Bush's free ride

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He's dressed in gym shorts and a raggedy white "Texas Rangers" T-shirt, and he has propped his feet up in front of the TV in a cheap Brownsville hotel room. On the screen, the president of the United States is deconstructing the verb "to be."

"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' means," President Clinton tells the invisible grand jury, in a soft, measured voice. "If 'is' means 'is, and never has been,' that's one thing. If it means, 'there is none,' that was a completely true statement."

In his hotel room, Gov. George W. Bush stares at the image of the gray-haired, pink-faced president, whose testimony is being scrutinized on CNN's Inside Politics. He is appalled. For a moment, he stops plucking cheese puffs from a bowl of salty snack mix. Then he responds with a noise that doubles for a laugh.

Snort, snort.
"Guy's unbelievable, isn't he?" Bush says, pointing at the TV, exposing a large hole in his T-shirt. "Guy's amazing."

Snort, snort.
While Clinton choreographs his latest series of bobs and weaves around the subjects of sex and Monica Lewinsky, the Texas governor watches, perhaps in awe, perhaps studiously. Clinton, after all, is the guy who beat Bush's dad in 1992 by artfully dodging questions about infidelity and integrity.

"I think lying to the American people is offensive," Bush says. "But really, I'm more offended that this guy, the president, would take advantage of a 21-year-old intern in the Oval Office. It's beyond the scope of..."

He struggles for the right word.
"It's hard to envision," he says. "Why would you do that?"
George W. Bush has envisioned himself in the Oval Office, and a 21-year-old intern is nowhere in the picture. Instead, he sees himself presiding over a happy scene in which warring Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders gather together for sodas. The repartee is playful--Bush has loosened them up with his famous one-liners--yet the banter belies serious intentions. He wants them to act nice, be civil. Just like he and the Legislature did in Texas.

Washington, of course, is not Texas, and Bush knows that. That's one reason he hasn't decided whether to run for president in 2000, though he's already been pegged as the Republican front-runner. In his adopted home state, Bush has managed to parlay a winning personality, good breeding, and considerable good fortune into enormous popularity. He is expected to coast to his second four-year term as governor, defeating underfunded Democrat Garry Mauro by a huge margin.

As campaigns go, this is Bush's free ride, much like the one that has carried him through his first four years as governor.

Politically, it just couldn't get any better. As he watches Clinton's presidential crisis unfold on CNN, he enjoys the luxury of a Texas free of political crises. Unlike his predecessors, who had to declare emergencies on issues such as school finance and workers' compensation, Bush has never had to exercise his power as governor to call a special session of the Legislature.

State Rep. John Hirschi, a Democrat from Wichita Falls, says, "It's pretty much been a honeymoon for him thus far. Since he has served during a very prosperous period in Texas, he has had little opportunity to both learn and be tested under fire."

Yet even as the governor takes it easy in his hotel room in late September, kicking back after a 30-minute workout before he pulls on a pinstripe suit and heads downstairs to give a campaign speech, he knows the test is coming. The free ride is going to end.

He says he'll decide in spring whether to run for president. If he does, he'll be the one being watched. He'll be the one doing the shuck-and-jive as political scavengers pick his bones clean.

That's how Clinton proved his toughness. That's how Bush might prove his too. "The nomination process to become president is a stiff test," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "That's how Bill Clinton showed he could take big-league punching. That's the testing process Bush would go through. If he decides to go for it, he will be tested plenty. The nomination process won't teach him about foreign policy, but it will reveal whether he has the ability to learn and the stamina to endure."

Bush knows that Clinton has demonstrated tremendous stamina, but at the same time, Clinton's family has been humiliated. Right now, the governor is hearing pleas from his 16-year-old twin daughters not to run for president. His wife, Laura, is also dropping hints, talking about how she'll miss the days when she could shop for an outfit at the mall without being recognized.

Even Bush talks longingly about old days in Dallas when he'd strike up a conversation with his next-door neighbor over the hedge. His has always been a good life, partly because Texas has never made a fuss about it. Washington will not be so charitable.

If he runs, his political opponents and the Washington press corps will examine critically his record as governor. Texas has found it impressive. Washington will find it lacking.

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.

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.

Bush boasts today as part of his re-election campaign that he batted a perfect four-for-four, even though none of the reforms went as far as he wanted them to go, especially welfare. His original plan called for capping benefits to women who bear additional children while on the dole, testing recipients for drugs, limiting the number of times someone could be on welfare to one, and ending benefits for recipients after two years. None of those proposals made it into the final product.

