The W. Nobody Knows

What he’s like in real life.

June 1999By Comments


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 the night before a debate with his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis.

This stands out as the pivotal time in George W.’s life, the period when he conquered the old bugaboos—the drinking, the hard-to-outshine father, the squandered birthright. In 1987 he had been 41 years old and going nowhere; by 1989 he was putting together a deal to buy the Texas Rangers and entertaining thoughts of running for governor in 1990. Always cocky, he had now acquired a different kind of self-confidence, one rooted in the successful exercise of self-discipline.

Both self-confidence and self-discipline are central to Bush’s personality. He has always been a creature of routine: Get up early, feed the cats, walk the dog, bring coffee and the newspaper (and the girls, when they were babies) to Laura; in the evening, always be the first to arrive at a party (“Mr. and Mrs. Prompt,” says his wife) and never the last to leave—but today he tries to impose that daily predictability and control over the demands of a hectic life as governor and presidential candidate. He is a stickler for staying on schedule and gets impatient when things go wrong. I was with his traveling party on a campaign stop in Brownwood when we arrived a bit early and only the birds were at the courthouse to greet him; his scowl had his aides reaching for their cellular phones within seconds. He gets to his Capitol office by eight in the morning; takes private time from eleven-forty to one-thirty, when he runs three to five miles at the University of Texas track at a pace of seven and a half minutes a mile and afterward might play a little video golf or computer solitaire until three; several times a month he also gets presidential briefings. He doesn’t like interruptions, although he will go to the telephone if his dad calls. (“When somebody says, ‘The president is calling,’ we know which one it is,” says his legislative director, Terral Smith.) For appointments, he allows five minutes leeway, no more. When the time is up, an aide will knock on the door. Usually Bush will say something like, “That’s all right. This is important.” Then, five minutes later, the knock will come again and he’ll stand up. He often entertains dinner guests at the Governor’s Mansion, but when nine o’clock arrives, he can be as unsubtle as, “Okay, you’re outta here.”

He reads at night, another habit (current bedside books, according to former librarian Laura: The Color of Night, the latest thriller by David L. Lindsey; Hadrian’s Walls, a novel by Robert Draper; and John C. Waugh’s Reelecting Lincoln). He also likes to surf the Internet (it’s where he reads the Houston Chronicle), but his online preference runs to e-mail, a communication skill he honed when one of the twins attended school in Rome this past fall. One thing he doesn’t spend much time doing is watching TV news. “We quit watching in the ’92 campaign,” says Laura, “and we got out of the habit. He’d rather watch baseball anyway.”

Though no longer associated with the Rangers, Bush remains a devoted fan; he owns an electronic device that gives him up-to-the-minute scores, refers to baseball in his speeches, and converses about the game with anyone who will listen. In 1995, at his annual Christmas party for the media, he asked a few of us what team we first followed when we were kids. I mentioned the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League. “Pidge Browne,” he said, correctly pronouncing the last name of the long-ago first baseman with two syllables. “I was there when he got his first big-league hit.”

All of this seems rather normal—or perhaps, for a man who is seeking the presidency, abnormal, as George W. Bush has little of the obsession with politics that you might expect. The Bushes’ closest friends are nonpolitical and often date from the time when he was a young oilman in Midland or, in Laura’s case, growing up there. For those who would wish for clues to the state of the Bushes’ marriage, certainly a ripe subject for president-watchers these days, let it be noted that he is the kind of husband who enjoys spending social evenings with Laura and several of her old friends who now live in Austin. Social conversation with longtime pals runs to family, mutual friends, and Midland, not politics—even with Don Evans, another Midlander, whom Bush appointed chairman of the UT Board of Regents in 1995. Last June, the Bushes threw a party on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion for Midland friends that Laura called “the thirty-third and one third reunion of Midland Lee and Midland High.” Among Texas politicians, Bush is more in the mold of former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby, who came to politics late and always maintained a life apart from it, than in the mold of Lyndon Johnson, for whom politics was all-consuming and had been all his life.

HOW DOES THIS PERSONALITY PLAY OUT? His impatience shows itself in meetings, which he hates (“They bore me”), and briefings, which he tolerates. “He likes to get to the heart of the matter, the things that aren’t in the briefing book,” says Karen Hughes. He is likely to interrupt a discussion that he thinks is going nowhere and ask a big-picture question. Earlier this year former Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was advising him on national security—the number of troops, morale, benefits, and so on—when Bush interrupted: “Wait, let me ask something. What is the role of America’s defense today?” Answered Wolfowitz: “I wish more people would ask that kind of question when discussing details of military budgets.”

