A Lone Star legacy
Kenneth T. Walsh
Texas is known for big talk, big dreams, and big egos. And, over the years, it has produced its share of outsize, outlandish candidates for the presidency. John Connally, Ross Perot, and Phil Gramm missed the brass ring; LBJ and George Bush didn’t. But winner or loser, candidates from the Lone Star State have always had a problem. “It used to be that Texas was considered very different from the rest of the country,” says historian Michael Beschloss. “Other Americans looked down on Texas. It was seen as uncouth and uneducated, too earthy, from the backwoods.”
Now those perceptions are being tested again by Gov. George W. Bush, the former president’s son. Bush fils is trying to stake his claim on the appealing side of Texas mythology–the easy drawl, the breezy informality, the maverick spirit. At the same time, he’s taking care to steer clear of the state’s more vexing side–the ultraconservatism and the braggadocio of the high rollers. “I think I do reflect more of the newer Texas,” the governor told U.S. News. “I mean, Lyndon Johnson and John Connally were bigger-than-life characters. . . . That’s just not my style, necessarily, although some have accused me of being occasionally a little overboisterous as a result of my Texas upbringing. But nevertheless, I don’t fill the screen quite as big as Lyndon or John Connally. And the other thing is, Texas has changed. Texas is much more urban now. We’re a diverse state, and a high-tech state. . . . I represent a different Texas than the people who cut their teeth here in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, which was [when the state’s economy was dominated by] oil and cattle and cotton.”
No whimpering. If anything, the “new Texas” is burgeoning. Two decades ago the oil and gas business accounted for 25 percent of the economy; today it’s just 9.4 percent, according to the state comptroller’s office. Technology was 5.5 percent of the state’s economic output in 1981; now it’s up to 8.7 percent. And today there are twice as many high-tech workers, about 550,000, as employees in the oil and gas business. The booming service sector also is fueling the transformation; it accounted for 24 percent of the state’s job mix in 1990; by 1999, it was 29 percent.
Reflecting these changes, the governor has adopted a leadership style modeled on the chief executive officer of a big corporation. It’s essentially the same approach used by Ronald Reagan, another Western governor who believed a chief executive should set a few clear priorities and assign subordinates to take care of the details. But there are two big differences. Unlike President Reagan, Bush has little concern for ideological purity and shows far more interest in the nuances of policy. “He does what an effective CEO does,” says Don Evans, Bush’s campaign chairman and former top fundraiser and chief executive of an oil and gas company in Midland. “He surrounds himself first and foremost with people he trusts and people in whose abilities he has great confidence. The sign of an effective CEO is he understands that he doesn’t know it all and he can’t know it all. . . . He believes you clearly define a goal or a mission, you marshal all the resources to accomplish that goal, and you give it your best shot. Then, regardless of the outcome, you move on–win or lose–and you don’t gloat or whimper.”
That’s not quite how Al Gore views his opponent. The vice president is doing his best to caricature “Dubya” as a combination of J. R. Ewing, Chauncey Gardiner, and Newt Gingrich–at once reckless, ignorant, and extreme. Last week, Gore attacked Bush’s record on crime, charging that he has unwisely cut drug treatment in Texas prisons, which has increased recidivism. The governor’s response: He actually increased spending on drug treatment in prisons from $65.1 million for 1994-95 to $99.9 million for 2000-01; recidivism, an aide pointed out, decreased by 19 percent during Bush’s time as governor. Gore also blistered Bush for caving in to the gun lobby. The issue ignited last week after an official of the National Rifle Association was captured on videotape saying that if Bush were elected, “we’ll have a president . . . where we work out of their office.” Bush denied he would toe the NRA’s line.
Just the facts. Such bickering aside, the truth about Bush’s record in Texas is less dramatic than either side would like to admit. It turns out that he has built a solid if unspectacular list of achievements and is neither a right-wing zealot nor a courageous Lone Ranger. “He’s not a guy who wings it,” says political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas-Austin. “He’s cautious and deliberate and prudent. He’s not given to taking strong stands on highly controversial issues.”
Like many corporate leaders, Bush, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School, gets impatient with lengthy policy deliberations. Aides brief him on what he needs to know as concisely and quickly as possible, and he rarely engages in endless debates, which Gore and President Clinton thrive on. In fact, the governor often pulls esoteric discussions abruptly back to earth by asking how a decision might affect a single, 30-something, waitress mom–a prime demographic group that he hopes to recapture from the Democrats this fall. “He makes sure she’s a regular character at the table,” says a senior Bush aide.