"The original legislation that was filed--the 'Bush welfare reform proposal'--was quite punitive," says state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee. "What we ended up with was an approach to moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency that minimizes the harm caused to recipients and their families."

Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas GOP, says he would have preferred tougher welfare reform, but does not believe Bush has the will to mow over those whom Pauken brands as political centrists, such as Bullock and Laney, to institute revolutionary conservative change in government. Pauken, who derisively calls Bush a "Me-too Republican," is one of the few Texas political figures--Republican or Democrat--who is openly critical of Bush. Bush's reluctance to embrace the far-right conservatism that Pauken espouses has made them enemies. Their battle played out last year when Pauken opposed Bush's tax reform plan because he believed it created too many new taxes without cutting government spending enough. Although Bush denies it, the governor and his supporters reportedly recruited Republicans to run for attorney general this year so that Pauken wouldn't walk away with the Republican nomination. It worked. Pauken lost in the GOP primary.

Pauken says the congeniality between Bush, Bullock, and Laney did not result in particularly firebrand reforms, but it served their political purposes quite nicely. "The governor got the headlines, and Bullock and Laney got their legislative packages passed in ways that were acceptable to them."

Yet what Pauken sees as a lack of reformist fire in Bush's belly, others see as political savvy.

"He had those issues, the big four, and he had some clear vision about what he was going to do," says Tony Proffitt, a longtime and trusted political aide to Bullock. "He was intelligent enough to know they were important issues that were already being worked on and that by working those, he would accomplish something other than a stalemate."

Today, Bush takes offense at any suggestion that he has been given too much of the credit for the 1995 reforms. He argues that civil justice reforms, for example, might not have passed at all if Richards were still governor because she was supported by the plaintiffs' lawyers who vigorously opposed them. At the same time, he does not discount that his respectful and close working relationship with Bullock and Laney has helped him--especially during that first legislative session. "The point was, they shared credit with me, and I shared credit with them," Bush says. "I think that's an important part of the process."

Bush's willingness and ability to work with Democrats--both the Senate and House were majority Democrat in 1995--underscore one aspect of Texas politics that is far different from what he would face in the national arena. In Austin, committee chairmanships are shared among members of both parties. In the House, Laney has appointed Republicans to head committees on business, the environment, human services, and insurance, to name a few. Bullock has put Republicans in charge of most of the Senate's most powerful committees, including those that oversee the budget, public education, economic development, and natural resources.

"Bipartisanship in Texas is not something Bush created but rather entered into and found congenial," says Buchanan, the UT professor. "It's Bullock who really hates partisanship."

Even so, few in Austin could have predicted that Democrat Bullock would mark his final year in office by endorsing a Republican governor for re-election--especially considering that Bullock is Mauro's political mentor and the godfather of his adolescent daughter.

Bullock has described Bush as the best of the seven governors with whom he's served. He also said he thinks Bush would make an excellent president. Laney, for his part, is endorsing neither candidate in the 1998 governor's race. Bush is not actively campaigning against any Democratic incumbent House member, thus helping Laney, who may need to retain a Democratic majority in the House to remain speaker.

Such cooperation would be unimaginable in Washington, but Bush is imagining it anyway as he contemplates whether to run for president. Any president, even Texas' own Mr. Congeniality, would be hard-pressed to practice bipartisanship in the current political climate of Washington, and Bush says he has thought about that as he considers running.

Could he sit in the stands with House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt at a Washington Redskins football game? Could he hang out with Gephardt's Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle?

"Therein lies the question," Bush says during a pensive moment during his day of campaigning through South Texas. "I understand that there is a time for politics and there is a time for policy. The problem is, in some instances in Washington there hasn't been a differentiation between the two.

"But people are longing for someone to elevate the process above the zero-sum-game world we're in. And I think that's part of the reason why I'm doing well in Texas. I think that's why people who might have been predisposed not to vote for me or like me as governor are saying, 'Wow, this guy brings a different attitude to the process.'"

For a moment, Bush sounds as though he has slipped into a Southern accent as he gives his stump speech to about 125 Republicans at a rally inside a sparsely adorned auditorium of the Victoria Electric Co-op building. Victoria was the first stop on his three-city South Texas campaign swing.

"I like campaignin'. I like seein' my fellow Texans. I like talkin' from my heart," he tells them. Hey, they like him too. There's so much like in the room that it's almost like love. When Bush leaves the stage, he is mobbed. This happens everywhere he goes.

