“WELL, AM I RUNNING?” GEORGE W. BUSH DEMANDED TO KNOW.
I happened to be sitting in my Suburban near the south door of the state capitol, discharging a passenger, just as the governor’s silver-gray Lincoln Continental was doing the same. It was early February, well before he would announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, and a smidgen of suspense still lingered. I had waved at Bush as he went past, and he had swerved over to deliver the opening gambit in one of his favorite games: conversational one-upmanship. Having played it before, I knew I didn’t have a chance.
“Sure,” I said. “You’d be the wuss of all time if you didn’t.”
“But what about the rumors?” he shot back. Then, to my utter stupefaction, he proceeded to tick off everything the national press was investigating about his past: five or six of the most salacious things that could be said about anyone—including, in his own words, “I bought cocaine at my dad’s inauguration”—plus intimate gossip about his family.
As he well knew, I had already heard all of it through the media grapevine. “You missed one,” I said. “You crashed a jet while you were in the National Guard because you were drunk.”
He spread his hands. “That’s easy,” he said. “Where’s the plane?” Game over. He spun around and headed off.
When friends who have only a passing interest in politics ask me what Bush is really like, I tell them this story and others like it. On another occasion when his car was delivering him to the Capitol, he spied two well-heeled lobbyists walking down the steps among the throngs of tourists. He rolled down his window and shouted, “Show me the money!” They obediently flashed their wallets. One can only imagine what the common folk thought of this byplay.
A game can pop up anytime, anywhere. Recently Bush’s chief fundraiser, Don Evans, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the nascent campaign hoped to raise between $10 million and $20 million by June. Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, knew that the media would measure success by the higher figure, and at a press conference she tried to lower expectations: In 1995, she explained, Bob Dole had raised only $13.5 million in the same time frame. A TV reporter pressed the issue to Bush: If the goal isn’t $20 million, what is it? Bush looked directly at Hughes, grinned, and said, “Nineteen and a half.” “I felt,” she told me, “like I was watching my son perform in the third-grade play.”
These encounters reveal the man who is the odds-on favorite to become the next president of the United States as irreverent, unself-conscious, and intensely competitive. If you are his adversary, he delights in your discomfort—yet he expects you to recognize that it is something of an honor to be invited to play the game. His public and private personas are the same, something that is too seldom the case with politicians. If, as his detractors have charged, he is a middle-aged frat boy at heart, it should be remembered that the slogan of the French Revolution, the seminal event of the modern age, was “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”—and perhaps what is wrong with American politics right now is that in our battles over liberty and equality, we have neglected the commonality that is implicit in fraternity.
As Bush and his rivals pursue the presidency in the months ahead, we are certain to hear a lot about character. This is Bill Clinton’s immediate legacy. But to focus on character is to search for transgressions. That misses the point; a person is more than the sum of his sins. If character alone were the issue, Bob Dole would have defeated Clinton, and George Bush, loyal husband and revered father, would have won the 1980 GOP nomination over Ronald Reagan, who had been divorced and was estranged from his children. What voters really want to know is personality: Who do we want to look at and listen to and entrust our individual and collective fates to for the next four or even eight years? Who, in other words, is George W. Bush?
HE WILL INEVITABLY BE COMPARED TO HIS FATHER, but he is more like his mother. “His personality and temperament come from Barbara,” says Laura Bush. “They both love to needle and they both love to talk.” From his father he inherited impatience and high energy. They spent quality time together—the elder Bush, in phrasing that could only be his, called it “Lad and Dad”—but well into George W.’s adulthood, their relationship was marked by the competitive issues that often arise between fathers and firstborn sons. (Even today Bush’s speeches often poke light fun at his father but treat his mother with reverence.) Perhaps the source of the tension lies in the status within the family of brother Jeb, seven years his junior and the newly elected governor of Florida, who was regarded as the smart one, while George was the smart-alecky one. Had Jeb won the governorship on his first try—the same night in 1994 that George W. defeated Ann Richards—he would have been the brighter star.
“If ever there was competition with his father,” Laura says, “it was certainly gone by 1988 [when she and George W. lived in Washington and he worked in his father’s campaign for president]. He had given up drinking before we moved, and he felt more comfortable with himself. He had an opportunity most people never get—to work with his parent as adult to adult. They had time to work through any sort of competition.” This was the only time that the two Bush families had ever lived in the same city. George and Laura and their six-year-old twin girls, Barbara and Jenna, went to the vice president’s mansion every Sunday for a hamburger lunch, and George and Barbara baby-sat when George W. and Laura went on the road to campaign. The vice president even kept the twins by himself