How I Learned Not to Underestimate George W. Bush

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George W. Bush during his years as governor of Texas

The evening of the inauguration we went to the Texas-Wyoming ball where a lounge act from Austin named Mr. Fabulous played. We saw many friends from Austin, for the most part people like us whose children were about the same age as the Bush daughters and had grown up with them. Except for the small detail of thousands of strangers milling around, it was almost like being at one of their graduation parties. Indeed we weren't there because of political ties but because this mingling of friends and the presidency was too improbable to ignore. In time the President and his wife appeared on the bandstand. He made a few jaunty remarks and clowned a bit as he danced with Laura. In a few moments they were gone. After a while, there wasn't much left to do but pick up our commemorative champagne flutes and walk through snow and sleet back to our hotel.

For the six years that George W. Bush was governor of Texas I was editor of Texas Monthly, a position that allowed me to watch the stages of his political metamorphosis. I first met him when Karl Rove, who would later run Bush's campaign for president and is now a Bush adviser in the White House, called to say that Bush was going to run for governor and wanted to talk with me. He was still with the Texas Rangers baseball team then, and we met in his office in Dallas. It was filled, as his governor's office would be, with baseball memorabilia. After we had introduced ourselves I asked a question and then said hardly another word for 90 minutes as Bush talked rapid-fire about whatever seemed to pop into his head. I don't remember a thing he said. In fact I didn't remember anything even as I left his office. I do remember asking myself, "What was that all about?"

From wooden to winning

During the campaign, when it was hardly a certainty that he would beat the incumbent Ann Richards, he had four issues — juvenile justice reform, tort reform, education and welfare reform. He was coached to talk about those four issues and that was all he did talk about. He had become the precise opposite of the rambling scatter-shooter I had met in his office. He was somewhat wooden, but he stuck to the four issues relentlessly and it proved to be a winning strategy. In fact he was so wooden and so programmed that I don't think anyone was prepared for what happened next.

From the moment Bush arrived in Austin, he was the man in charge. It was as if everyone had underestimated him and by the time they wised up he was in control. This isn't easy to do in Texas, where the governor's office is weak, as Bush's opponents never tired of pointing out as they tried to diminish his experience as governor. In fact, this criticism should be turned on its head. That Bush took charge despite the inherent weakness of his office is something no other governor has been able to do since John Connally in the early '60s. Bush wooed the Democratic leader of the Senate and the Democratic Speaker of the House. It was Bush's legislative agenda that occupied the energy of both houses. He got the state excited about education again, and continued to press until the legislature passed the reforms he wanted. His appointments were good, his ideas were good, his relations with the legislature were good. He rarely blundered (I can think of only three real missteps in six years) and his popularity in the state soared. He didn't get everything he wanted — he couldn't change the structure of property taxes in Texas, for instance — but it didn't matter. His ascendancy and his popularity never faltered. As governor of Texas, from the first moment to the last, he had perfect pitch. When he ran for reelection he got about two thirds of the vote.

A unity of Texas spirit

None of his success had been preordained. Bush made it happen. He didn't succeed by diligent study. He did it by political instinct, by force of personality, by clearly stating his goals and repeating them again and again, and by exhibiting no other motive for his actions than the good of Texas. He maintained a unity of spirit in Texas politics that also had not been seen since Connally. And the minute he left, it vanished. The legislature convened early this month with the leadership bickering and suspicious of one another, and with many ready to lead while few are ready to follow.

When he began to campaign for president, he faltered badly. In Texas it was easy to see that the person campaigning was not the person we had known as governor. Suddenly, the man with perfect pitch was completely off-key. He seemed to revert to the haphazard rambler I had met in his office. But he found his bearings, began to emphasize certain issues — especially education, where he is well versed — and once again it was good enough, barely, to win.

I attended his inaugurations in Texas. They were nice affairs at the Capitol. They seemed grand at the time, but of course the presidential inauguration dwarfed the Texas ones. It wasn't just the crowds and all the hoopla and the metal detectors and the legions of tense security forces. It was the complexity of all the loci of power represented on the podium. It seemed impossible that anyone's ear could be tuned to so much dissonance, much less, I have to admit, someone you were used to seeing at the parent-teacher night at the local high school.

Revels in the rituals of everyday life

Of course, it's good, I think, to have a president who has been to the parent-teacher night at the local high school. Despite his family name and his privileged education, Bush revels in the rituals of everyday life. When he said his farewell in the Texas senate, he said he is and will always be a Texan and broke into tears. Much of America may be conflicted about who he is, but he is not. His talent, as it's now easy to see looking back past the election to his years in Texas, is not campaigning but leadership. Just as he didn't think he was weak when he assumed the supposedly weak office of governor of Texas, he doesn't think he is weak now. He will try to set the agenda with a few legislative programs, as he has with education. And he will mention them every time he speaks. It may well prove to his advantage if everyone on the platform as he was sworn in is underestimating him just as we did in Texas when he first took office.

The difference is that as president you can't choose to lead with only your own issues. The world will always force things into prominence. How well he does then will be his real test. Bush is the first president since Eisenhower who did not have a long life in politics before assuming office. Standing in the crowd with these guys from Austin — Tim and Layton and Billy G. — it was strange and unnerving to see another guy from Austin up there with one hand raised and the other on the Bible. Bush makes you wonder this — if you're smart (and, yes he is) and if you know how to lead (which he does), does ordinary life prepare you to run the country? We'll know the answer soon.