Cautious, except when he is brash
Bush will take bold steps. But overall his style fits family credo:
AUSTIN, TEXAS — All the polls showed he shouldn't do it. The business community was against the idea. So were teacher unions and many leaders in the then-powerful Texas Democratic Party.
George W. Bush, riding a wave of popularity as governor, didn't heed any of them. In 1997, he proposed to radically alter the way Lone Star State schools are financed - a policy initiative that remains his most ambitious attempt at lawmaking to date.
Governor Bush failed, strictly speaking. By the time it emerged from the legislature the school tax plan bore little resemblance to his original proposal. It was as if he had ordered a cattleman-size steak and received the diet plate. But in a way, Mr. Bush won. Just the attempt to deal with an emotionally charged issue that he could have easily avoided boosted the governor's reputation throughout the state.
The whole episode may reveal something important about his public character. While Bush's governing style is typically cautious - as befits the scion of a family that might take "Prudence, in Moderation" as its crest - he is capable of bold, even rash steps. That means he might behave much differently in the Oval Office than did his more experienced, more tightly controlled father.
"My theory is that ... two impulses coexist in the man," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas in Austin. "One is being cautious and keeping everybody happy, with marginal changes. On the other side it's to cut loose."
In some ways the man former Texas Gov. Ann Richards once derided as "The Shrub" is truly a shoot off the old pyracantha. His rsum eerily echoes his father's: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, military flight school, the oil business, and now politics.
He could have easily slid into adulthood playing the role of the entitled son. Things simply came to him because of his lineage, including, apparently, dates. In 1969, President Nixon flew George W. to Washington on a White House jet to introduce the young man to his eldest daughter, Tricia.
But at important times in his life, Bush has taken sharp turns off the path trod by his famous forebears. He doesn't hide the fact that a portion of his life might be dubbed "The Party Years," for drinking and general carousing. He chewed tobacco at Harvard Business School, drove a junky Olds Cutlass filled with debris, and worked briefly at a firm that raised nonblooming tropical plants.
In 1986, while jogging off the effects of a night of too much Cabernet, Bush decided never to drink again. It was a quiet promise to himself that he says he has kept.
In the end, he is not his father's George Bush. He is less accomplished, but in a way he comes across as more human, or at least more at home with himself. For voters, the important question is one of leadership: How would he be different from his dad - how would he be at all - as president?
For his part, Bush can become prickly when questions turn to his leadership style. (Bush declined to be interviewed for this profile, but he did answer questions on the campaign trail in Iowa, Texas, and Washington.)
"I would describe my style as decisive ... I listen carefully to points of view," said Bush, speaking to reporters after a recent political event in Washington. "But I decide issues based upon principles, not based upon polls."
More Bobby Ewing than J.R.
Bush's experience in the volatile oil industry in the mid-1970s might hold clues about his ability to handle fast-developing situations similar to those presidents encounter every day.
On the face of it, the fact that he was getting into oil at all would seem to verify an image of a brash young frat boy with a taste for risk. But those who know Bush say his approach to the oil business was strictly prudent - more Bobby Ewing than J.R.
Rather than borrowing from the bank, as his friends did, Bush turned to investors to pay for each venture up front. If a well was successful, he shared the profits. If a well was dry - as nine out of 10 were, on average - Bush could still stave off debt for himself and keep his company in business.
Some of Bush's critics note that his family connections gave him access to capital that other oil entrepreneurs didn't have. In any case, while many of Bush's colleagues went bankrupt in the mid-1980s, as crude prices dropped from nearly $40 a barrel to $10 a barrel, Bush survived, debt-free.
"It's a very prudent way to pursue the industry," says Don Evans, a close friend from Bush's Midland days and now a major fund-raiser for the Bush campaign. "It's an approach that says, 'I'm going to be in this for the long haul and not just to get rich quick.' "
It's a share-the-risk approach that Bush followed, with a twist, in his next business venture - professional sports. Bush, a man who still reads the sports pages first, led an effort to buy a talented but underfunded Texas Rangers baseball team in Arlington. To increase profits, Bush's team proposed building a new ballpark, paid for in part by a sales-tax hike. In other words, get the taxpayers to assume some of the risk.
Bush's job, behind the scenes, was to work with Republican pollster Robert Teeter and lay out political strategy to shift public opinion. In 1991, that effort paid off grandly. The citizens of Arlington voted to raise taxes, and the park was completed in 1994, the year Bush was elected governor. Bush earned $14.9 million on an investment of $606,000.
"I think the real strength of George is that once the decision is made, he doesn't get buyer's remorse," says Thomas Schieffer, Bush's former co-general partner at the Rangers. "He believes he has to give it time to work."
As governor, Bush has pursued an incremental approach that his friends describe as an outgrowth of his steady temperament, and his critics deride as vaguely "Clintonesque." It is a leadership style that has consistently produced legislative success for his conservative, pro-business agenda.
