George W. Bush's dream job has always been baseball commissioner. So why is he running for president? Try a father's heartbreak, a mother's revenge, and the blindly competitive streak that has surfaced whenever failure loomed: at school, in business, at home, or, now, in the biggest game of his life.
Bush League: From left, Neil, "Poppy," Jeb, George W., and Marvin in 1970. During the Kennedy era, Poppy was heard to say on occasion,"Just wait till I turn these Bush boys out." From the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Saba.
When I first read this back in 2000, my blood boiled over the easy ride the media was giving Bush. Rereading it, every worry I had of a Bush presidency has come true. In spades. Just like the Democrats who now try to spin their 2002 vote for the war in Iraq, the members of the press corps had abundant red flags waved in their faces warning them what a disaster a Bush presidency would be, but they chose to ignore them.
The Vanity Fair reprint of Gail Sheehy's article from the 2000 campaign trail:
The Miami Air charter belches ominously before takeoff from La Guardia to Detroit in late June. The pilot mumbles something about a compressor stall, "nothing to be alarmed about." After a 20-minute delay, it is Governor George Bush himself who saunters down the aisle toward the press section. He rolls back on his heels and throws his hands up in the air. "Haaay, don't worry about it." Big grin. "This is the optimistic campaign."
He leans against a reporter's seat with one hand poised on his hip, confident, handsome, infectiously informal, full of energy and benign mischief. His face is a constant play of expressions, most of them clownish or mocking.
"Anybody got any questions?"
"I do," I call out, raising my hand.
"Nooo real questions." He thrusts out his hands in halt mode. "Just chatting." And he launches into a marathon of small talk for over an hour. Bush knows full well the value of cultivating the press. He has a little tease for each reporter: "Hey, are you gonna give me glass half full or half empty?" Or "What about you—will you be stalkin' me, too?" It's a more jolly campaign than most. Bush sets the tone: "We're like a little old travelin' family—the whole experience."
A day later, flying from Cleveland to Austin, I ask Bush if he has any reaction to the new "civil union" law upheld by the Vermont Supreme Court allowing gays the rights and responsibilities of married couples.
"I missed that," he says. "Is that like gay marriage?" He wrinkles his nose.
Told it is a new alternative, he says, "I haven't heard anything about it. I'd only be interested if it were an issue in Texas."
I ask this national candidate what he reads in the morning. "New York Times. For news. Good foreign coverage. I don't read stories about myself, which sometimes have news." He smirks. "Chronicle, of course"—he nods to the Houston Chronicle reporter. "Sometimes read clips from The Wall Street Journal. Course we get the wire services.
"Couple days ago I read a piece in the Financial Times about, uh, uh"—he knits his eyebrows in mock seriousness—"arbitrage. Fascinating." As if pleased with himself for getting the word out correctly, he repeats it. "Yeah, aaar-bee-trage."
This being a trip where Bush is intent upon bashing his rival, Al Gore, for the high price of gas, the governor mentioned in a speech the need to develop new oil and gas sources in the "overthrust belt." I ask him what it is.
"That's part of the West where the tectonic plates slide over each other." He pokes fun at us: "I'll have to take it a little slower—far be it from me to speak over the heads of the press and insult your intelligence."
"Just don't overthrust us too often," I tease back. "Why hasn't there been exploration out there?"
"There has been a little. It covers several western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah. There's a lot of interest in western oil companies about it. You'd have to ask Don Evans," referring to his campaign chairman. Evans, like Bush and the running mate he would later select, Dick Cheney, is an oilman.
"Is it environmental issues that have held back exploration there?"
Bush nods, as if only mildly interested. "Probably." Then he bounces right back to the business of charming the press.
"Hey, Gail, did you go to the baseball game last night?"
"No, Governor, I was traveling with you." I ask if he plans to go running when we arrive in Austin later in the day. He says definitely. "Could I lope along behind?" I ask.
"Are you a loper?" He moves past my seat, then turns back, smirking. "An interloper." He says I can't run with him today. "Too hot. It's 97 degrees down there."
"What about you? Are you environmentally … "
"Adapted?" The Texan candidate chuckles. "Yeah, I'm environmentally adapted."
He likes best to run in the hammering heat of the Texas noonday sun, and he hits the concrete running. No warm-up, no stretching. George Bush is a "red-ass in a hurry," as the sportswriters say in Texas, meaning he has a whole lot of energy and aggression to burn off or he's likely to blow. He has always been that way. When Barbara Bush took her 13-year-old son and his best friend, Doug Hannah, to play golf at her Houston club, George would start cursing if he didn't tee off well. His mother would tell him to quit it. By the third or fourth hole he would be yelling "Fuck this" until he had ensured that his mother would send him to the car.
"It fit his needs," says Hannah. "He couldn't lose."
Once, after his mother banished him from the golf course, she turned to Hannah and declared, "That boy is going to have optical rectosis." What did that mean? "She said, 'A shitty outlook on life.'"
Even if he loses, his friends say, he doesn't lose. He'll just change the score, or change the rules, or make his opponent play until he can beat him. "If you were playing basketball and you were playing to 11 and he was down, you went to 15," says Hannah, now a Dallas insurance executive. "If he wasn't winning, he would quit. He would just walk off.… It's what we called Bush Effort: If I don't like the game, I take my ball and go home. Very few people can get away with that." So why could George get away with it? "He was just too easygoing and too pleasant."
Another fast friend, Roland Betts, acknowledges that it is the same in tennis. In November 1992, Bush and Betts were in Santa Fe to host a dinner party, but they had just enough time for one set of doubles. The former Yale classmates were on opposite sides of the net. "There was only one problem—my side won the first set," recalls Betts. "O.K., then we're going two out of three," Bush decreed. Bush's side takes the next set. But Betts's side is winning the third set when it starts to snow. Hard, fat flakes. The catering truck pulls up. But Bush won't let anybody quit. "He's pissed. George runs his mouth constantly," says Betts indulgently. "He's making fun of your last shot, mocking you, needling you, goading you—he never shuts up!" They continued to play tennis through a driving snowstorm.
It is something of an in-joke with Bush's friends and family. "In reality we all know who won, but George wants to go further to see what happens," says an old family friend, venture capitalist and former MGM chairman Louis "Bo" Polk Jr. "George would say, 'Play that one over,' or 'I wasn't quite ready.' The overtimes are what's fun, so you make your own. When you go that extra mile or that extra point … you go to a whole new level."
This blind drive to win was instilled in the Bush clan by George's paternal grandmother, Dorothy Walker Bush, described by her daughter-in-law Barbara Bush as "the most competitive living human." Anyone who challenged her to a swimming race just didn't know Dottie; she would keep pulling through the cold, choppy sea off the Maine coast until she had exhausted her competition. At the family compound in Kennebunkport, Dottie saw that the children and grandchildren were ranked on their expertise in every activity from fishing to checkers to horseshoes. Big George, her son and the future president, was also an unbridled competitor; he even had to beat his own children at the family tiddlywinks championships. But given Big George's scorecard—model Andover student, captain of the Yale baseball team, combat veteran who flew torpedo bombers over the Pacific, successful oilman, congressman, U.N. ambassador, C.I.A. director, envoy to China—there was no way for Little George to beat the old man at his own games.
