Four for Four

George W. Bush got elected by promising to focus on welfare, education, tort reform, and juvenile crime. After his first one hundred days, he’s batting a thousand.

Four things, George W. Bush kept saying. My legislative program is just four things—education reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and tougher juvenile justice laws. He made them the basis of this campaign against Ann Richards last fall and repeated the litany so often that reporters began baiting him to name something else, anything, that he was interested in. Bush went along with the joke in his State of the State speech in January. “Number five,” he told the legislature, “is pass the first four things.”

Bush’s discipline has overcome the traditional weakness of Texas’ governors, who have few constitutional powers and generally get elected on pound-the-table issues (opposing new taxes, lowering insurance premiums and utility rates, cutting state employees) only to find themselves left out of the big fights. But Bush came to office with a mandate on the major issues, and as long as he stayed on track, he could not be ignored. As his administration passed the one-hundred-day mark—that artificial but widely recognized moment at which the performance of the chief executive is first measured—the former managing general partner of the Texas Rangers was on a winning streak that seemed likely to last through the legislative session. No first-term governor in memory has had such a high batting average on issues of such importance.

What’s more, Bush has managed to build his record without twisting any arms—or, as he puts it, “spending my political capital.” Like Ann Richards, he has high popularity numbers outside the statehouse; unlike Richards, he enjoys equally standing inside of Austin’s inbred community of legislators, lobbyists, and other political pros. Even Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a politician of the old school who is a legendary hard sell, is an admirer. “I’m really impressed with that young man,” Texas’ highest-ranking Democrat volunteered during an interview in March. “He’s a fine fella.”

Not a bad start for someone who was regarded as political lightweight when he announced for governor a year and a half ago. A skeptic could point out that Bush owes much of his popularity to his family name (he got a bigger ovation than U.S. senator Phil Gramm at Gramm’s own presidential fundraiser in Dallas back in February) and owes much of his legislative success to timing (lawmakers were already working on most of his issues before he began campaigning for governor). But he has also shown a talent for insider politics that no one, not even Bush himself, knew he had. He has developed a breezy, bantering, nonthreatening political style that makes him one of the boys in a way his father never was.

At this point there are no limits to his political prospects. But even as a Bush celebrated his legislative victories, signs abounded that some rough times lay ahead. Many legislators who supported his plan for deregulating public school districts did so more out of resignation over the sorry state of education than out of conviction that Bush’s remedy would work. And his nonpartisan approach is already being challenged by Republican activists, who are pressuring him to campaign against Democratic legislators in 1996. Just as Bush benefited from low expectations during his campaign and early weeks of his governorship, so he must now face the prospect of measuring up to the high expectations he himself has created. In politics, as in baseball, no winning streak lasts forever.

One morning in early May, the former president of the United States showed up at the governor’s office to meet the staff. The elder Bush was formal to point of being prim, his New England upbringing evident in every word. When he asked a Secret Service agent what Barbara Bush was doing at the moment, George W. broke in. “Well, I hope she’s making some money,” the governor said, “because God knows we need it.” His father shut his eyes and grimaced.

George W.’s off-the-cuff style has been an essential element of the success of his first hundred days. From a legislator’s perspective, he has demonstrated none of the flaws of his recent predecessors: Ann Richards’ inaccessibility, Bill Clements’ imperiousness, Mark White’s absorption with his own political interests to the exclusion of everyone else’s. He actually seems to like the legislators and the mysteries of the lawmaking process. He pops into offices unannounced; once he dropped in on El Paso Democrat Nancy McDonald, saying he wanted to meet the mother of Chuck McDonald, whose job as Ann Richard’s spokesman during the race for governor was to bash Bush. Many of his conversations involve his desire to develop an institutional memory. He is constantly asking questions: Who are the best lobbyists and the best legislators; what are the rules governing conference committees. He even asked a black legislator how the first bill giving minorities a share of state contracts—a divisive issue today—managed to become a law. (The answer, Bush was surprised to hear, was that the idea originally wasn’t controversial.) When he invites legislators to his office, he sometimes has country music playing in the background—hard-core country, songs like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” one of his favorites. He has greeted visitors while wearing a baseball cap and likes to show off his collection of autographed balls—including one signed by his mother.

The relaxed atmosphere extends to the Governor’s Mansion. He invites key lawmakers like Paul Sadler of Henderson, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, to the mansion for one-on-one chats. At social events he drinks nonalcoholic beer (O’Doul’s) from the can. His wife, Laura dresses tastefully but casually (pants and a sweater for an informal dinner) but has been known to drop in on an evening meeting barefooted.

Most legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, are more comfortable with Bush than they were with Richards. Even Richard’s political allies had to wait days, sometimes weeks, for an appointment, in part because she was so sought-after as a speaker that she was frequently out of town. But she also had no affinity for the legislative process or for the masculine humor that

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week