Molly Ivins is still shooting fish in a barrel

SHRUB: THE SHORT BUT HAPPY POLITICAL LIFE OF GEORGE W. BUSH By Molly Ivins with Lou Dubose Random House 224 pp, $19.95

Texas columnist Molly Ivins seems to go hard on the Texas governor simply because she can. She uses wit, the governor's record, and her famous brand of earthy humor like a wire brush on the candidacy of George W. Bush.

With a flexible reach that a long-time local earns, her scrubbing of his past goes way back and is often gratuitous; there's a lot of "Quayle-ing" of the man she calls "Dubya." But throughout, the book has the feel and credibility of a good beat reporter's notebook.

For voters eager to know more about the man many in the punditry class long ago anointed the Republican nominee for the presidency, Ivins skillfully focuses in, separating the assumed from the real.

"There are three ways to judge a politician," she believes: the record, the record, and the record.

She traces Bush's Vietnam-era career stateside through the National Guard, calling it "a story with more subplots than a Mexican telenovela." She claims that Bush and "enough rich young men to field a polo league" were accepted into a unit unlikely to see action in Vietnam in front of a hundred thousand other applicants.

And while Governor Bush has the swagger of a Texan and insists on his thorough upbringing in the Lone Star state, as a kid he spent only a year at San Jacinto Junior High in Midland. His blood was blued in the East at exclusive establishments like Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

More often than not, "Shrub" is entertaining in its interwoven references to the "Who's Who" of Texas's current and past political giants.

But more than just entertaining, the book makes a larger point about the function of the old money establishment: George W. has always had a lot of institutional backing, even when he's failed, and there's a difference between a self-made man and one with a safety net underfoot. For instance, she paints a picture of Bush the Younger being bailed out by big money in less than successful oil ventures.

In a dozen chapters that start in the Texas National Guard and wind their way through a failed Congressional campaign up to the present day, Ivins is unafraid to mock.

On his record as governor, the Bush campaign touts his stewardship of a burgeoning economy so large that it overshadows the GNP of many nations, but Ivins isn't so impressed.

"Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising," Ivins writes, "the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office," below the lieutenant governor, comptroller, and land commissioner, "but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner."

Bush's legacy footprints are so faint that an Indian tracker couldn't discern them, she suggests, but she gives him credit where credit is due. "What does emerge from Bush's record is that he has real political skills," she admits. "He knows a lot about the political side of politics, and is good at it."

Stylistically, Ivins's use of metaphor, euphemism, and Texicanology is just too much. It's like sucking salsa through a straw. When Ivins writes, there has to be a jalapeo in every line.

After a couple of chapters, you begin to wish Ivins would just drop the chalupa and leave a few of those witticisms for former Democratic Gov. Anne Richards, who must need her share of them out on the speakers' circuit.

Nevertheless, her bluntness on Bush's vagueness is funny: "If you think his daddy had trouble with 'the vision thing,' wait till you meet this one."

*James N. Thurman is a Monitor correspondent in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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