Perhaps as an adaptation to that impossible contest, Little George dedicated himself to being the cutup, the funster, the genial wise guy. And in this behavior he was egged on by his mother. The two engaged in almost nonstop towel snapping, topping each other with cutting remarks, some so cruel that Big George would have to leave the room.
"It's like you cloned Barbara to get George," says Bo Polk. "The president would say, 'I love my wife, but sometimes she says the damnedest things.' Same thing with George—it was always a problem in handling him. He'd say it like it is, and screw 'em."
George Bush Sr. had the highest hopes for the oldest of his four boys, the one to whom he gave his name. (And, by the way, Barbara Bush is steamed about the press calling her son Dubya. "His name is George. And that one over there," she says, pointing to her husband, "is Poppy.") When the upstart Kennedys reigned as America's royalty in the early 60s, Poppy, son of Senator Prescott Bush, was heard to say on occasion, "Just wait till I turn these Bush boys out." But for years the eldest son broke his father's heart. Frivolous, unfocused, sometimes reckless, George didn't seem the slightest bit interested in politics. With no game plan, George was a red-ass in a hurry, all fired up, with no idea where he was going.
Throughout his boyhood and the nomadic years of his 20s, and continuing through the wildcat years of his 30s as an oilman drilling on other people's money and boozing to blot out his failures, nothing engaged his attention for any length of time. He was lectured by his rich uncle, George Herbert Walker, a banker, on the concept that politics was the only occupation worth pursuing. "He didn't have any passion for running for Congress, or for governor," says Bush's personal accountant, Robert McCleskey. "I think it was in his blood, but I don't know if he had it on the brain," suggests Charlie Younger, the boyhood friend who in 1975 climbed onstage with Bush to dance with Willie Nelson. Even as an adult, George was so out of control that his mother, then the president's wife, removed her eldest son to the opposite end of the table at a state dinner for the Queen of England. Although sober by then, the First Son had introduced himself to the Queen as "the black sheep of the family."
George W. Bush was then 44 years old.
"He was charming, but he just didn't give a shit," says Bo Polk. An admitted former cocaine user, Polk found George a ready carousing partner. "The ability was there, but George had no motivation. The family never thought he would want to go through the life a politician has to go through—it's not as much fun."
There was one thing that Bush did find fun. In 85 interviews with some 70 of Bush's friends, classmates, and business associates, there has been one passion, and only one, that has run as a steady theme throughout his life.
The "Bushboy," as they called him in Texas, carried his little baseball bat around with him all during the school day. His third-grade teacher in Midland, Austine Crosby, remembers little about the boy's class performance, but "he was always rounding up someone to play baseball. The kids liked him, and I imagine he started his ability to round up workers when he was that age." When his elementary-school principal, John Bizilo, noticed George hanging around before school with his bat, the principal would peel off his coat and tie and hit fly balls to the boy.
"He would catch more than his share," says Bizilo. "He was a little feisty bantam rooster."
Otha Taylor, the Bushes' maid in Texas, remarks on the single-mindedness of 12-year-old George. "He was just interested in baseball." Asked if George had to work hard on his homework, Taylor chuckles. "That would be impossible, because he was always out playing ball." But hard as he tried, he struck out a lot.
School held little interest for George, and reading even less. The one thing he read avidly as a boy was baseball statistics. "He learned batting averages, positions, how many home runs and errors; baseball is a game of numbers—it impressed me," says Randall Roden, a childhood friend, now a lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina.
But very early on, George got a taste of what it would be like to own not just the bat and ball but the whole team. George Herbert Walker was one of the original owners of the New York Mets, and he took his nephew to the team's first spring training. The thrill never left him. "His father had access to private planes to take us places, and great seats at the Cotton Bowl," says Hannah. But George was always partial to baseball. His father had great seats at the Astrodome. "And when the Mets came to Houston, we'd get to sit in the owners' box seats," says Hannah. "It was as good as it gets."
So good, according to George's wife, Laura Bush, that he "always wanted to buy a baseball team, to be an owner like his Uncle Herbie." Hannah remembers another, even clearer dream expressed by his buddy. "He wanted to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis," America's first baseball commissioner, legendary for his power and dictatorial style. "I would have guessed that when George grew up he would be the commissioner of baseball," says Hannah. "I am still convinced that that is his goal."
One assumes that this close pal of the Republican presidential candidate is speaking with tongue in cheek. But no. "Running for president is a résumé-enhancer for being the commissioner of baseball," he insists. "And it's a whole lot better job."
It fell in his lap. The possibility of buying a baseball club, the fantasy stirred by his Uncle Herbie and the Mets, was dangled in front of George's nose at the very moment he was out of a job and completely overshadowed by his father, who had just been elected president. During the 1988 campaign, Bush had been happy acting as his father's enforcer, throwing his weight around and taking lessons from the avatar of in-your-face campaigning, Lee Atwater. But once Big George was the winner, his son felt more like Little George than ever. He wanted to get the hell out of Washington.
Not a week or two after the election, an old family friend, Eddie Chiles, whispered in George's ear: his ball club, the Texas Rangers, was up for sale.
"Hey, Betts, you still lookin' around for a franchise in the sports business?" "Yeah, definitely," said Roland Betts.
Bush told him about the Rangers and his close friendship with the owner, and hustled the New York Democrat to "get down here to Texas and check it out" in a hurry.
Betts, who later created the Chelsea Piers sports complex on New York's Hudson River, was thrilled by the idea. Meanwhile, Bush hurriedly put together a group of Yalies from Cincinnati. Peter Ueberroth, then baseball commissioner, obviously favored the Bush name over a half-dozen other bidders, despite the fact that Bush's backers were not Texans. To ensure that Bush's group closed the deal, Ueberroth put him together with big Texas money in the person of Richard Rainwater, a Fort Worth financier, and his numbers man, Edward "Rusty" Rose. George's own stake in the team was a mere 1.8 percent, or a $606,000 investment, most of which he borrowed from a local bank. The rest of the nearly $86 million purchase price was put up by Rainwater, Betts, and the Ohio boys, and a few silent partners.
When Bush showed up in Dallas in 1989 as spokesperson for the new owners of the Texas Rangers ball team, his first press conference was testy. Randy Galloway, an esteemed Texas sportswriter, challenged the president's son right off the bat: "Why do you deserve to own this team?"
First comes the smirk, says Galloway, then the red-ass would have a snapper ready: "Because the commissioner thought so, and he has the final say," Bush spat back.
"George struck me as just another smart-ass who shouldn't be owning a baseball team" was Galloway's first impression. "This was a setup being forced on our part of the baseball world because he was the president's son."
As the "front man" for the Texas Rangers, Bush was the perfect cheerleader, attending every home game, including this one at the Ballpark in Arlington during the 1994 season. David Woo/Corbis Sygma.
