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.

Yet beyond politics, Laney's and Bullock's loyalty to the governor is also personal. The three have become good friends.

One Friday night in the autumn of 1995, Bush surprised Laney by accompanying him to his hometown of Hale Center--a speck on the map between Amarillo and Lubbock--to watch a high school football game. Whether or not it was a sincere act of friendship, it was a masterful move, football being something akin to a religion in the Panhandle. But it was just one step toward cementing the relationship between the Bush and Laney families--one that has grown so strong that Laura Bush sat next to Laney's wife, Nelda, and comforted her during the memorial service for her father.

Bush has also softened up Bullock, who has a reputation for being crusty and ornery. He once went to Bullock's ranch in Llano, nearly two hours away from Austin, for the sole purpose of personally delivering Christmas gifts. When Bullock was hospitalized in Austin for a week in 1996 with a mild case of pneumonia, Bush visited him almost every day "just to hang out," he says.

During legislative sessions Bush would drop by Bullock's office to discuss policy--as opposed to Bullock's having to visit him in the governor's quarters--a minor breach of protocol that won Bush points. Every Wednesday morning when the Legislature was in session, Bush, Bullock, and Laney would breakfast together.

To hear Bush describe it, their relationship is like an arranged marriage in which genuine affection grew--thanks to some heavy wooing from the governor.

"I think I was realistic and practical enough to know Bullock was a strong man in the Senate," Bush says. "I was a wise enough person to see if I could befriend him. If it was impossible to befriend him, I was prepared to go on my own. But the better course of action any time is to try to make alliances if the alliances can lead to a common purpose. If they can't, you just have to battle. I didn't want to battle, but I was prepared to. Fortunately, I didn't need to with him or the speaker.

"Lieutenant Governor Bullock and Speaker Laney could have made my life miserable," he adds, "but in so doing, it would have been a disservice to Texas. They could have sabotaged me, and I'm grateful that they didn't."

Neither Bullock nor Laney would agree to be interviewed for this story.
Bullock, who is retiring at the end of this year after four decades in state politics, is notorious for his temper and his unpredictability. He can single-handedly undermine a political career--even if the target is a fellow Democrat. During the 1993 legislative session, the House passed a bill to legalize the carrying of concealed handguns. Then-Gov. Richards said she would veto it. State Sen. Jerry Patterson, a Houston Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, says Bullock presided over a gathering of senators and suggested--a Bullock suggestion being tantamount to a command--that the Senate ought not consider the bill. Debate on the controversial measure, doomed though it was once it got to Richards' desk, would take forever, so Bullock urged the senators to spend their time on legislation that had a chance of becoming law. In doing so, Bullock would protect Richards from having to exercise a politically unpopular veto.

Over Patterson's protests, the Senate decided not to hear the bill.
But after a few days had passed, Bullock paged Patterson late at night. Patterson says he is unsure what set off Bullock, but he recalls Bullock telling him, "'The Senate should pass it, and we don't care what Richards wants to do.'

"The Democrats were so disgusted with Richards' advisors by that point, so tired of her chain being yanked by people who didn't know about or care about the House or Senate," Patterson says, that Bullock wasn't averse to hammering her. The Senate passed the concealed handgun bill in the form of a voter referendum, which Richards vetoed, costing her votes among East Texas Democrats and sportsmen across the state. It also caused a backlash against her among some blacks in Houston, thanks to the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Ron Wilson.

"Richards was out of touch with the legislative mind-set, which was conservative--even though it was a Democratic majority," says Patterson, who is leaving the Senate at the end of the year. "George W. Bush has been in touch with that mind-set and has gained admiration of Democrats and Republicans as a result."

At no time was that more apparent than during the 1995 legislative session--Bush's first as governor.

Bush's campaign platform in 1994 hung on promises to reform education, juvenile justice, welfare, and civil court procedures. Not coincidentally, the conservative-leaning Legislature had already been working on overhauling state laws governing all four. In 1995, the Legislature passed major bills on each reform. On the last day of the session, Bush admitted that he knew going in that his chances for success were good. "I had confidence that we could collectively score some big legislative victories because these were conservative notions, endorsed by a conservative electorate, with conservative bodies--the House and Senate," he said then.

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