“Do you want to talk about your relationship with your father?” I ask.
George W. Bush’s lips press together and his eyes narrow above his bifocals. For a man of 47 years, he still looks surprisingly youthful. There are few wrinkles on his face, and when he forms his trademark smirk, a sort of half-grin that pushes the corners of his mouth straight up, he resembles a cocky college kid. It doesn’t take much, however, for his smirk to turn into a sneer.
“Are you going to write that kind of article?” he asks me, his voice getting edgy. “One of those pseudo-psychological me-and-my-dad stories?”
Bush sighs and looks out the window of his office, in a North Dallas high rise. Out of that same window in 1992, he watched a kid selling hundreds of “Ross Perot for President” T-shirts to drivers exiting the North Dallas Tollway. He got on the phone to Washington and told his father, “We could be in trouble.” George Walker Bush has always identified closely with his father, George Herbert Walker Bush. “He’s probably more loyal to his father than any of the Bush children,” says a family friend. It was George W. who went to Washington to tell the president that his chief of staff, John Sununu, had to be fired. It was George W. who took it upon himself during one of the presidential campaigns to screen all of the journalists who wanted to do interviews with the elder Bush. He would lean back in his chair, stare at the writers, and say, “Give me one good reason I should let you talk to George Bush.”
The writers called him arrogant. “Just doing my job,” George W. would reply, “protecting the old man.”
But on this February afternoon, he doesn’t want to talk at all about the old man. He has practically banished the old man from his race for governor. In his stump speeches, George W. never mentions his father, the leading Republican in Texas. The elder Bush is not doing any interviews or making campaign appearances. “The only reason I’m talking to you,” says George W., pointing his unlit cigar at me like weapon, “is so people can know what I stand for, not so we can discuss family history. The minute the other George Bush wades into the process, my message gets totally obscured.”
Yet it is obvious that the elder Bush is not only part of the process but also the essence of that process. What else could explain the statewide poll conducted last October, before George W. Bush’s announcement for office, that showed he would be only eight percentage points behind Governor Ann Richards if the election were held that day? Bush is keenly aware that a lot of people, even those who swear allegiance to him, don’t know a thing about him as a politician except that he is the former president’s boy. George the Younger, he’s called. The First Son. The Shrub. Regardless of how much George W. Bush wants to talk about issues, the decisive factors in many voters’ minds are likely to be how they perceive him to be like his father and how they perceive him to be different—whether they believe he has his father’s strengths or his weaknesses.
Ann Richards’ most piercing attack against Bush is that he has done nothing to prove himself as a leader. Yes, he ran an oil company and then helped put together the group of investors that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team, of which he is the managing general partner. But until his gubernatorial announcement, he had only taken a cursory interest in politics: an impulsive 1978 run for Congress and work in his father’s presidential campaigns. Bush’s critics claim he is little more than an untested candidate who hides his ignorance of government behind a wall of self-confidence—and behind his last name. “If his name was George Smith,” snorts a Richards aide, “no one would take him seriously.”
Bush’s friends and supporters, however, portray him as an articulate, quick-witted leader, a far better debater than his father, and surprisingly, a savvier politician. Nor is he timid about matching his personality against that of the legendary wisecracking Richards. “Don’t underestimate this guy,” says Fred McClure, a former senior legislative aide to President Bush in Washington and now a Dallas financier and neighbor of the younger Bush. “He’s no doubt the biggest political animal in the family—and clearly more competitive than his father.’
Demonstrating that he has indeed learned from the mistakes of his father, Bush is trying to paint Richards exactly as Bill Clinton painted the elder Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign: as a likable but ineffectual incumbent, a defender of the status quo. Bush has already positioned himself as the candidate of change in this campaign. He has introduced proposals to overhaul the state’s public education, welfare, and juvenile justice programs. He uses phrases—”the landscape for change,” “a startling new vision”—that surpass normal Republican lingo. “Believe me,” says Bush, “I’m not afraid to shake things up. Otherwise we’re stuck with more of the same problems no one has ever had the guts to fix.”
In his office, Bush sighs again. He knows he is embarking on a grueling personal journey to step out of the shadow of his beloved old man. “All that I ask,” he says, giving me another glare, “is that for once you guys stop seeing me as the son of George Bush. This campaign is about me, no one else.”
“If the election was held on Southwest Airlines,” Bush tells me, ‘‘I’d win in a heartbeat.” We are on a morning flight from Dallas to Midland for a campaign appearance, and he has already signed half a dozen autographs on cocktail napkins for other passengers. On a Southwest flight a few days earlier, sixteen people sitting in the eight rows behind him handed him a sheet of paper that they had signed, promising to vote for him. Before boarding