Inside story of the ascent of Bush

David Miner walked through the door of the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, just before noon March 1, 1999. He and nine fellow North Carolina Republican state legislators had what they hoped would be a lunch date with destiny. But destiny - in the form of Gov. George W. Bush - was visiting a West Texas school, and running a tad late.

Perhaps that made his entrance all the more impressive. As the North Carolinians toured the historic home, Governor Bush burst in upon them, all energy, charm, and twang. He stood and talked without notes for an hour and a half, while the legislators sat and ate at four tables. Mr. Miner remembers that Bush wore boots, but barely recalls the food. He still talks as if he met Elvis.

"There was not a person in that room who did not leave with energy and commitment to come back to North Carolina and work for him," says Miner today.

Fast forward to March 2000. Bush has survived a bruising primary campaign, and could become the first son of a president to win his father's old office since John Quincy Adams in 1824.

For that he has Miner - and thousands of other Republican luminaries - to thank. Never in recent history has a party organization fallen in line so fast behind a presidential candidate. Arguably it was their solidarity - and not any one state - that was the fire wall that blocked the McCain insurgency.

Yet a simple question still begs an explanation: Who picked George? Did a GOP cabal march to his Greek Revival doorstep, ring the bell, and drag a reluctant Texas governor off to New Hampshire? Or did Bush lure Republicans to Austin and then stand coyly in front of them, batting his eyes?

Evidence suggests an active courtship by both sides. Factions within the GOP, particularly his fellow governors, pushed Bush to run. He wasn't sure he wanted to - but he and his staff moved to make sure that if he ran he would be the front-runner. Miner and other curious Republicans paid their own way to Austin. Bush was setting the table, and buying them lunch.

"I don't think there was an organized recruitment process [within the party] at all," says former RNC chief Richard Bond. "I think it was a systematic process by the Bush campaign itself."

A Name Bigger Than Austin

George Christian was a legend in Texas politics when George W. Bush was still dreaming about growing up to be the next Willie Mays. In his long career as a press secretary and general adviser, Mr. Christian worked for two Texas governors (Price Daniel and John Connelly) and the one Texan who rose to the Oval Office: LBJ.

He met the scion of the Bush clan when the latter was managing partner of the Texas Rangers. They mostly talked about baseball - sometimes an unhappy subject, considering the state of the Rangers' play. After George W. was elected governor in 1994, Christian paid a courtesy call to his office. "I just read about you," said Bush, by way of greeting. He pointed to a pile of books on his desk.

The books were volumes of history about Texas politics. Bush was boning up on his predecessors. Christian, a lifelong Democrat, was impressed: "We've got a lot of politicians down here who don't even know who their predecessors were."

Christian watched as George W. focused on learning his job during his first term in office. In the Texas way, the governor built bridges to the state's largely conservative Democratic lawmakers. To this day, there are only "about a half dozen" state legislators who don't like George W., according to Christian.

There wasn't much talk about Bush running for national office in those early days - in Texas, anyway. That might have been because such a move was obvious. By 1996, when the Texas governor served as co-chairman of the Republican convention in San Diego, he had to stamp out talk of a vice-presidential nomination.

"Just the fact that he is a Bush would have led you to believe he had some future," says Christian.

Outside of Texas, some Republican elected officials were trying to prod Bush toward that future as soon as possible.

GOP governors - in the mid '90s a party faction searching for its own identity - tagged Bush for bigger things early on. For many governors, Bush became both a symbol of hope, as well as a cause of some envy. Some had White House dreams of their own, and, looking at George W., saw that perhaps they were not to be. Recently, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin noted that he decided against running for president partly because Bush had more money, came from a bigger state, and was better looking than he.

"Other than those few little things, I'd have been the front-runner," Mr. Thompson ruefully said.

A Gubernatorial Shove

Marc Racicot of Montana was one of the first to start nailing together the boards of the Bush bandwagon. Elected in 1993, Governor Racicot met George W. on the way to the men's room during a break at a National Governors' Association meeting in 1994. The name "Bush" already meant good things to Racicot - President Bush had once tried to recruit him for a US Senate run - and he and George W. hit it off right away.

At dinner that night, Bush was coincidentally seated next to Racicot's daughter, Theresa, and further impressed his Montana counterpart by making a point to include the young girl in his conversations. Racicot and Bush were close in age, close in political experience, close in ideology, and had similar families. In 1996, the Racicot and Bush clans roomed near each other at the San Diego convention.

In 1997, Racicot called Bush, unbidden, and said he should run for president. "He didn't say yes. He didn't say no either," says Racicot today.

By 1998, the governors were a rising force in the GOP. There were now 32 of them - a critical mass capable of competing with the party's congressional center of power. And they wanted one of their own to be the next Republican presidential nominee.

