Bush's free ride

With a little help from his Democratic pals, George W. Bush has become the GOP front-runner for president. But it's a cold world beyond Texas' borders, and it may take more than charm and luck to carry a good ol' boy to the White House.

Indeed, reporters will discover that his main policy successes were pre-ordained by House Speaker Pete Laney, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, and the conservative-leaning Texas Legislature. They will find that the one time he stepped out on his own and pursued the most significant policy endeavor of his tenure, tax reform, it ended in failure.

They will also delve into his blurred personal and professional past, demanding specifics about his younger days when he caroused and drank heavily. They will want proof that he did not receive preferential treatment when he entered Yale University--and the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War. They will re-examine how an inexperienced oil outfit he helped direct managed to obtain exclusive drilling rights in a Persian Gulf country while his dad was president. They will look into how he turned a $606,000 investment in the Texas Rangers into a $14.9 million windfall when the team was sold earlier this year.

As CNN's crew of political seers pontificates for the thousandth time about whether Clinton can survive his latest crisis, Bush chatters disjointedly about how one negative nugget about a person, transmitted via the Internet or some TV or radio talk show, can take on a life of its own. Even if it isn't true.

Used to be, he says, opinions were written and published with forethought. Now they are spoken or written off the cuff and submitted carelessly to the American people. This bothers him because it can turn someone nice into someone not so nice.

He, of course, thinks he's nice.
Asks one Washington political consultant: "Can any presidential candidate last under the scrutiny that will come up in this current atmosphere we're in? I don't know. Things keep popping up. The best advice I can give any candidate right now is to think back, because what they think is not a skeleton may damn well be one before it's all over."

As the time for his speech to Rio Grande Valley-area educators draws near, Bush excuses himself to an adjoining room, showers, changes clothes, and goes downstairs with his wife, who has just arrived from her own day of campaigning for her husband. As people's eyes turn toward the couple, the noise in the room grows to a din. It is the sound of anticipation--the hope of meeting someone who may be the next president of the United States.

In the foyer, Bush poses for a photo with Miss South Texas. "Miss South Texas!" he coos. "I was hoping I'd get to meet you. You have beautiful eyes."

Miss South Texas is 7 years old.
Bush and his wife smile for the camera, then meander into the crowd of friendly faces. There's a lot of love in the room, a lot of warmth.

But it's a cold, cold world out yonder, and this Yale-educated good ol' boy knows he's going to need a lot more than charm to take his act beyond Texas' borders.

Austin has become the new City of Brotherly Love since George W. Bush was elected governor. The transformation began shortly after Bush defeated Gov. Ann Richards in November 1994, when Bush first sat down to get acquainted with House Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

During the campaign, Richards' supporters had characterized Bush as brash and not too bright, but Laney, who had never met Bush, most likely did not put much stock in that catty appraisal, for the speaker himself is walking proof that appearances can deceive. A rancher and used-car-lot owner, the 55-year-old Laney stutters like Porky Pig and giggles like Petunia. His colleagues once roasted him about his needle nose in barnyard sexual terms, making Laney blush. It doesn't take much to make Laney blush, but that bashful exterior covers a master tactician. Laney claims that the outcomes in his chamber simply reflect the will of the majority of the House, deftly ignoring how he finesses those outcomes to match his own will.

Nevertheless, the initial meeting of the two most powerful Democrats in the Legislature and the new Republican governor, fresh from his victory over the popular Richards, might easily have been tense. Would rookie Bush talk down to the experienced Laney, reminding the speaker that the governor's mandate comes from voters across the state, not from merely one of 150 House districts?

If he had, it's not likely that Bush would be riding so high today.
Instead, the governor-elect asked for Laney's friendship. Bush told Laney and Bullock, who presides over the Senate, that he wanted to do good things for the state, but that he needed their help. If he screwed up, he wanted them to steer him back on course. Laney then gave Bush an invaluable introductory lesson in Texas legislative politics.

"Mr. Bush," he said, "we can make you a good governor--if you let us."

For three years and nine months, Bush has done just that, forging a sort of mixed marriage with the two Democrats that has allowed the governor's star to soar. Part of the good will among them rests on the fact that the three share a conservative, pro-business ideology. Then there's simple political expediency. In a state in which the governor's powers are limited to the veto, the bully pulpit, and executive appointments, Bush knows he must get along with the Legislature and its leaders if he is to succeed. Bullock and Laney in turn have watched out for Bush's best interests, which, not coincidentally, have usually dovetailed with their own.

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