But Bush wasn't one of those owners who huddled in the front office counting receipts. You could always find him at the ballpark, and early enough to watch batting practice. He went along on spring training and attended every home game right through the season, and he didn't come in a suit and sit up in the air-conditioned owner's box. He came in a golf shirt and sat down in the stands right next to the Ranger dugout, chewing bubble gum like just another fan. He'd ask the batboy for sunflower seeds and spit them out, like the players. He put to work his experience as a male cheerleader at Andover by cheerleading for his ball club in speeches all over the state.
No sooner had he fulfilled his fantasy of being an owner, like Uncle Herbie, than Republican Party big shots began putting pressure on him to run for governor. This was in 1989. "Ann Richards was running for the first time, and the party needed a big name, somebody bulletproof, to challenge her," says Lisa LeMaster, a Dallas public-relations executive who became Bush's first image-maker. Bush knew this was not a game he could win. As one strategist told him, "You haven't done shit." LeMaster gave him a line to explain why he wasn't ready to run. "You can say, 'I'm far more concerned about the pennant race than the governor's race.'" That was the actual truth. LeMaster says she believes "that passage—from President Bush's son to George W. Bush, owner of the Texas Rangers—was the biggest."
Did the idea of running for high office excite him? I asked Bush's former oil-business partner Mike Conaway. "It's hard to say he was excited," Conaway acknowledges. "His true fantasy of life was to be a major-league baseball player. So being head of the Rangers was as good as it was going to get."
One day Bush crept up behind Conaway at the ballpark and laid a chin on his shoulder. Looking out on the green surface shimmering under the fireball of a Texas sun, he purred, "My own personal field of dreams."
Gradually Bush won the respect of the team's management and his investors as well as the sportswriters. He spent money on the neglected Rangers minor-league farm system. He and Betts auctioned off the privilege of building a new Rangers stadium to the city that would pay for it out of taxpayer money. When the city of Arlington agreed to take on the $190 million project, Bush outsized his own father in Texas newspaper headlines. On the bottom of the front page was a headline about President Bush's conduct of the Gulf War. But up top, in type as bold as a declaration of war, the headline screamed: arlington voters okay tax hike to build stadium.
Then, in the fall of 1992, they came to him again—the party kingmakers, the moneymen, and the political consultants—urging him to run against the now popular Governor Ann Richards. They would raise all the money and pave the way. This was one decision in his life over which George Bush lost sleep.
Shortly after Fay Vincent was forced out of his position as the commissioner of baseball that fall, he got a call from the one owner who had boldly defended him—George Bush.
"What would you think of me becoming commissioner?" Bush blurted.
Surprised, the old family friend said gently, "George, I think you'd be terrific. However, I don't think it's going to happen."
Bush sounded confident. "I've talked to Selig and he tells me he'll support me." (Bud Selig, then owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, had helped oust Vincent and was acting commissioner.) Bush confided to Vincent, "But they're pushing me to run for governor. I'm going to have to make up my mind one of these days."
Vincent applauded the idea of Bush's running for governor. "You'd be great, and if you want to run—"
Bush interrupted. "I think I'd rather be commissioner than governor."
Bush wanted the baseball job so badly that he stalled for a full year, as frustrated as a bride at the altar waiting for the groom to show up. When he called Vincent the next fall, he was still not entirely resigned to losing out. "Selig still says he wants me to be commissioner, but nothing's happening," Bush reported. "I told them I have to decide in a couple of weeks." He made one last glum call to Vincent: "You were right, nothing happened. I'm going to run for governor." And then, in November 1993, he announced he was challenging Ann Richards.
Running for governor was his fallback position.
Vincent laughs dryly at the wonderful human irony of it all. "The great point is, George would have loved to be commissioner of baseball, and if Selig hadn't been playing him along, he would have been commissioner and he wouldn't be running for president!"
When Bush finally did make his political intentions public, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Randy Galloway felt a sudden thud of loss. "As you get to know him, in spite of yourself you do like him, and for me that was a total 180-degree turnaround," he admits. At the next opportunity Galloway sank down beside owner Bush in the dugout, just the two of them, and asked him, "Why in hayall are you doing this? You can't beat her. She is too popular."
"Randy, I'm not runnin' against her," Bush said. "I'm runnin' against the guy in the White House."
The venom in his voice conveyed a very personal motive: Bush had to avenge his father's humiliation in losing to Bill Clinton. Galloway remembers, "The way he said it was like a blood oath."
Bo Polk believes "it's an accident that he got into politics." He confirms that Bush's great hope was to be named baseball commissioner. "But these Bushes have this duty thing. You give something back to the system. Ann Richards had just beaten the hell out of his dad, and Barbara really didn't like it. She told George, 'Go get her.'"
Lacey Neuhaus, a Houston friend, agrees with this analysis. "His dad had just lost. It ate him up. He was driven to go after the people who had trashed his dad. Ann Richards was tied to Clinton—or a surrogate for him—and therefore a perfect target.… Running gave George a way to vent."
Doug Hannah sees another layer to his friend's motivation: "He had to run for governor to prove to himself that he could win something. To prove it to his dad."
But president? Why is this man who claims he never gave a thought to being president, never cared, never prepared, now running as hard as he can to be president?
Any question about his motivations or the major turning points in his life or his midlife spiritual redemption—although he campaigns on it—raises the hackles and invites a curt response from George W. Bush. "It's not that complicated," he tells reporters, or "I'm not really the type to wander off and sit down and go through deep wrestling with my soul."
Normally, people would take a man at his word. Except when he is running for president. And not when he is running what sounds more like an evangelical movement than a political campaign, and fervently declares, as Bush does, that "to truly change the culture we must have a spiritual renewal in the United States."
Surprisingly, some of his closest friends were not aware of any momentous passage or prodigal son's return or any great religious awakening. For instance, during the period in the mid-80s when, Bush says, he found Christ and gave up drinking and "got right with God," Mike Conaway, who worked with him every day from January 1982 until September 1986, says, "I didn't see any change in his behavior." Curiously, Bush never sat down and talked with his prep-school and college roommate, Clay Johnson, who works with Governor Bush as his chief of staff, about "his increased religiosity. If he describes himself as born-again, that's what it is," says Johnson uncomfortably. "But I think a born-again is somebody who has felt a sudden passion.… George is not somebody that would lament openly or opine openly or emote openly or grieve openly or jubilate openly."
His conversion certainly didn't come about as a result of contemplating past sins. He proudly rejects introspection and has no interest in looking back over the "youthful indiscretions" that characterized his first 44 years. In interviews Bush repeatedly says, "I'm not one of those people who say, 'Gosh, if I'd have done it differently, I'd have … '" He pauses for a few seconds to contemplate his life, then confidently concludes, "I can't think of anything I'd do differently."
How did George Bush attain such an enviable state of self-respect, without hardly trying?
What is his worldview? Who and what shaped it? Is he merely a Name, a facsimile of his father, whose speechwriters first coined the sly slogan "compassionate conservatism"? Is he the breath of fresh air who will restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office? Is he a contemporary version of Shakespeare's Prince Hal who has finally shaken off his dissolute ways to assume the burden of his birthright as a member of one of America's political dynasties? Or is he something much more personal: the instrument of revenge, sent forth by the grudge-holding Barbara to punish Bill Clinton for driving Big George into irrelevance and soiling the White House with his low-class ways?
