking at the Republican version of triangulation. ... It's worked for Bill Clinton for seven years, and, so far, it's been a successful strategy for Bush."

He's not kidding. Six months before the first Republican primary, the former President's son, with the reputation for getting along with almost everybody in Austin, has built an impressive lead in fund raising, endorsements, and public opinion polls. The upshot is a sudden media focus, not all of it flattering, on the personal character, professional experience, and political philosophy of the two-term Texas Governor.

Although Texans are fond of referring to the Governor's job as the "seat Sam Houston sat in," the truth is that Texas has a weak-Governor system. The Legislature meets for only 140 days every two years, so there is no tradition of major legislation emanating from the Governor's Mansion. And the lieutenant governor actually has more constitutional responsibility than the Governor. In other words, despite Texas' power and size, there is little in Bush's current job description that would, by itself, qualify someone for the presidency. Thus, some of the most important things to know about what kind of President George W. Bush might be are the most subjective and hardest to get at: How does he assimilate information? How does he make decisions? How does he think?

Pragmatic, Religious, Clannish

"I'm interested in solving problems," Bush said in an interview with National Journal. "That's what a leader does."

Those who work with George W. Bush most closely insist there is nothing calculating about his pragmatism-it's just the way his mind works. "He thinks like a businessman," says Lawrence B. Lindsey, the chief economist on the Bush presidential campaign team. "He approaches things the way a businessman would. He is goal-oriented."

George C. Edwards III, director of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, says that because the Governor is basically a conservative person, he often gravitates toward solutions that are considered politically conservative, but stresses that it is the solution-not the conservatism-that motivates him. "He is, first of all, very pragmatic," Edwards says. "In that regard, he's like his father."

In interview after interview about George W. Bush, this trait keeps coming up, unbidden. But so do two others, which were not always associated with his father: One is a deep evangelical Christian faith; the other is a hair-trigger temper on issues of family loyalty. Together, these three characteristics-pragmatism, faith, and clannishness-coexist uneasily, as it seems they must.

In Texas, it is commonly assumed that one of the prime factors that motivated George W.'s decision to run against Gov. Ann W. Richards in the first place was her famous "silver foot in his mouth" speech about the senior George Bush given at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.

"He was very angry," recalled Edwards. "The one thing that sets him off more than anything is criticism of his parents."

Family loyalty became a near-obsession with George W. after his father's 1992 defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton, say many of those who know the son. "He is intensely protective of his father-and that emotion came through loud and clear," recalled Torie Clarke, President Bush's 1992 campaign spokeswoman. "As the campaign went on, fewer and fewer Republican officials would appear with [President Bush]. George W. was deeply offended. He expressed real aggravation at the lack of loyalty for people his father had helped for years and years and years. I don't think he's forgotten who they were."

This knack for keeping score is not exactly reminiscent of Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek. (Nor is vindicating the family name a particularly compelling reason for voters to install someone in the Oval Office.) Yet, there appears to be no reason to doubt Bush's well-documented religious awakening in his early 40s.

"He worships a much higher authority than the power of the office," says Donald L. Evans, the finance chairman of the Bush campaign and one of Bush's closest friends. As Bush emerges from a small storefront church in a black neighborhood in Cincinnati, Evans adds: "He's comfortable here. He feels good around people who he knows need his help. It uplifts his spirits to feel like he can uplift others' spirits."

Former Rep. Pete Geren, a Democrat from Fort Worth, says that in at least one other important way, George W. Bush does indeed exhibit outward and visible signs of his inward spiritual faith. "He's surprisingly modest for someone in his position," Geren says. "I have seen a fair number of people in my time in politics who thought they could be President, but not many who were humble."

"Like a Sponge"

The book on Bush as a manager is that he surrounds himself with people who are smart and loyal, delegates authority to them freely, doesn't get overly bogged down in detail, and makes decisions quickly without second-guessing or self-doubt. It sounds a lot like the style preferred by a previous Republican President-Ronald Reagan, not George Bush.

"I'm a decisive person," Bush said of himself. "I'll read summaries, and then I'll ask questions, get the summary writer and/or the disputants to state their case. I rely upon the judgment of people a lot."

Considerably younger than Reagan when the former California Governor became President, George W.-despite his mediocre academic record as a college student-gives the impression of being more intellectually curious than either the Gipper or the elder Bush.

"He listens well, and he retains whatever you give him in a memo," says Chase Untermeyer, who was head of personnel in the Bush White House and who has been appointed chairman of the State Board of Education by the younger Bush. "He has what I call his mother's memory."

George W. differs in another way from his father. Famed campaign consultant and Bush loyalist Lee Atwater, when once asked to name the most recent books read by then-Vice President Bush, rattled off a couple of Tom Clancy thrillers. When a reporter accused Atwater of winging it-and of doing so with low-brow titles-Atwater shrugged and quipped that at least he had been believable. His implication was that George Bush rarely read books at all. But Bush's eldest son does read books-and challenging ones, at that. Untermeyer recalls spending the night at the Governor's Mansion in Austin and having George W. regale him at the breakfast table, eyes blazing, with information he'd gleaned the night before from John M. Barry's prize-winning 1997 history called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

"He's like a sponge," says Larry Lindsey. "I've been to policy briefings with him down in Austin. Each of the briefings is three and a half hours straight. My brain was fried after three of them. He went to five, and he wasn't at all passive. He kept asking questions, kept probing."

But Bush's style of working through problems is still evolving. Two years ago, he expended a great deal of political capital on the rather esoteric issue of restructuring utility rates in Texas. Running with a proposal initially developed by his Democratic lieutenant governor, Bush led negotiations with the various industry interests, often hosting them at the mansion until late at night-and personally weighing in on the details of the plan. When an apparent deal fell through at the last moment, Bush incurred some criticism for not having involved the Texas Legislature in the deliberations. This year, he took a more passive role and let Austin lawmakers take the lead. The upshot was a sweeping, and much-needed, modernization of state law.

"He's very bright, he's very engaged, and he has a good feel for politics," says Bruce Gibson, a Texas Democrat who served six terms in the Legislature before going to work for Bob Bullock, the late Democratic lieutenant governor who ended up endorsing Bush in 1998. Gibson, now a Texas energy lobbyist, watched Bush up close in the utility restructuring saga. "He operates on a very bipartisan basis," Gibson says. "He calls people back. He visits them in their offices. He listens. He takes their advice. The national Democrats want to run against him as 'an empty suit,' but that is the wrong approach. It won't work because it's just not accurate."

Mark McKinnon, another well-connected Texas Democrat, worked in the legendary Austin political consulting firm run by Jack Martin, a protege of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, before leaving the firm-and the Democratic Party-to work on Bush's presidential campaign. "More than any candidate I've had the opportunity to work with, Governor Bush is comfortable in his own skin," McKinnon says in an e-mail exchange with a reporter. "Comfortable in his own skin means he is confident about his decision-making. He doesn't let the consequences of tough decisions burden his ability to move forward. Once a decision is made, he doesn't ruminate or second-guess."

"In Texas parlance," McKinnon adds, "he's a fish-or-cut-bait kind of guy."

National Journal staff correspondent James A. Barnes and reporting intern Jacqueline A. Newmyer contributed to this report.