"If you're searching for the best angle, there's not going to be one," he jokes before a flash goes off. For 30 minutes, Bush schmoozes with the masses until he has shaken every last hand that wants shaking. He shakes the hand of a woman who identifies herself only as a juvenile probation officer. Bush recalls that the pair had met before when he christened Victoria County's new juvenile detention center.

That was in September 1995, the woman, Pama Hencerling, reveals later. "He has seen me a few times since then at events like this rally," she says. "And he recognizes me every time. That's pretty good, isn't it? I'm amazed."

Some politicians are snakes. Bush is a charmer. In Victoria, he playfully punched the upper arms of three teenage boys he had just met. He cocked his head forward as an older woman talked to him, gently resting his hand on her shoulder as she spoke. He acted downright chummy to a down-home fellow dressed in overalls.

"Steve!" Bush said as he slapped Steve on the shoulder as if he had known Steve his whole life, though they had just met.

He often rewards those he knows better by giving them silly nicknames, such as "Izzy" or "Stretch." He sometimes slips into his habit of greeting familiar people by enthusiastically punching his fist in the air three times. It's quite the guy thing.

Whether meeting working-class Texans on the campaign trail or legislative leaders inside the Capitol, Bush has used his interpersonal prowess to gain political points. Jerry Patterson, who was one of only two Republican state senators not to endorse Bush early in the 1994 primary, compares Bush's charisma to that of Clinton. "Except George Bush comes across as not quite as slick, not quite as suave, and a lot more genuine," Patterson says. "That sells to people, especially those who have been around the political process for years and years like Bullock and Laney, who can smell a fake a mile away."

Tony Garza, Bush's first secretary of state and a Republican candidate for railroad commissioner, says the governor "has an intuitive feel about people. In turn, people feel comfortable around him. He has a way of making people feel like he's one of them."

The grandson of a U.S. senator from a Yankee state, an Ivy Leaguer who attended an elite prep school in Massachusetts, Bush is the unlikeliest of good ol' boys. In his inaugural address in 1995, Bush declared, "Texans can run Texas," ignoring the fact that he was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Bush was a toddler when his parents moved to Texas. He attended junior high school in Midland, but headed east to become a student at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then at Yale University in New Haven, both alma maters of his father.

Clay Johnson, the governor's appointments director and Bush's classmate at both Andover and Yale, says Bush was popular in school. At Andover, he was the school's head cheerleader. The Andover students also drafted Bush to be commissioner of their stickball league, nicknaming him "Tweeds Bush" after Boss Tweed, the infamous New York political boss.

"Everybody knew George Bush, and he knew everybody," Johnson says. "People were attracted to him then, as now. He's fun to be around. He's energizing."

At Andover, Bush says, he did fine in history and math but poorly in English. There has long been talk that he got into Yale not because of his smarts, but because of his family name. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1962. Bush enrolled in Yale in 1964.

Bush believes he was accepted into Yale on his merits, but he also tells how, while attending Andover, the dean once asked him where he planned to go to college. When Bush told him he was thinking about Yale, the dean replied, "Well, you won't get in there, so where else are you thinking of going?"

Bush admits to having two brushes with the law at Yale. One involved pilfering a Christmas wreath from a store display so he could hang it on the door of his frat house. Police booked him on a misdemeanor charge but later dropped it. The other involved tearing down the goal posts at Princeton University's football field after Yale defeated their Ivy League rival in 1967. He was not arrested.

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?"

Everybody cracks up.

Bush sailed through his first legislative session with help from his pals Bullock and Laney. His next would not be quite so easy, and it would demonstrate just how dependent the governor is on the good will of the Legislature's two most powerful men.

On a November afternoon in 1996, two months before the legislative session began, Bush gathered reporters on the front lawn of the governor's mansion and announced that he wanted the Legislature to use state budget savings to reduce local school property taxes by $1 billion over two years. He called it a "down payment" on his promise to provide Texans property-tax relief, and the moment became a milestone in Bush's gubernatorial tenure. It marked the beginning of an intrepid journey for the play-it-safe governor--the only time he would venture out on a political mission without the direct or implicit blessings of Bullock and Laney.

The pup governor was weaning himself. For the first time, he was exerting his gubernatorial power by staking his claim on a function that in Texas is reserved for the Legislature--formulating the budget.

The "down payment" Bush called for in November evolved in January into a detailed plan to reform drastically the state's tax code so that the state's public education system would rely more on financing from state taxes and less on local property taxes. His grand plan of tax shifts would have reduced local property taxes $2.8 billion while creating new business and sales taxes to make up most of the difference.

During a debate with Mauro earlier this month, Bush said his attempt at tax reform proved that he is "willing to make bold decisions and be a bold leader."