A close examination of Bush's life uncovers an interesting pattern, one that emerged in his school days and has repeated during his years as an oilman and in his recent political career. He seems motivated to make a real effort only when he is failing, or when he has gone too far in shaming his family, or when he is in a game he is sure he can win. His opponents, judging him by the careless, smart-aleck mode that he usually affects, size him up as a lightweight and are then caught flat-footed when he beats them. But once Bush figures out the game, says Roland Betts, he can lose interest and go on cruise control.
His root values go back to his first 14 years growing up in Texas. The Permian Basin offered an easy, laid-back way of life, very much oriented around family and material success. It was a green oasis scooped out of the vast ashen desert of West Texas and a Republican island in a state that was then solidly Democratic. The children of Midland's oil elite lived in a cultural bubble of white affluence and belonged to the same country club. Even the oil-field workers were mostly white or transient Mexican immigrants. The only black people in Midland worked in the kitchens or yards of the white people and literally lived on the other side of the tracks. "The blacks couldn't wear dress clothes going downtown, only overalls or a uniform," remembers Otha Taylor, the black maid hired by the Bushes in 1958 for $27 a week to look after George and his three younger brothers.
"The younger ones were all crazy about their big brother," Taylor says. "When he hit that door, they'd squeal, 'Here's George!'" His parents treated him almost like a grown-up, which he resisted by throwing jokes in the face of authority figures. Taylor never for a moment thought George would be running for president. "In fact, I didn't ever think he would be governor. Jeb was the most serious one."
But, for all his privilege and the status of eldest child, it may have been considerably harder for George Bush to measure up than for many of his peers, and not because he was stupid.
When George was 13, his family moved to Houston, where Saturday mornings were meant for boys to ride bikes and play ball. But not for George. His mother kept him inside to drill him with flash cards. "He probably had 5,000 words on cue cards," says Hannah, who would be waiting impatiently outside. "He would go into a guest bedroom and study, his mother testing him; sometimes he'd be inside for three hours." Otha Taylor also remembers George's mother working with him with flash cards. "Mrs. Bush was very interested in her children's reading." When he was left to his own devices, says Taylor, "I can't say I ever saw George read on his own."
Despite Mrs. Bush's conscientious efforts, George was refused admission to St. John's, the most prestigious private school in Houston. He had failed his mother. That humiliation may have lit a fire under him, because for the next two years he attended Kincaid, the less academically rigorous prep school from which St. John's had broken away, and there he buckled down and did well.
Hannah believes that Bush made remarkable grades for the first time at Kincaid—"he had a 99 average"—but adds the caveat "He would not want to have that out there." Why not? Hannah answers with a parable. "Lincoln wasn't kidding when he said, 'Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.'"
Indeed, Bush has not released his grades from any institution, but his eighth-grade history teacher and the school principal, Art Goddard, remembers him as an A student at Kincaid in 1959–60. However, his debate coach at Kincaid, Barry Moss, remembers him as a B-student type. "He was a competitive, rambunctious youngster. As a debater, he was a beginner, stumbling hard to stay on the subject."
The very next year Bush felt the shock of utter failure. Transplanted from the freewheeling culture of Texas to the cold rigidity of an eastern boarding school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, this young scion of an old patrician Yankee family turned against his roots. No one recalls him mentioning his esteemed grandfather, Prescott Bush, then a senator from Connecticut. George sought out friends only among other Texans or outsiders. "We were used to being at the very top of our class in our local schools," says Clay Johnson. "All of a sudden now we were at the very bottom of the academic totem pole."
To this day Bush retains the emotional imprint of failure. Returning from their 20th reunion he described to Johnson the big red zero on top of his first English paper and the teacher's admonition: See me immediately. He had written a story about the death of his little sister, Robin, and followed his mother's instructions not to repeat the same words but to look for synonyms in the thesaurus. Having used the word "tear" once, he wrote about "lacerates" running down his cheek. His teacher obviously judged the sophomore's mistake as one of ignorance. It may have been something very different—a hint of possible dyslexia.
"[It suggests] he really didn't understand the language," observes Sue Horn, former president of the Maryland branch of the International Dyslexia Association. According to Horn, Bush couldn't distinguish between the word "tears," meaning to rip, and "tears," meaning crying.
Dyslexia is not an issue of intelligence. It does run in families. Neil Bush, George's younger brother, had difficulty with reading acquisition and was tutored by his mother. Neil was later diagnosed as dyslexic, but it is unlikely that lower schools would have identified the problem in either boy in the 50s or 60s. Even today it is often missed, and learning difficulties are attributed to laziness or poor teaching. Barbara Bush later became dedicated to the cause of literacy and went public with her family's problem, urging parents of dyslexics, "Please don't treat it like a secret. Treat it with help."
Bush has been ridiculed by the media for his malapropisms—dubya as a second language, it was branded by Harper's magazine. "Tactical [nuclear] weapons" becomes condensed into "tacular weapons"; "enthralling" becomes "inebriating"; "handcuffs" turns into "cuff links"; "viable" into "vile"; "basis" into "basics"—as in his revelatory declaration "Reading is the basics for all learning." Thoughts are sometimes scrambled in his sentences, as in "Put food on your family," or in challenging John McCain: "The senator … can't have it both ways. He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road."
Bush Sr. was also mocked for his malapropisms. Researchers and experts in dyslexia see the media as uninformed and even cruel. When reporters were springing pop quizzes on George Bush, Thomas West, author of the 1997 book In the Mind's Eye, about gifted people with dyslexia, says, "I realized that journalists don't understand that people [with learning difficulties] can be extremely bright but not able to answer fast, rude questions."
"The interest by his mother comes from the fact there was dyslexia in the family," confirmed Lenox Reed, former executive director of the Neuhaus Education Center in Houston, which won a grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation and trains Texas teachers how to teach reading to dyslexics. Although Reed was uncomfortable with looking at her governor through this prism, she said, "I do think you have every right to analyze his speech patterns." She referred me to a Houston speech and language expert who diagnoses dyslexia, Nancy LaFevers.
"The errors you've heard Governor Bush make are consistent with dyslexia," LaFevers says. "Put food on your family" and "claim the low road" indicate language that hasn't been processed. Dyslexics hear adequately but seem unable to process quickly all the sounds in the word. So when they go to retrieve a word they've heard, they will sometimes omit sounds, or transpose or even substitute sounds. They are highly verbal. But a language-disordered person is not particularly organized as a speaker.
Sue Horn, who has been diagnosing dyslexics for 25 years, agrees: "Bush is probably dyslexic, although he has probably never been diagnosed." Tom West says of dyslexics, "You're likely to scramble words, particularly if you're tired or under stress … or asked something cold. But if you're in an environment where you can be an 'actor'—with a script you've memorized—you can focus on connecting with the audience and be a much more powerful speaker than anyone else."
