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.

Beyond frat-boy high jinks, however, he is reluctant to discuss rumors of heavy drinking during his younger days, dismissing questions by saying he acted irresponsibly back then, but now he is a responsible husband, father, and public official. He mentions that he has always been faithful to his wife, and that the booze that might have caused him to act irresponsibly in the past is no longer part of his life. Bush, now 52, says he quit drinking on the morning after his 40th birthday party, when he woke up to a killer hangover and a disapproving wife.

There are other ill-defined aspects of his background that thus far have avoided widespread attention from the national press. During the Vietnam War, Bush entered the Texas Air National Guard and Air Force Officer Training School in San Antonio. Bush's father was a congressman representing Houston then, leading some veterans to speculate that the younger Bush received special treatment that allowed him to remain in the states.

The Washington Post, in a recent profile of Bush, asked Bush's former Guard commander, Walter Staudt, how Bush gained entry into the Guard in 1968 despite a waiting list. Staudt told the Post that Bush got in because there were openings for pilots and Bush wanted to be one. "Anyone who suggests there was family influence to get him in is a damn liar," Staudt said.

But Staudt's word would not be the last on the subject if Bush runs for president. His past business dealings are ripe for scrutiny as well. During his father's presidential re-election campaign in 1992, the national media took a cursory look at the business dealings of his sons, including George W.

"Bush kin: Trading on the name? Evidence suggests the president's relatives may be exploiting their relationship," said the headline of a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times in May 1992. The Times and others reported that in January 1990, Dallas-based Harken Energy Corp. won an exclusive contract to drill oil in the small Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain even though the company had no offshore oil drilling experience. Critics argue that Harken won the oil rights because then-oilman George W. Bush was a board member and paid consultant for the company, and Bahrain wanted to curry favor with President Bush.

During the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Ann Richards mined further into George W. Bush's Harken connections, raising questions about his June 1990 sale of $848,560 worth of Harken stock two months before the release of a poor earnings report that sent the stock value plummeting 44 percent. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigated Bush in 1991 for possible insider trading, but the agency ended its review in October 1993 without filing charges. That fact did not deter Richards, who insinuated that President Bush helped get his son off the hook. Bush has denied any wrongdoing and has said he sold the shares to pay back a loan he had taken out months earlier to buy a piece of the Texas Rangers.

The huge profit Bush reaped from the sale of the Rangers is also likely to come under a magnifying glass if he runs for president. When Tom Hicks purchased the team earlier this year for $250 million, Bush received $14.9 million on an investment that totaled a mere $606,000--a return of more than 2,300 percent. Of the $14.9 million, $12.2 million came as a bonus for helping assemble the ownership team that bought the Rangers from Eddie Chiles for $54 million in 1989. Bush worked with a group of Ohio-based investors that included William DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds, whose Cincinnati-based oil company, Spectrum 7, had bailed out Bush's ailing oil company, Bush Exploration, by merging with it in 1984. (Harken Energy bought Spectrum 7 in 1986.) Bush and the Ohio investors joined a group of several wealthy Texas investors to buy the team. For that effort, Bush is $12.2 million richer. The other $2.7 million of Bush's baseball bounty represented the return for his personal $606,000 investment into the franchise, which accounted for a 1.8 percent ownership interest. That return on investment--346 percent all by itself--reflects a franchise value that escalated from $54 million in 1989 to $250 million in 1998. The Rangers' value increased so drastically in part because of the state-of-the-art Ballpark, which the team owns but taxpayers mostly paid for through a half-cent city sales tax levy. Mauro and others have called the deal corporate welfare.

Mauro sometimes brings it up when he campaigns. But Bush hears about it rarely. On his South Texas swing, nobody asked him about ballpark subsidies or stock deals or waiting lists for the Texas Air National Guard. In Victoria, they wanted a hug, a peck on the cheek, an autograph, a photo. "I have the best son-in-law in the world!" blurts a proud woman who introduces Bush to her son-in-law after receiving a big hug from the governor. "That's not what you told me the last time I met you!" Bush shouts back.

Snort, snort.
After everyone in the Victoria Electric Co-op auditorium has gotten a piece of Bush, he makes his way down a hallway toward a room where his news conference is to take place.

Hanging on the wall, serving as a backdrop for the cameras, is a large campaign banner that features the "Bush for Governor" logo 15 times. Bush stares at it briefly, turns to the reporters and deadpans: "Kind of repetitive, isn't it?"

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