But his focus on the big picture to the exclusion of the little one has a downside. Bush is not a policy wonk. He prefers ideas to plans; his concept of a leader is someone who sets the agenda with a few broad policy statements and delegates the specifics to the Legislature—an approach that has worked well as long as his proposals already had strong support (as was the case in 1995) and not so well when he alone was pulling the wagon (as has been the case with his efforts in 1997 and 1999 to reduce school property taxes). Not being a detail man, he has never fully appreciated that the fate of legislation often depends not on the philosophy behind it but on the tiny details that can have enormous ripple effects. Even an issue as simple as his proposal to lock up all juveniles arrested for illegal possession of firearms caused him an embarrassing temporary setback this year when it proved to be unworkable in rural areas that have no juvenile detention centers.

His notion of how to be a chief executive has been heavily influenced by watching his father’s presidency fall apart. President Bush reneged on a campaign promise (“Read my lips: No new taxes”); Governor Bush fights on for the property-tax relief he proposed, despite legislative urging that he accept an alternative that would enable him to declare victory and head for New Hampshire. President Bush had a 91 percent approval rating but did not use his political capital and watched it dwindle; Governor Bush spends his capital by taking on the biggest issues he can find—education reform in 1995, tax reform in 1997, and requiring all students to read at their grade level in 1999. President Bush pledged to be the education president and the environmental president; Governor Bush has said that “to be for everything is to be for nothing.” Just because he isn’t involved in an issue, though, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a position, as a group of university chancellors found out this spring when they went to see him to ask for $1 billion more in spending for higher education. Would you take $500 million? Bush asked. Okay, they said. Just kidding, said Bush, but I cut your budget 50 percent in thirty seconds. Come back when you can justify what you’re asking for.

He is formidable in these informal settings. Bush speaks louder with body language than any politician I have ever seen. He slouches in a chair to convey utter confidence. He bobs his head when he talks as if to indicate agreement with his own words. He snaps his fingers to effect a transition in a conversation. And he talks with his eyes. They widen to show sincerity, light up as a prelude to a joke, narrow to show disapproval, and look upward to suggest irony—usually to the accompaniment of a one-syllable guttural chuckle, a “heh” straight out of Beavis and Butt-head.

This personality doesn’t come across on television, a medium on which he can seem stiff and formal. But with his fellow politicians and his own staff, he is adroit at creating intimacy. He tags them with nicknames: Bob Bullock was, inspiredly, Bully, and Karen Hughes is Prophet, a play on her maiden name, Parfitt. And he makes great use of physical contact. On a visit to the office of a House committee chairman, a Democrat who has control of several bills that are crucial to the governor’s legislative program, Bush began by kissing both of his cheeks, as if they were a couple of Mafia dons about to seal a secret pact. On a visit to the House floor, he lobbied a Republican legislator with an independent streak by locking an arm around his neck, drawing him close, telling him “You need to be with me,” then pressing his victim’s cheeks together until his mouth formed an “O.” The legislator told me later, “He was like a teacher telling me, ‘I know what you were doing while I went to the restroom.’” This personal style may not have gotten him all of the legislation that he wants, but it has achieved something equally valuable: the goodwill of just about everybody in the Capitol, Democrats included.

But that all comes to an end sometime this summer. For the first time in more than four years, he will have to deal with people who do not wish him well—his rivals for the Republican nomination, Democrats who want to inflict wounds on the front-runner, a cynical media corps, and the inevitable rumormongers. In the peculiar calculus of presidential politics, how he reacts to criticism will be more crucial than the substance of the criticism, and Bush will have to curb his natural tendency, which is to vent his anger and then forget about it. So far so good: “I’ve already been asked by a reporter at a press conference, ‘Is it true you wrestled naked in a coffin at Skull and Bones [at Yale]?’” he says. “I tried to give him a withering stare. I’m not going to play their game. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m going to bring honor, integrity, and dignity to the office.” And, he might have added, humor. If it were possible to banter one’s way to the presidency, he would be a shoo-in. Instead, George W. Bush will have to prove himself all over again.

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