If Bush does indeed carry dyslexic traits, why would this be important?
It shapes one's whole life. According to professionals in the field, the brain structure related to dyslexia is laid down within the first few weeks of gestation. "The wiring is so deep, you can alter it, but you can't change the root structure," says West. A lot of dyslexics develop rigidity, needing the comfort of following a known path. Bush for many years followed his father's path. He is at pains to be punctual. His latter-day embrace of the evangelical Christian men's movement provided him further structure and a spiritual discipline. And now, as he runs for political office, strategists and speechwriters can provide him with almost foolproof verbal structure.
Roland Betts, who calls him a "blurter," says, "I always kidded George that he didn't have a governess between his thoughts and his tongue.… When he first ran for governor, I thought for sure he would blurt something out that he hadn't thought to process, and it would be a big deal."
Bush's own discipline, plus the "candidate control" provided by his chief strategist, Karl Rove, proved Betts's fears groundless in 1994. Rove never allows Bush to veer from his standard stump speech, which has remained essentially the same for the last seven years. "There will be a time for another speech," Rove told Washington Post columnist David Broder, "but not until every American can recite the words of this one by heart."
How would difficulties with reading and processing information affect a leader's modus operandi? If one can't take in a lot of information at once, he would have to develop a work style where others pre-organize and pre-digest the information for him. Moreover, dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder have approximately a 30 percent crossover.
Short attention span is a trait in the Bush family of which Hannah is acutely aware. "They have an attention span of about an hour." When he and George were boys, he remembers, "Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes.… At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning."
Even today, nothing engages Bush's attention for more than an hour, an hour max—more like 10 or 15 minutes. His workday as governor of Texas is "two hard half-days," as his chief of staff, Clay Johnson, describes it. He puts in the hours from 8 to 11:30 a.m., breaking it up with a series of 15-minute meetings, sometimes 10-minute meetings, but rarely is there a 30-minute meeting, says Johnson. At 11:30 he's "outtahere." He tries everything possible to have at least two hours of what he calls private time in the middle of the day to go over to the University of Texas track or run a hard three to five miles on a concrete path at a pace of 7.5 minutes a mile, then relax and return to the office at 1:30, where he'll play some video golf or computer solitaire until about three, and then it's back to the second "hard half-day" until 5:30.
He has no interest in reading lengthy reports. When aides come in with a written presentation, Governor Bush will throw it down on the desk and demand, O.K., tell me, what does this say? What's the essence? His challenge to his staff is to define the issue and lay out the background and resolve the arguments before he is asked to make a decision. Johnson explains it's the staff's job to say, "I recommend this course of action. Here's why I do. Here's who's opposed to it, who's for it, but here's the best course of action and why," as opposed to "Governor, here's some options for you to consider. What do you want to do?"
Experts are slowly coming to recognize that dyslexics often have compensatory gifts. They are likely to be visually acute and good at reading facial and body language. And those who are gifted are described as "dyslexic visionaries" who may see things that others do not. Among them are Leonardo da Vinci and William Butler Yeats, as well as Albert Einstein. A notable American politician who was dyslexic was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who became vice president. West even presents convincing evidence that Churchill was a dyslexic, struggling to read and at the bottom of his class at the Harrow School. Although he became known as a master orator, he had to write out his remarks the night before and memorize them or he might lose the thread. It is notable that Churchill is one of Bush's heroes.
"The big question with Bush," says West, "is whether there is any evidence that he does see the big picture and has that kind of judgment and wisdom that some dyslexics have."
There is an interpersonal fearlessness about Bush that is utterly disarming. The minute he enters a space, he is situationally hyper-aware. He works a ballroom better than any pol with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, making personal contact with people and reaching out for those too shy to come forward, spending up to twice as much time on being a "people person" as on delivering his short, rote stump speech. He violates the normal social distance and moves right in, four or five inches from the stranger's mouth or eyes, and he drinks in the face. He seems to be memorizing visual cues—modeling the person in his mind's eye the way a sculptor would. If this is his compensation for an unreliable verbal channel, it works, and particularly for a politician it works wonderfully.
With reporters, even male reporters, he will pinch a cheek or lay an arm around a shoulder. He is an Olympian athlete at the sport of verbal towel snapping. He doesn't have to memorize the names—that's what aides are for—but dives right in with personal questions such as "You married? Do you have children?" and captures some detail about each person that he can recall if there's a later meeting. He often uses nicknames as a mnemonic device. Bill Minutaglio, his unauthorized biographer, was dubbed "mononucleosis" because he wouldn't go away.
At Andover, George made an ingenious adaptation to his failure to shine academically. He revamped an alternative baseball league and with great fanfare appointed himself "stickball commissioner." "George created all these offices," recalls Rob Deiter, who, being from rural Florida, was another outsider. "We had a team psychiatrist.… We had a legal counsel—all kinds of zaniness," Deiter, now a law professor at Colorado University, observes. "George is so quick. It isn't an academic thing.… He can walk in a room and size up the situation and the people. That is the strongest side of his intelligence."
When one works hard but remains stuck in the middle of his class or below, the tendency is to be resentful of students who win high marks without really trying—like Bill Clinton. Bush may have given up on winning at academic competition and adopted the wise-guy persona as his cover. Bush's teachers often describe him as a rambunctious boy; one remembers having to scold him, "Sit down, George, and listen." Dyslexics are sometimes the loudmouths in school. At Andover, Bush was nicknamed "the Lip."
Bush's intense policy focus on education—and specifically on intervention in the earliest grades to help learning-disabled children acquire reading skills before they're left behind—may stem from his own difficulties. But his policies on the issue are often contradictory, if not punitive. Clay Johnson, the governor's chief of staff, told me, "I don't think there's any correlation at all between pay of teachers and quality of education.… There might even be a negative correlation." Perhaps as a result of this philosophy, Texas had over 40,000 classrooms without permanent teachers to start the 2000 school year. The more punitive part of his policy is "no social promotion," meaning a child will not be passed to the next grade until he or she measures up to standardized tests. Don Evans, Bush's campaign chairman, told me, "We are going to say that Johnny is falling behind, and there needs to be a program where someone holds flash cards up to Johnny."
Who is going to pay for that? he was asked.
"I don't know.… I hope there is a church that will do it. I hope there is a neighbor or a mom that will do it.… You can't think in terms of the exact process of how all this is going to happen." Some language experts are highly critical of Bush's education policies. Sue Horn, formerly of I.D.A., says, "If we're branding children failures in kindergarten and first grade because they can't meet our expectations, that affects them for the rest of their lives—they may just give up."
Bush entered Yale University in 1964, a third-generation legatee, and found himself floundering in yet another highly intellectual environment. Although he was an enthusiastic athlete, he lacked the natural gifts to distinguish himself in any sport. But he did have a gift for winning people. It looked as if it all came so naturally, but he worked hard at it. By studying the student registry and memorizing the names of his classmates, he was able to roam around campus in the first few days of his freshman year and forge many quick friendships.