One problem: His bold plan failed to the extent that Bush has resolved not to push for tax reform during the 1999 legislative session--even though he stands by his belief that an overhaul is necessary to ensure sufficient and equitable funding of Texas public schools. "He came up with a poor plan," says state Rep. John Hirschi. "I don't think he had any constituency supporting him on the plan he came up with. He had a popular issue, tax reform and lowering property taxes, but a very weak vehicle for accomplishing a popular idea."

The motor started sputtering from the day he announced his intentions on the mansion front lawn. By making his announcement the way he did, Bush jeopardized his relationship with Bullock and Laney. The media was hearing about Bush's tax cut proposal before Bullock and Laney, and that went against form, especially for Bullock, who hates surprises.

Bullock and Laney responded in kind, but not too kindly. Each sent out terse statements to the media hours later that revealed their displeasure. "We won't know if the governor's proposal is feasible until we have seen the details of his plan," Laney wrote.

"I've been working on property taxes, and I've given a rough draft of the plan to the governor and his staff," Bullock wrote. "I have not received a plan from them."

Bush says he kept them in the dark because "I didn't feel like they were going to be supportive of it. It wasn't personal. I think they were trying to protect the legislative prerogative of how to spend the state's money. And I was the executive branch, laying claim to part of it.

"I think I semi-strained the relationship--strained is too strong of a word--I think I disappointed them by announcing my plan the way I did. I immediately marched over and told them about it after I did it."

During his state-of-the-state speech two weeks after the legislative session began, Bush dropped his second bomb. He no longer was going after just a $1 billion tax cut, but an overhaul of the state's tax code that would result in $2.8 billion in cuts. While a 30 percent drop in property taxes sounded good to lawmakers, Bush's approach to pay for it did not. Bush sought to initiate a new 1.25 percent tax on total business sales over $500,000, along with raising the state's 6.25 percent sales tax and motor vehicle tax by one-half cent each. His plan put him on the opposite side of powerful lobbying interests at the Capitol and many legislators of both parties.

Bullock and Laney were also skeptical. A business tax similar to Bush's had been a bust in other states. Liberals began complaining that increasing the state sales tax was regressive taxation and showed favoritism to Bush's rich Republican friends. If tax reform was going to happen, something other than Bush's plan had to be introduced.

A few days before Bush's state of the state speech, Laney had already seized the tax issue from Bush without the governor's even knowing what hit him. Bush wanted and expected his tax plan to be hammered out in the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Craddick, a fellow Republican and Bush friend. Instead, Laney--without consulting Bush--formed a special committee to examine the state's tax code and public education financing. He put Rep. Paul Sadler, a Democrat whom he could trust more than Craddick, in charge of the committee.

Sadler and Laney were genuinely interested in tax reform, but the House committee did not take long to scrap the Bush plan and begin drafting its own. State Rep. Mark Stiles, a Beaumont Democrat and influential House member, said at the time that killing the Bush bill was necessary because it had no prayer of surviving the House.

The tax bill that ultimately passed the House bore little resemblance to Bush's original plan. The governor's proposed new business activities tax was scrapped, while the House bill would tax doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professional partnerships that previously had been exempted.

Bush wholeheartedly supported the House bill anyway, as it would have cut property taxes $3.8 billion, or 40 percent. It also would have drastically shifted the burden of public education financing from local school districts to the state. Under the House bill, the state would have been responsible for 80 percent of the funding vs. the current 47 percent. It wasn't his plan, but the House bill met several of Bush's objectives, including the elimination of the so-called Robin Hood school finance system that takes tax money from property-rich school districts and redistributes it to property-poor ones.

The Senate, however, would have none of it. Even at his charming best, Bush could not persuade reluctant senators, many of whom were in his own Republican party, to support even a compromise bill. In 1995, Bush spent many hours in the governor's mansion with Sadler hammering out the details of education reform. When each of the four reforms passed that session, Bush visited the House and Senate floors and shook the hands of lawmakers to thank them for the support. But in 1997, he mostly sat on the sidelines during the tax reform debate in the House, except to make public nods of approval for new schemes of taxation that the House committee had settled upon. As the bill perilously held onto life in the Senate, he took a more personal approach. But by then, it was too late. One by one, he called senators into the governor's conference room adjacent to his office on the second floor of the Capitol. With a silent Bullock beside him, Bush asked the senators for their vote. Too many of them would not give it. The governor's first dalliance into serious legislative politics cratered nine days before the legislative session ended.

