The Evolver

Before he was the leader of the free world, the “liberator” of Iraq, and the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon, George W. Bush was just a guy with terrible clothes trying to win his first election. In an excerpt from Dead Certain, Robert Draper recalls the dilettante who would be governor—and the governor who decided he was ready for the big time.
Illustration by Robert Grossman

George, you’ve got no base here. All you’ve got is a famous name.” This time, George W. Bush listened when Texas political operatives like his longtime friend Jim Francis warned him about running for office. It was early 1989, and ever since the previous Thanksgiving, the president-elect’s son had been discussing with friends the 1990 gubernatorial race. He’d now distinguished himself on a national stage as his father’s gatekeeper, his speech-making surrogate, and, when the press disparaged Dad, his avenging angel. Lee Atwater had made some calls to Texas kingmakers on George W.’s behalf. Among those who believed the son could prevail in a contested Republican primary and then slay the dreaded Ann Richards was another Atwater protégé, Austin direct-mail specialist Karl Rove.

But if Rove was wrong, George W. would end up defeated, probably broke, publicly ridiculed as a man whose only achievement was to be born a Bush.

Instead, he moved to Dallas and bought a baseball club.

As stairways to a governorship go, George W.’s was as original, if not quite as cinematic, as Teddy Roosevelt’s abandoning a life of letters and bureaucratic appointments to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. Seeing the Bush name as instant credibility, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth gave the imperial wink to the group George W. began assembling to buy the Texas Rangers in April of 1989. Of the $86 million asking price, George W. himself could pony up only $606,302 —the subject of much smirking in some circles—but the Rangers group was hardly hurting for money. What it needed was a managing general partner who could generate some local excitement about this sad-sack American League franchise.

Beginning with that first season in 1989, George W. planted himself in Arlington Stadium—not up in the air-conditioned VIP suite where Laura and the twins occasionally sat but right behind the home-team dugout, adjacent to first base. He made it a point to sit through all nine innings, no matter the score, no matter how brutal the summer heat. He sat there sweating right through the short-sleeved dress shirts that Laura had helpfully bought him, scarfing down peanuts and hot dogs, autographing literally thousands of his own personalized baseball cards for fans who lined up hoping for a moment with Pudge Rodriguez or Pete Incaviglia but settling for the signature of a president’s son.

The way George W. saw it, this wasn’t small ball. He was changing the culture of baseball in the Dallas—Fort Worth Metroplex. A new stadium was in the works. And speeches—he’d darken every Rotary Club’s door in the region, always talking about the family experience and building traditions, and it didn’t seem to matter how larded with hokum it was; ticket sales always shot up after the managing general partner ran the circuit. What other baseball owner did this sort of thing?

To other tasks as baseball exec, George W. was less suited. He could barely sit still during the lengthy stadium construction meetings, and he left the tough personnel decisions to others. (This included the infamous Sammy Sosa trade to Chicago, though at the time neither Bush nor anyone else in the Rangers organization thought that manager Bobby Valentine was dealing away a home run king.) His preferential treatment of the great Nolan Ryan—excusing the 42-year-old pitcher from certain road trips, letting Nolan’s boys romp around in the clubhouse—rankled a few teammates. Now and again he made untoward comments to the press, such as when he predicted that the Rangers would win the pennant in 1992 or when he expressed an interest in Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, leading Boston’s front office to accuse him of tampering.

In some ways, the job was an invitation to regress. He could hang out in the cafeteria jawing with the veteran scouts about the lineup of the 1962 Pittsburgh Pirates. He could stride into the visiting announcers’ booth and have a snicker with Bob Uecker or Phil Rizzuto. He could fill shelf after shelf in his office with baseballs autographed by the game’s legends. He could play cards with the manager. He could spend weeks touring the nation’s great ballparks for “research.” He could let the twins play whatever music they wanted over the stadium loudspeakers. He could wear cowboy boots garishly bearing the Rangers logo and not be viewed as pathetic.

He could do all this and get filthy rich, his $606,302 total investment ballooning into a sellout check for $14.9 million less than a decade later.

But apart from what he could do, did he really know what he was made of, deep down?

Not yet.

The humiliation of his father’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992 had only begun to subside when George W. told Rove, “The great irony is, Dad’s defeat makes it possible for me to consider running.”

He needed a reason, of course. It wasn’t enough to simply take down Ann Richards, the helmet-haired dragon lady who had sucker punched his father—really, the whole Bush family—with her acid quip at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Then one day, George W. was driving around Dallas, listening to the radio, when he heard Richards say she frankly had no idea how to solve the mess that the Texas school financing system had become. He had his reason. “I can’t believe a governor would say, ‘I don’t know what to do’!” was his sputtering refrain thereafter.

He summoned to his office a Democrat and Dallas school board trustee named Sandy Kress. When told by Kress that he wouldn’t endorse a Republican, George W. replied, “I didn’t ask you here to back me. I want to know these things.” And George W. read from a notepad containing his scribbled lines of inquiry: How do we hold schools accountable? What difference does money make? Who are the best experts?

He summoned as well a Dallas County judge named Hal Gaither. “Teach me about juvenile law,” George W. said. “I’ll make the time.” When

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