"George coasted academically," acknowledges Roland Betts. "He didn't work his tail off to get C's." Hannah agrees that Bush devoted the maximum amount of time to doing whatever he wanted to do: "He was in the fraternity and Skull and Bones, and that's a whole lot more fun to do than to have good grades."
None of his college classmates remembers Bush showing the slightest interest in politics. While his dorm-mates were locked in all-night debates over the moral ambiguities of burning one's draft card or writhing in sorrow and shame for a country so violently divided it couldn't protect its political heroes from assassination, Bush was fretting over whether he would be tapped for the exclusive Skull and Bones society and wielding his power as president of the DKE frat house to continue the practice of branding pledges. Failing to come up with a secret name for himself as a Bonesman, he was named "Temporary."
Bush looked forward to vacations back in Texas, where his girlfriend was similarly unconcerned about weighty issues. Cathryn Wolfman, having graduated summa cum laude from St. John's, went briefly to Smith College—just like George's mother. George met the pretty blonde after she transferred to Rice University, where, she says, she was "fun-loving, a cheerleader," although she was a dean's-list student. And totally apolitical. They never discussed the war or the civil-rights struggle. "Those issues were not big at Rice," says Wolfman. "I just remember when I went to live in Washington my parents being so worried about the riots."
It would seem a conundrum that this product of the eastern elite constantly sneers at Ivy Leaguers when almost all of his backers and bailers have been Andover or Yale or Harvard connections of his or his father's. But it's a different elite. Bush's eastern elite is the old Eastern Wasp Establishment (when the E was still capitalized), whose members learned paddle tennis and table puzzles and how to navigate steadfastly through Christmas cotillions and through summer squalls in small boats—who shared a way of life. They were replaced by the liberals and radicals who came of age in the 60s, while Bush was at Yale, and who grew up to take over the academic direction of the Ivy League. As they ascended, Bush retreated into a 50s-style social life.
Lacey Neuhaus, who in her youth was a rich tomboy, organized a nonthreatening circle of friends during their college vacations in Houston for evenings of cooking hamburgers and playing Jeopardy. None of them was interested in dating, says Lacey. "It was very asexual." They would drink whatever they wanted—Bloody Marys or 7&7s or beer. In retrospect, Neuhaus realizes, "it was against the moment of time coming in the country."
Outside this safe social cocoon, greater forces were challenging Bush's well-ordered world. His resentment at losing status to the new, left-of-center elite that was leading the cultural revolution is highlighted by his recent remarks about elitist snobs who "think they're all of a sudden smarter than the average person because they happen to have an Ivy League degree … [and then] sit down and decide for everyone what they should do."
Cathryn Wolfman can't remember how George proposed, or exactly when—in 1965 or 1966—but it went off like a replica of his father's proposal to another Smith girl, and at the same age. "I was thrilled," says Wolfman. "I guess I thought he'd go into business. I had no idea he would want to go into politics." Their engagement was never officially broken off; it just fizzled out. Once Wolfman graduated, the gulf between their motivation levels was glaring. She landed a job with the C.I.A. and was supporting herself. When Bush came through Washington to see her, Wolfman was already a very accomplished and directed young woman—totally the opposite of George at the time, says Neuhaus.
Bush had no plans. "I don't think he'd figured out what he liked about himself yet—or what he liked about life, except for baseball," says Neuhaus.
In his 26th year he hit rock bottom for the first time. After working sporadically for much of the year, and failing to report for some months in Alabama for his ongoing National Guard obligations, Bush had to face his father, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, over the Christmas holidays. He blunted the confrontation by getting drunk at a friend's house, and on the drive home noisily plowed into a neighbor's garbage pail. In the well-worn story, Big George asked to see the boy in his den. Little George barged in and with drunken bravado challenged the father he worshiped: "I hear you're lookin' for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?"
It was his little brother Jeb who defused the tension by announcing that George had been accepted by Harvard Business School. His parents were stunned. George had applied without telling them, another instance of his dredging up the motivation when he was looking like a loser.
The importance of this part of the Bush biography is that he belonged to the subgenre of his activist generation that was aggressively apolitical, its members exempting themselves from any concern about the burning issues of the civil-rights struggle, the moral justification of an American war in Vietnam, or, later, the corruption of the political process known as Watergate, which ran a president out of the White House. By opting for business school over, say, taking a Peace Corps assignment, Bush was actually ahead of his time, a harbinger of the Me Generation, with its allergy to politics and its commitment to never trying too hard.
"I was surprised when he chose to go to Harvard Business School," admits Neuhaus, "because I thought he'd been in a stew for some years." Bo Polk sensed there was a method in the young man's madness: unlike law school, where one has to read and memorize, "you do not need any memory at Harvard Business School," says Polk. As a dyslexic himself, Polk says, he got through it.
But apart from "winning" acceptance to impress his parents, Bush himself was lackadaisical about the opportunity to study at one of the country's most prestigious graduate schools. "I wasn't really that excited about going," he tells reporters. "I think if you look at my full life … I haven't had a game plan." To this day, he says, he never really knows what he's going to do next—"and it doesn't bother me."
George Bush has always been a great salesman, like his father, Poppy, like his grandfather Prescott. Whether the product is stocks or oil wells or their own candidacies, pitching themselves is the family business.
"I'm lookin' to get into the oil and gas business," announced the bodacious young man who turned up in Midland in 1975. Bush looked just like his dad when he introduced himself to the old hands. Ralph Way, an oil engineer, started right off calling him Little George; Buzz Mills, a land man, called him Bushboy. They taught him the business.
Buzz and Ralph introduced the Bushboy to the big hats at the private Petroleum Club and took him to the whites-only Midland Country Club, where the top oilmen gathered after a round of golf to drink beer or bourbon in the Men's 19th Hole tavern and watch the golf greens' being watered by hand. It was as if the radical 60s had melted away, like a nightmare, and Bush was back in the comfortably stratified, pre-liberated world of the 50s, where men were kings, and women knew their place. One of Bush's early partners, Russ Walker, liked to tell a story that captured the level of intelligence and professionalism the new oil-rushers brought to town: Two oilmen have gone bankrupt. They are in a court hearing with their unsecured creditors. Their lawyer is asking one of the oilmen about his assets:
"Mr. Jones, just how much money did you raise from these investors?"
"About $2 million."
"O.K., tell us exactly what you did with that money."
"About a third we spent on booze and drugs. Another third on women. Hell, the other third we just pissed away."
That was the oil business in the high-flying years. "I used to tell people George and I had an oil company together. Not true. We had a dry-hole company together," admits Walker wryly.
"When George came to Midland, he had $50,000 of capital," says Robert McCleskey, but other people put up the money for his deals, and he'd get a piece of it. "He was gregarious and reads people well.… He had a different set of people that were involved in [each deal]," says McCleskey.
The loan officer at First National Bank knew the family name and befriended Bush the minute he hit town. "It was kind of a revolving line of credit that was evergreen," says his banker, Don Jones. "Almost all of his prospects were turned [sold to investors]." As Joe O'Neill, another old friend of Bush's, notes, "It was easier for George to raise money than the average guy because of his contacts from Harvard and Yale."
