Bush's free ride

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.

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Stuart Eskenazi