Pro-business to a fault?
Since his first term began in 1995, Bush has continued a long tradition of operating in a relatively nonpartisan way with the state legislature. He has combined a generally corporate-leaning approach to tort reform with a number of popular middle-of-the-road goals, such as improving public schools and toughening the juvenile-justice system.
Against this context his education funding effort stands out. Why Bush picked this fight at all is not entirely clear to close observers of Texas politics. But in 1997, he proposed to cut local property taxes, the main source of school funding, and replace the lost revenue with state funds.
A new broad-based tax on business would help bring the state enough money to replace the lost property-tax money. If enacted, the reform would have put schools in poor barrios and those in rich neighborhoods on the same footing when it came to government funds. The inherent inequity of the property-tax system is one reason Bush cites for undertaking his quest.
But rich districts were already partly subsidizing poor ones under a complex "Robin Hood" tax enacted to satisfy state courts. And Bush sold his reform as an overall tax cut - perhaps with an eye on his political future.
For the clubby world of Texas politics, the education-funding controversy was an unusual Washington-style brawl. The Texas House went much farther than Bush did and voted to make the state responsible for virtually all school funds. The Senate passed a much more restrained measure.
In the end, Bush settled for a small property-tax cut and no real change in the underlying school-funding structure.
State Rep. Paul Sadler, the Democratic head of the education committee, says he admires Bush's pluck in pushing for the change in school financing. "It's harder to get more gutsy than that, when you start messing with taxes and schools," says Mr. Sadler, who worked with Bush to raise teacher salaries in the 1999 legislative session.
But Sadler does note that most of the education initiatives that Bush lists on his clipboard of accomplishments were already under way in the legislature. "One-half to three-quarters of the things he takes credit for have my name on them. Which is fine. We've worked well together," says Sadler.
Delegates like a CEO
Some critics argue that Bush is a captive of his advisers, dependent on their analysis in making up his mind on complex issues. Bush insiders tell it another way: He is a typical CEO who delegates details to a team of trusted advisers, while focusing his attention on the bigger picture. Clay Johnson, a friend at Phillips Academy at Andover, roommate at Yale, and now Bush's chief of staff, says the press has been too quick to label the governor a dim bulb.
"He's a quick study. I've always said the governor was better off summarizing the history of Western literature in three pages rather than in 15," says Mr. Johnson, noting that both he and Bush struggled to maintain their grades at Andover and Yale. He pauses and smiles. "The problem with formal education is that they like you to write the 15 pages."
Let's keep this meeting short
Today, Bush is certainly "no fan of long meetings," Mr. Johnson says from his oak-lined office at the state capitol, but he adds that this is not because of any inability to grasp details.
"He's prone to look for the key two or three elements he wants to bang home. For education, he'll say, 'Let's be sure all kids will read by the third grade, and then I'll talk about these more esoteric subjects after that.' "
Some critics say the best way to gauge Bush's decisionmaking process is to follow the money to his campaign contributors, particularly in the banking and energy industries.
In the last legislative session, for instance, Bush pushed hard for a bill that allowed major refineries and electric utilities in the Houston ship channel and other industrial areas to reduce pollution voluntarily, rather than submit to state regulation. Bush hailed the plan as "tough, but fair." Environmentalists say it was another example of Bush selling his office to the highest bidder.
"It was what his constituents wanted, but his constituents were the corporations, not the people of Texas," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group in Austin.
The No. 1 category for Bush campaign contributors is the energy industry, at $5.5 million. Second is the financial sector, at $4.8 million.
Conservative critics, on the other hand, sometimes worry about Bush waffling. They suspect that his self-description of "compassionate conservative" may mean he is less than fully committed to the conservative position on some hot-button social issues.
Consider his recent visit to the church-funded Tri-State Pregnancy Center in Dubuque, Iowa. After a quick tour and a talk with staff members, Bush praised the program for providing information on all aspects of family planning - including abortion - while clearly encouraging young mothers in challenging situations to consider giving up their children for adoption.
Asked if he supported a constitutional ban on abortion, Bush replied: "I would support one, but I think America is not prepared to pass one." In the meantime, Bush said America is changing "one heart at a time. The first step is to lead America to respect the value of life, and ... ban partial-birth abortion, and promote adoption."
Jimmy Carter with Texas accent
Where Bush's admirers see pragmatism, other political observers see inexperience or outright confusion.
"He's not that anchored in his principles," says Robert Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University in Houston, adding that most presidents eventually must decide between two strongly held beliefs. "What Bush reminds me of is Jimmy Carter, another one-term governor," say Mr. Stein, noting that Bush has just begun his second term. "He's inexperienced in public office. That doesn't mean he's not capable of it, but he needs to hire people who are experts in the field."
*Washington correspondent Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society