Yet Bush, who boasts in campaign speeches that he has had experience in the private sector and been responsible for a bottom line, did not become anywhere near as successful an oilman as his father.
In the fall of 1981, Bush took an after-lunch walk in downtown Midland with Mike Conaway, a six-foot-three football player who raced dirt bikes but was stuck behind a desk as a C.P.A. Suddenly, Bush proposed to him: "I want to build a huge independent oil company. And, Mike, I want you on my team."
"Great, let's go!" said Conaway, who had seen how Bush was able to raise more money each year in his partnerships. He wanted to be part of it, and became the chief financial officer of Bush's company, Arbusto, soon to be renamed Bush Exploration Company.
Bush had always structured deals so the bank was repaid and he himself did fairly well, even as his investors almost invariably did poorly. In January 1982, Phillip Uzielli, a New York investor and Princeton classmate of James Baker, one of Bush's father's closest friends and Reagan's chief of staff, gave Bush a $1 million infusion for 10 percent of his company, which as a whole was worth less than $400,000. The last time Uzielli talked to an interviewer was in 1991, when he said he "lost a lot of money.… Things were terrible."
But once again, failure motivated Bush.
"We came to the conclusion we couldn't raise money the way he'd done it before," says Conaway. With an investor pool that had all but dried up, Bush and Conaway did a private placement offer in the fall of 1982, selling discrete, stand-alone partnerships through brokers. At that time the oil-and-gas industry was as hot as the dot-com industry is today, but Bush was able to raise only one-fifth of his $6 million goal. "Going public was a mistake," Bush later told The Dallas Morning News.
"We never hit the elephant," as McCleskey puts it in Texas vernacular. Still, Bush's net worth climbed from the measly $50,000 trust fund he brought with him in 1975 to more than a million by 1988. How did he manage that without succeeding as an oilman? Through his family and his father's friends, according to The New York Times, he raised a total of $4.67 million from limited partners to drill for oil, while his company returned only $1.55 million to his investors. Their losses were cushioned by tax write-offs of up to 70 percent for "intangible drilling costs."
About the time Bush hit 40, his dream of becoming an oil magnate crashed. His midlife crisis coincided with the bottom falling out of the oil business. Midland turned into an evacuation zone, and Bush lost his chief benefactor when Don Jones's bank, with its $1.2 billion in assets, suddenly went belly-up. By 1984 the outlook was bleak.
"I'm all name and no money," Bush complained to The New York Times in 1986. Bush's company had $3 million in debt, and he had to lay off his employees, even Conaway, and sell his company. It was a traumatic time for their whole social group. Their businesses were sinking, the men were fighting middle age, and their traditional marriages—bolstered by enough family wealth that their wives didn't have to work—were nonetheless beginning to come apart. Bush's drinking had become more than just an embarrassment to the whole family. Laura Bush, a Midland librarian whom Bush had married when he was 31, tried the soft sell, taking him, along with the Evanses and the Joneses, to a religious lecture series given by Christian author and broadcaster James Dobson. But Bush refused to behave himself. "Laura would be sitting next to George, and George would come around to sit next to me" so the two could crack jokes, says Jones.
"What kind of pants did the Levites wear?" Bush would whisper.
When the pastor asked, "What is a prophet?" Bush sang out in front of the 40 couples, "That is when revenues exceed expenditures. No one's seen that out here in years."
In 1985, Don Evans urged Bush to join a new kind of men's group—a franchised Community Bible Study program for men, a precursor to the Promise Keepers. "That was a very pivotal time for George," Laura Bush has said. "For the first time [these men] weren't just spending their time sitting around, kicking back with hamburgers and beer." But Jones doesn't remember Bush taking that spiritual exercise very seriously either. The pastor would ask a question from the lesson: "What happened to the Jew on his way to Jericho?"
"He got his butt whipped," Bush shot back.
And when his attention span was exceeded, he set his watch to go off in the middle of the pastor's spiel. The other men guffawed, and the following week they all set their watches and the class turned into a cacophony of alarm bells. Jones, who can point to the exact date when he became a born-again Christian, never heard Bush describe a conversion experience. "He never said he was spiritually empty. It's my understanding that his profession of faith was made in 1986, after the Reverend Billy Graham visited."
Two strong women in his life have taken on the soul-wrestling job for Bush—his mother and his wife. Barbara Bush is in charge of mythmaking. Probably mindful of Big George's savaging by the Christian right, Mrs. Bush told reporters that her son has always read the Bible. (Bush challenged that myth in a recent interview with The Washington Post: "No, I wasn't reading the Bible when I was younger.") It is also his mother who likes to tell the conversion story, based on a weekend in 1985 when she and Vice President Bush had invited the Reverend Billy Graham to Kennebunkport to talk to their errant son. The evangelist popped the question "Are you right with God?" Bush said no, but he thought he should be. He now refers to that talk as the "mustard seed" that eventually blossomed into his spiritual renewal.
It was actually his wife who gave Bush the wake-up call. "Laura is sharp and tough," says Robert McCleskey. "The librarian stuff might be overdone." McCleskey, a friend of Laura's since childhood, is more definitive in describing her ultimatum. "Laura explained it to him in a way he would understand it, and he quit drinking." Did that mean his wife threatened to leave him if he didn't stop drinking? he was asked. "That's right."
In other words, he would lose his wife and his twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, born in November 1981—the only structure he had. "I mean, Laura and those two girls," says McCleskey solemnly, "those two little girls changed his life." It was subsequently reported in major newspapers that Laura Bush repeatedly challenged her husband, saying, "It's me or the bottle," or "It's me or Jack Daniels."
Don Evans indignantly rejected such reports. "My wife has known George and Laura for 50 years and never saw it. It's absurd." Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, insists the Jack Daniels remark was a joke. What is unchallenged is that when Bush and his friends gathered at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs to celebrate their 40th birthdays, he woke up the morning after with a hangover, went running, still felt lousy, and made a pledge to himself to quit drinking. His old pals teased him unmercifully. "Hey, George, you're no fun anymore," Betts would say. But Bush confided to Betts that Laura and his mother wanted him to stop. "It embarrassed them sometimes."
It helped that Bush was bailed out of his business failure. By 1984, Bush's company had merged with an oil-exploration company called Spectrum 7, owned by the two Cincinnati investors William O. DeWitt Jr., another Yale alum, and Mercer Reynolds. In 1986, when Harken Energy stepped in and purchased Spectrum 7, it hired Bush, who wound up with a spot on the board and a consultant's salary of $120,000 and $530,380 worth of stock. He unloaded most of it in 1990, grossing $848,560, only two months before Harken posted a quarterly loss of more than $20 million. Accusations of insider trading were made, but the S.E.C., chaired by Richard Breeden, a former aide to then president Bush, let George off without censure.
‘You've flipped your lid," Russ Walker challenged George over dinner at Clay and Anne Johnson's house in 1992. Johnson joined in. "You're gonna get slaughtered," they warned. "Ann Richards is at the peak of her popularity." His friends remember how stubbornly confident he was. "I am going to run," he said, "and I'm going to win."