Gov. John Engler of Michigan was one of the leaders of this pro-statehouse movement. At governors' association meetings, he gathered his colleagues and insisted that the party needed a candidate with a moderate image, a record of getting things done, someone untainted by ties to the polarizing GOP figures in Washington. Colleagues nodded in agreement, but they weren't dreaming of President John Engler. They were sneaking sidelong glances at George W. Bush.

In November 1998, Bush, Racicot, Gov. Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts, and Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah traveled together to Israel - the sort of statesman-in-training visit that presidential hopefuls often make.

One day, the foursome visited Jerusalem's walled Old City. As they prepared to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a crowd of Americans recognized them. At least, they recognized one of them. Bush was mobbed by tourists wanting to shake his hand.

Talk about writing on walls. Governor Leavitt decided he had just seen a vision of the future. That night, he wrote this in his journal: "I've seen fate fall on a man, today."

Bush still wasn't running for president. But he and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, were making sure that he'd have a snappy jogging suit and the best shoes in the party if he did.

Foreign trips were only part of it. Bush needed a national-class team of advisers, too. In April 1998, Bush paid a visit to the California home of an old friend of his father's, ex-Secretary of State George Shultz. For two or three hours he talked issues with a hand-picked group of Mr. Shultz's colleagues from Stanford University's Hoover Institute. The session cemented ties between Bush, Shultz, economist Michael Boskin, and former National Security Council staff member Condoleezza Rice.

And Bush was already employing that most welcome of political ambassadors, money. From almost the beginning of his first term, Bush had traveled America to appear in fund-raisers for fellow politicians. It was just the sort of networking a politician with higher ambition needs to do. Governors all over the nation reaped cash due to his drawing power - as did the senior senator from Arizona.

In late April 1998, Bush was the headliner at a Scottsdale, Ariz., event for Sen. John McCain. For $250 a head, the GOP faithful got beans, barbecue, and a Bush speech that focused on the nation's moral decay. At the time, Bush denied he was laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

"There's really no ulterior motive, other than to help a buddy," he said at the time. "I really feel strongly about John McCain. He's one of my favorite political figures."

Bush was facing voters himself in the fall of 1998, and cash was pouring in to his reelection coffers. At this point, about 10 to 15 percent of his money was coming from individuals giving $1,000 each. That was money that could easily be earmarked and switched over to a presidential exploratory bid, if Bush so preferred.

Let The Deluge of Admirers Begin

The Texas governor's 1998 reelection was what finally catapulted him to the front rank of the GOP wannabes. He crushed his Democratic opponent in a year when the GOP did poorly nationwide. And the state's voters - who cast separate ballots for governor and lieutenant governor - had elected another popular Republican, Rick Perry, to be Bush's second-in-command. That freed Bush from worrying about what Texas would think if he jumped into the presidential race.

The warm-up began. Proclamations of support began whirring off the fax machine - 20 California legislators for Bush, 23 Maryland state reps for Bush, and so forth. Those curious to see what the man was really like began to arrive in person.

"We had coffee and juice at the mansion," says Iowa state Rep. Chuck Larson, who visited Bush on Feb. 8, 1999, with 11 colleagues. "We wanted to look him in the eye."

Larson says he was most reassured by Bush's efforts to connect with all the diverse people in his deputation. One of the Iowans, for example, pressed the governor on the issue of abortion.

"He said, 'I am pro-life, but there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this issue who are going to be involved in this campaign,' " says Larson. "People who were pro-choice felt they could be part of his team, too."

By spring of 1999, there was such a crush of delegations eager to visit Austin that Bush and his political staff were scheduling dates a month or more in advance. Like William McKinley's "front porch campaign" of 1896, the visits were a carefully choreographed means of inciting spontaneous support. Bush's political staff solicited some. Others came on their own.

McKinley's experience was different in scale, with hundreds of people showing up at his modest door every day, destroying his garden and exhausting his voice. But the effect of this politics of reluctance was the same: It made the object of affection more appealing to the appealers.

"The visits were orchestrated, but the people were genuinely begging him to run," says Cal Jillson, chairman of the political science department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The last piece of the puzzle was the candidate himself. His actions seemed to indicate that he was someone who had every intention of running for president. But virtually without exception, his friends describe someone who was ambivalent about the implications of the political infrastructure being constructed around him.

His wife, Laura, wasn't overjoyed about the prospect of his running. Neither were his twin teenage daughters.

Bush's staff tells this story about his moment of conversion: At a prayer meeting before Bush's second inauguration as governor, the pastor started preaching about Moses resisting God's call, and the sacrifices of leadership.

Barbara Bush - fiery matriarch of the clan - leaned over toward her son.

"He's talking to you, George," she said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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