But Bush knows he still has a lot to learn. Last month, he sat through a tedious two-hour briefing on Social Security. Beforehand, he had dutifully read his inch-thick briefing book and peppered economists Michael Boskin and John Cogan with questions, especially on Gore’s statements on Social Security. In the end, Bush reaffirmed his support for allowing younger individuals to eventually control a portion of their Social Security accounts–an idea that Gore began vigorously attacking last week.
Throughout his more than five years in office, Bush has treated governing as a serious but not overly difficult business. He divides each workday in Austin into “halves,” like a football game, with a lengthy intermission in between. He works from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., then takes two hours of personal time to jog, nap, read, and have a light lunch, sometimes with his wife, Laura, at their residence. He resumes his official schedule from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Spendthrift? The governor likes aides to spar with each other, but only a few feel comfortable arguing with him–Communications Director Karen Hughes, Senior Strategist Karl Rove, Campaign Manager Joe Allbaugh, and Campaign Chairman Evans. After a round or two of jousting, Bush will make up his mind, at which point everyone is expected to accept his decision.
Bush says President Clinton has departed from any pragmatic or business-like strategy for governing. “I would argue that the president hasn’t spent capital very wisely at times,” he says. “He’s spent it on things he didn’t campaign on. . . . Plus, his State of the Union addresses: He occasionally had 30-plus different initiatives. It’s kind of an ‘all things to all people’-type administration. I tend to be different.”
This approach opens Bush to charges that he sets his sights too low. And, given his links to corporate leaders who have helped fill his $82 million campaign war chest, critics say he is too cozy with the rich and powerful. Says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin: “The political culture of Texas is still a lot more conservative and more tilted to business interests than is true of the country as a whole.” Adds political scientist William Galston, an informal Gore adviser: “The corporate culture is in every bone of his body and every fiber of his soul.”
None of this should come as any surprise. Ever since his family helped him get started in the Midland oil business, Bush’s corporate connections have been vital to his success. Those same connections helped him put together a deal to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team with other investors in 1989. He parlayed a $606,000 investment into $14.9 million when he sold his share in the team in 1998. And some of his best friends and contributors are CEOs, like Michael Dell of Dell Computer Corp.
When he first ran in 1994, Bush set four main goals for his administration–reducing crime, improving education, cutting taxes, and enacting tort reform to minimize big-money lawsuits that could harm businesses. As governor, Bush delivered on all four by working with both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, as he promised, though not without some setbacks.
In his first term, he proposed an ambitious overhaul of Texas’s school- finance and tax system. When the plan tanked in the Legislature, Bush backed off and accepted lawmakers’ simple substitute: a $1 billion tax cut taken from the state surplus. It has become a centerpiece of his presidential drive, particularly appealing to conservatives.
His other signature initiative has been improving education, which he did by strengthening his predecessors’ policies on school reform, demanding accountability, and emphasizing the need to improve reading skills. As a result, many elementary school students have markedly improved their performance on standardized tests.
Devil-may-care. Just as important is what Bush has not done. He has barely made a dent in the poverty rate, critics say, because he relies too much on “faith-based” institutions run by churches and charity groups. And his approach to fighting pollution has been to work with corporations rather than force them to clean up dirty air and water. Bush suffered a major embarrassment last year when Houston surpassed Los Angeles as the city with the worst air pollution in the nation. “There’s no question but that the policy orientation of his administration favors corporate interests,” Professor Buchanan says. But Bush has convinced most Texans he has their interests at heart and is making steady progress by focusing on a handful of projects at a time, despite the limited constitutional powers granted to him as Texas governor. He won a second term in 1998 with nearly 70 percent of the vote, receiving overwhelming support from both men and women and strong backing from Hispanics. “He has a wonderful big grin, a dashing devil- may-care kind of thing. He’d probably make a great date, but I don’t think I’d want to marry him,” says Republican Pattie Lemee, a 55-year- old administrator, who was part of an April focus group in Austin. George Francis IV, a 34-year-old black computer-services business owner, says he has become a Bush fan. “I don’t think the man is an intellectual giant,” says Francis, a political moderate, but he praised Bush for assembling a top-notch staff, treating blacks fairly, and being a “compassionate conservative.”
For his part, Bush told U.S. News: “The Texas dream means that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; you can achieve your goals. If you aim big and work hard, you can be what you want to be in life, you can own something, you can own your home, you can own your business, you can be a teacher, you can raise your family in a peaceful neighborhood. It means that the same dreams my daughter has apply to the guy out there cutting the lawn of the governor’s mansion.”
Sounds wonderful. The question is whether George W. Bush can convince the nation that what has been good for Texas, at least in the minds of the state’s voters, will be good enough for everyone else.
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