How George Got His Groove

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At times over the past few months it has been hard to know which story to believe about George W. Bush: the one about the inexperienced pretender plotting to seize the throne, or the one about the reluctant son of a former president who wasn't sure whether he wanted to step into his father's shoes. This week, as he crisscrosses the U.S. in pursuit of the presidency with money and momentum on his side, the best way to grasp what's happening may be to imagine that both stories are true. That might help explain how George W. finds himself one of the strongest presidential front-runners in memory--even though most people outside the U.S. aren't quite sure who he is.

Bush says he has already raised more than $36 million in campaign funds, substantially ahead of all other contenders for the Republican Party's nomination--and twice as much as his most likely Democratic opponent in the November 2000 general election, Vice President Al Gore. Recent opinion polls put Bush ahead of Gore by 56% to 41%, with the other Republicans in single digits. Since Bush formally launched his campaign last month, he has been drawing large crowds and obsessive media coverage. Despite all that exposure, he has mastered the survival skill of saying relatively little about his policy preferences, lest opponents nail him on a detail, or the formidable conservative wing of his own party finds reason to abandon him. But Americans don't choose their next president for another 16 months, so there's plenty of time for Bush to prove himself truly unstoppable--or to blunder into the most spectacular crash in modern political history. Either way, the world is going to be seeing a lot of George W. Bush Jr. in the next year or so.

The world certainly knows from whence Bush sprang biologically. Few could miss the features of George Sr. in the son's face, and his personality is frequently compared with mother Barbara's. But the trajectory of his political career is less familiar. The reason is its steepness: when George Bush Sr. last ran for president in 1992, his eldest son had yet to hold elected office. Seven years later, after only four years as Governor of Texas, George W. is trying to become the first second-generation American president in history. So who is this guy?

The story has an only-in-America feel to it--and is a logical extension of former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson's famous dictum that a week is a long time in politics (heck, then four years must be an eternity). Can a person, even one with a very presidential name, become Leader of the Free World with no national experience and the shortest of careers in public life? Or should that prize go only to the proven, the tested, the experienced? A close examination of The Education of George W. Bush Jr. indicates that he is all of the above: a newcomer to the global stage, perhaps, but unmistakably a man of many parts.

The pivot point in this spectacularly swift tale was 1986, when George W. was an oil prospector in the West Texan town of Midland, working the same industry his father did before his public career. But 1986 was the worst of times for Midland, oil prices were crashing--and George W. took his first step toward changing his destiny.

Tom Dickey was a young geologist at Bush's oil-exploration company, Spectrum 7, and he remembers ducking into Bush's office looking for some optimism among the general gloom, usually a good bet from Bush. After all, Bush is that lean, kinetic, glass-half-full kind of guy who enjoys edgy verbal sparring. But this time Bush was fresh out of optimism. With his cowboy boots propped up on his desk, he was leaning back in his chair, gazing out the window at the parched and desolate landscape of Midland, 80 km from the New Mexico border. The financial capital of America's largest oil-producing area, Midland was a boomtown going bust.

Since January, the price of oil had been dropping like a stone, from $25 to $9 a barrel. Independent oilmen like Bush were going under every day. From the Rolls-Royce dealership on down, the whole town was getting shuttered. "I don't know, Dickey," Bush said. He was about to turn 40. He had been telling his employees that the hard times would last a few months, that they would just ride 'em out. But he let down his guard. "I don't know where the hell this is all going," he said. "Dickey, you need to get out of here. You need to go where there's some action."

Bush might have been talking about himself. Normally, he liked to plow ahead, come what may. "The Bombastic Bushkin," as his friends called him, had never had a life's plan, never needed one. But now he was feeling stuck, restless, more than a little bored. He wasn't making money or having fun. He didn't have to worry about putting food on the table (Bushes never worried about that), but money was a way to keep score, and he was losing the competition, courting failure in the same business--and the same town--where his father had struck it rich 30 years before. Spectrum 7 was bleeding to death. He would either have to sell out or shut down.

He had other issues as well. Booze was one. He drank too much--never during the day and not enough to count as bingeing, but so much that his wife Laura and at least one colleague had urged him to quit. God was also on his mind. Bush had been opening up to his faith, reading the Bible seriously for the first time in his life. "I believe my spiritual awakening started well before the price of oil went to $9 a barrel," Bush told TIME in an interview in his polished-wood governor's office in Austin, Texas. But he acknowledges that 1986 was a watershed year in his life, "a year of change, when I look back on it." He pauses. "I really never have connected all the dots that way."

How did a man who was, as a cousin once described it, "on the road to nowhere at age 40" find the road that led him here? Even some close friends are surprised by Bush's sudden rise. Others who knew him casually years ago are astonished that he might be deemed presidential timber. "If George is elected President," says Midland geologist David Rosen, a Democrat who was once a neighbor of Bush's, "it would destroy my faith in the office. Because he is such an ordinary guy. Likable and decent? Sure. Presidential? I wouldn't say so."

The late bloomer is a rare but recognizable presidential U.S. type. Think Harry S. Truman or Ulysses S. Grant. No one can say whether George W. Bush will join their exalted ranks, but it certainly is possible to trace how he changed his life and made such a thing possible. The answers are in West Texas in 1986, Washington in 1988 and Dallas in 1990.

Within a few months of his encounter with Dickey, Bush quit drinking. Soon after, he sold his ailing company for a fortuitous profit and moved his family to Washington, where he worked on his father's 1988 presidential campaign and, he has said, "earned his spurs" in the old man's eyes. He helped put together the group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team and plotted a run for Governor. It was as if someone had thrown a cosmic switch and his future came into focus. "Let's face it, George was not real happy [in Midland]," says oilman Joseph O'Neill, one of his closest friends. "It's the first-son syndrome. You want to live up to the very high expectations set by your father, but at the same time you want to go your own way, so you end up going kicking and screaming down the exact same path your father made. Then, with the Rangers, he really hit stride. It took some hard times and big jobs to bring out the bigness in him."

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