Not So Great in ‘78
The lessons he learned in his one and only losing campaign.
AS A CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT, GEORGE W. BUSH has enjoyed an aura of invincibility, but 21 years ago, as a political novice running for Congress in a district stretching from Lubbock to his hometown of Midland, it was a different story. During a bruising race against a wily Democratic state senator named Kent Hance, he learned some hard lessons that he carries with him today. Though remote in time and geography, this dress rehearsal for more serious political pursuits offers an instructive glimpse at his strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.
In the waning days of the campaign thousands of voters found a stunning letter in their mailbox. It began “Dear Fellow Christians,” and it went on to attack an ad in the University Daily, a Texas Tech student newspaper, promising free beer at a Bush campaign rally. “Mr. Bush has used some of his vast sums of money…to persuade young college students to vote for and support him by offering free alcohol to them,” wrote Lubbock attorney George Thompson III. After extolling Hance’s virtues, Thompson concluded that Bush’s actions “do not indicate the same high character.” Five days later Hance won the 19th Congressional District seat by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.
Long before the Christian Coalition was a force to be reckoned with, Bush received a baptism by fire into the world of fundamentalist politics and learned firsthand the perils of running afoul of religious zeal. As the governor embarks on a run for the White House, he is drawing on that experience as he expresses his personal conviction that there should be a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. After the controversy over the “Bush Bash,” he will never underestimate the ability of the Religious Right to inflame voters.
The Thompson letter also taught Bush the importance of defending himself against a below-the-belt punch. “It was my first confrontation with cheap-shot politics,” Bush recalled in an interview during the 1994 governor’s race. “It was smart because it obviously had an effect.” How to respond to the attack on the ad, which Bush says ran without his knowledge two months before the Hance campaign made an issue of it, presented an interesting choice: Hance owned the property on which a Lubbock bar, a Tech student hangout, was located. Should Bush reveal the connection? “I made the decision not to,” he said. “Just an instinctive move. In retrospect I probably should have counterattacked with, ‘How hypocritical is this?’” Instead he lamely called the letter “not fair.” Hance dodged responsibility for it but cagily observed that the incident illustrated “a big difference in our backgrounds.”
That difference—real or imagined—lost the election for Bush. Yet while his first electoral try was a failure, it whetted his appetite for politics. From the campaign, he says, he got “an odd sense of fulfillment, even in losing. It wasn’t that people didn’t like me. I finished a popular second.” And he had finished an even more popular first in the GOP primary, defeating former mayor of Odessa Jim Reese, overcoming the skepticism of old guard Republicans. “What stands out in my mind was the extraordinary amount of energy he was able to generate,” recalls Don Evans, a longtime Bush friend who is now the chairman of the UT Board of Regents. “I remember driving through the neighborhood and seeing a sea of campaign signs. They didn’t just show up by themselves. That takes a lot of organization and a lot of volunteers.”
Other than “Campaigning Is Fun,” here are the important lessons Bush learned from the Kent Hance School for Political Candidates:
Learn the native language. To the amusement of Hance’s supporters, Panhandle voters got their first introduction to young George W. in TV ads that showed him jogging. “That might be a good ad for Highland Park or Houston,” one Hance fan said at the time, “but if a guy is jogging in Dimmitt, somebody is after him.” Hance’s ads, meanwhile, posed him in rural settings around rural folks. “Everybody trusts cowboys,” explains Lubbock public relations guru Otice Green, Hance’s political adviser back then. Hance, Green notes, “tells a good joke, especially country jokes,” a talent he put to good use at Bush’s expense during the campaign. For example: “I was on a ranch in Dimmitt during my high school days, and a guy drove up and asked for directions to the next ranch. I said, ‘Go north five miles, turn and go east five miles, then turn again after you pass a cattle guard.’ As the guy turned around, I noticed he had Connecticut license plates. He stopped and said, ‘Just one more question. What color uniform will that cattle guard be wearing?’”
Stay on message. Since both candidates were conservatives, Hance didn’t waste any time on political issues. He had one campaign theme, which he drummed into the heads of voters: I am one of you. Though Bush went to elementary and middle school in Midland, Hance turned Bush’s years at an Eastern prep school, Yale, and Harvard into a negative. “He had a wonderful education, and we used that against him,” says Green. “This is a funny business, isn’t it?” The Hance campaign ads were simple and forceful: While Bush was at Yale, Hance was at Texas Tech. While Bush was at Harvard Business School, Hance was at the University of Texas law school. “In the Panhandle, if it’s Texas Tech versus Yale, Tech will beat Yale every time,” Hance says. “That’s not even a close game.”
Family name and connections can backfire. By the end of the campaign, Bush had raised nearly $400,000, much of it from old family friends like Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, former U.S. ambassador to England Anne Armstrong, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Hance charged that Bush was getting money from outsiders to buy the election, and he had help from former House Speaker Billy Clayton, who told reporters, “When money starts coming in from New York, it makes me start to wonder a little bit about the other candidate.” Bush was also harangued about his father’s involvement with the Trilateral Commission, which farmers suspected of undercutting world agricultural prices. Today Bush is careful to distance himself from most of his father’s former advisers.
Don’t burn bridges. On the day of the election, November 7, 1978, the early returns looked good for Bush. High voter turnout in Midland County gave him 14,159 votes to Hance’s 4,285—even more than were cast for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements. But fortunes reversed when the Lubbock results were counted; Hance pulled 20,778 to Bush’s 15,399. Clements, meanwhile, received 21,094 votes from Lubbock. Bush knew then that he had lost the race. “He called me when he was still leading on TV to concede and was a gentleman about it,” Hance recalls. “He said, ‘Hance, looks like you beat me. Congratulations. You ran a good race.’ I never detected any bitterness.”
The lack of rancor between Bush and Hance allowed a friendship to flourish, especially after Hance switched parties in 1985 and became a Republican. Eight years later, when Bush announced for governor, Hance sent him a $10,000 campaign contribution. After Bush won, Hance jokingly told the governor-elect that he should thank him for ending his congressional aspirations.
“I told him if it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t be governor,” Hance said.
“Yeah,” Bush shot back. “I might be Speaker.”