While Bullock disagreed with Bush's approach to tax reform, "he gave him full run of the Senate," says Proffitt, Bullock's aide. "But the Senate worked its will and said no."

Patterson says that "if anyone submarined the tax bill, it was the Republican members of the Senate"--senators whose loyalty Bush miscalculated.

Yet Bush emerged from the 1997 session with legislative leaders calling him courageous for taking up the fight of tax reform instead of a failure for losing it. Bush's friends, Bullock and Laney, led the chorus. The good will of 1995, the breakfasts, the football game, the hospital visits, they all were paying dividends for the governor when he needed them most. Although the Legislature killed Bush's hopes for tax reform, it did throw him a bone by passing a voter referendum that was designed to save homeowners $1 billion in property taxes in two years. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in August 1997.

If Bush runs for president, he will promote himself to the American people as the Texas governor responsible for the largest single tax cut in state history. What voters ultimately approved, however, was to raise the homestead exemption from $5,000 to $15,000. In other words, homeowners are able to deduct an additional $10,000 on their primary home's appraised value, which is used to calculate property taxes. School taxes paid by homeowners statewide were estimated to be cut by an average of $145 a year as a result.

On the campaign trail, however, Mauro has contended that most Texans are seeing none of those savings. He has called it a phantom tax cut, noting that 22 of the 35 largest school districts in Texas raised their tax rates in 1997 (the Dallas Independent School District was not one of them), effectively negating whatever savings a homeowner would have experienced through the higher homestead deduction. Bush argues that Texans' tax bills would be even higher if he had not pushed for the $1 billion cut.

As Mauro sees it, Bush has had one test under fire in the last four years. "The test he put in place for himself was tax reform," he says, "and he failed it miserably, both substantively and tactically."

George W. Bush is inside the library at Heights Elementary School in Laredo, the second stop in his three-city South Texas campaign swing. He is sitting in a rocking chair that is draped with a blanket featuring the design of an American flag. He is looking quite presidential, no doubt, to the 30 or so fourth-graders who sit before him on the floor with their legs crossed.

They ask him questions. What's his favorite book? "The Bible." How many languages does he speak? "Dos." What's the first thing he does in the morning? "Feed the dog and cats." How does somebody become governor? "You run for office. If you get the most votes, you win. If you don't get the most votes, you go watch baseball games."

The tone of the Laredo event takes a sharp turn once the kids are escorted out of the library and a news conference begins. Laredo, in heavily Hispanic Webb County, is one area in which Mauro actually could beat Bush. Richards outpolled Bush in the county nearly 3-to-1 in 1994.

In Washington, political pundits are looking at the Texas governor's race to see if Bush can do what perhaps no other Republican presidential candidate can--appeal to a large number of Hispanics. "There are a lot of worries among Republicans that they must be able to do well with minorities, especially with Hispanics, if they are to win in 2000," says Doug Thompson, a Washington-based GOP political consultant. "If George W. Bush can pull 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, people are really going to sit up and take notice. Sixty percent is a lot, but I hear that's what they're shooting for."

Garza, who was a county judge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley before Bush tapped him as secretary of state, says South Texas Hispanics appreciate Bush's efforts to speak to them in Spanish.

"I have said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Governor Bush doesn't speak Spanish fluently, he speaks it fearlessly," Garza says. "When he is speaking Spanish to people, it exudes that working-man feel."

Garza says Hispanics also appreciate Bush for taking middle-of-the-road positions on immigration, bilingual education, and border control--positions in stark contrast to another Republican governor of a border state, California's Pete Wilson.

But at Bush's news conference in Laredo, a local reporter is interested only in the governor's plan to help Hispanics get into college now that the state no longer allows universities to consider race as a factor in enrollment. "Well, I'm against quotas," Bush says.

Then, to explain his position on why Texas does not need affirmative action, he reverts to the cornerstone of his re-election platform--reading. Bush wants all students, beginning in the third grade, to read at their grade level. If they cannot pass the reading portion of a standardized test, he wants schools to hold them back.

The buzz phrase for moving kids on to the next grade before they are intellectually prepared is "social promotion," and Bush wants the practice to stop. Stopping social promotion, he explains to the reporter, will help minority students be able to compete equally for spots in college.

The Laredo reporter, dissatisfied with Bush's response, asks her question again. What is his plan to compensate for the loss of affirmative action? He says he just answered that. No, she says, she means what is his plan specifically. Bush snorts. A real one, not one that doubles for his laugh. The reporter lets up. The news conference ends. Bush heads to the Laredo airport.

"Tough crowd," Bush says moments before departing Laredo.
Tough? Just wait.

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