It was in his first campaign for governor that George W. began to preach the gospel according to Bush. He literally gave sermons in Houston's mega-churches, laying the blame for America's "failed culture" on the excesses of his generation in the 60s. "The culture of my generation, our generation, has clearly said, 'If it feels good, do it, and be sure to blame somebody else if you have a problem.'"
Bush had been his father's bridge builder to the Christian right during the 1988 presidential campaign. He had been tutored in the code words by Doug Wead, an associate of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's. Wead introduced him to the most powerful evangelicals around the country. In the early 90s, Bush fostered even closer friendships with Texas evangelicals, notably Dr. Tony Evans, pastor of one of Dallas's largest predominately black churches. Like Bush, Evans was an aggressive sports player who had given short shrift to his studies; he lisped badly and had to overcome it. But having felt "the call" from God, Evans had turned himself into an electrifying evangelical speaker with a huge radio and TV audience and his own crystal-chandeliered mega-church, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.
Bush learned from Evans a whole new approach—cultural rather than economic—to winning political adherents. "On July 4, 1998, Governor Bush listened to Dr. Evans lay out a whole philosophy about how the world should be seen from a divine viewpoint and adjusted politically," says Evans's assistant pastor Dr. Martin Hawkins. Evans, who is said to be a confidant of the man he helped to become governor—they have prayed over the phone together—was one of the builders of the new Christian men's movement known as the Promise Keepers. He has urged men to "take back" authority from their wives, and women to "let your man be a man."
Bush did seem to find direction and develop discipline in his habits through his personal religious revival. "For some people, when they discover a faith in their religion, in God … it is a prescription for self-respect," says Lacey Neuhaus. But religion is also an important political tool for him. His evangelical Christianity gives him solid standing as a social conservative. It is also useful in dismissing questions about his character. All he has to say is that his life has changed dramatically since he accepted Christ. He is a new person, and his earlier, irresponsible conduct is irrelevant.
In his political sermons he began calling religious people to become involved in politics, and described the Bible as "a pretty good political handbook." He championed religious groups as the best instrument to change social policy, in place of government or in partnership with it. Not only was that music to the ears of the Christian right, it meant money in their coffers. Here was a politician who would channel government money not into social programs such as welfare but into church partnerships with the state.
Dr. Hawkins says, "There is a strong possibility that we would be one of the faith-based organizations that partner with the federal government, under President Bush, to reach out in the community to take care of housing and jobs."
Unabashedly fired up by the rhetoric of the Christian men's movement, Bush forgot that not everyone accepts Christ as his or her savior. He told a reporter in 1994 that the New Testament teaches that only those who accept Jesus Christ will go to Heaven.
While his partners in the Rangers thought Bush was out proselytizing for their ball club, he was actually building a political network. His friend Betts was impressed: "So when he said he was going to run against Richards, he knew he had the Republican machinery in high gear, just waiting to take their foot off the brake. They said, 'You're nominated.' It was by acclamation."
Bush salutes the crowd before giving his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, August 3, 2000. Mark Wilson/Newsmakers/Liaison Agency.
‘Amazed." That is the word his father has used ever since Bush whipped Ann Richards and began the delayed liftoff of his meteoric political career. At last, Little George had proved himself to his family. But even after Bush trampled his poorly funded Democrat opponent, Garry Mauro, to be re-elected governor in 1998 with 68 percent of the vote, his own parents were not entirely convinced that George was ready to run for president. Joe O'Neill claims he knows for a fact that Bush never thought it was a possibility until George Shultz privately anointed him. Bush was in California shortly after his re-election in '98 when Shultz, who had served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, reportedly told him, "I think you ought to be president. Twenty-five years ago Reagan stood in the same spot, and I said the same thing to him." O'Neill says, "That hit George very hard."
Today, Bush's revivalist stump speech is very similar in style and content to the talks delivered by inspirational evangelists who speak at Promise Keeper rallies. This "crusade," as Bush sometimes calls his campaign, taps into the longing for an idealized leader, discipline, spiritual catharsis, and restoration of male authority. Adherents of this new wave of Christian evangelism vow to be better fathers and husbands, community leaders, and enlistees in a "godly army" dedicated to restoring "biblical values." Bush told Connecticut state-party members at a fund-raiser last June, "We are about the quality of life … love thy neighbors. We understand the limitations of government; government can hand out money, [but] churches and synagogues and mosques [are] places that warm the cold. The great challenge is to work to change the culture, unleash the armies of compassion."
With his promise to restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, Bush is not running on issues; he is running on character. The character of a political leader, though, must be expressed through his policies on the great concerns of the time. A leading concern today is the environment. Supreme Court justices will retire, new laws will be passed, but once the environment has been degraded, the effects are generally irreversible. Bush is an oilman, and so is Dick Cheney, who, until he was tapped as Bush's running mate, was C.E.O. of Halliburton, the world's largest oil-field services company. Over the past five years Cheney received salary and bonuses totaling $12.5 million, stock options worth nearly $39 million and, last month, a retirement package worth an estimated $20 million. Don Evans, who would likely be Bush's chief of staff, is the C.E.O. of Tom Brown Inc., the $750 million Denver-based oil and gas company. The obvious question arises: How would these men balance the interests of the oil and petrochemical industries, which are among their heaviest contributors, with the interests of Americans for a clean and healthy environment?
Odessa, Texas, is the backyard of Midland—in every way. It is where the dirty services of the local oil and petrochemical industries are performed. The industry executives live in Midland. The working people live in Odessa. It is where the Bush family first set up housekeeping in 1948, a couple of miles from a petrochemical plant built in 1956 that is now the sixth-worst polluter in the state of Texas. But the Bush family has long been gone, and a few years ago even the Texas agency responsible for environmental control of air and water moved out of Odessa and over to Midland, leaving no forwarding number. That was after the plant was bought up in 1997 by Huntsman, the largest privately owned petrochemical company in the country, which expanded the plant's capacity for making plastic pellets.
First, the school windows start to rattle. Then the whole building shakes. Swooosh-thwoock! It sounds like giant fireworks going off. The kids look out the windows, excited. From the tower of the plant a half-mile from the school a torch of flame shoots toward the sky. Kids who run outside feel the ground rolling. "Is it an earthquake?" "Will it blow up?" Smoke twists up from the tip of the flame. After a while the smoke turns black and lies down over the community and day turns into night. Company representatives tell frightened residents they are just burning "sweet" gas. But to residents it smells like raw diesel fuel or rotten eggs, depending on the day.
"Whenever there is a rattle or an 'earthquake,' I call the representative from Huntsman and ask, 'What's going on?'" says Laura Norton, the principal of Hays Elementary School. The public-relations executive for the Odessa plant, Carolyn Tripp, goes over to the school and calms everyone down. "She calls them 'flares,'" says Norton. "She said they had to shut down parts of the plant to release … I believe she said steam, and because they're shooting it fast, it was creating a lot of pressure."
A flare is the burn-off of chemicals which are fired from a plant into the atmosphere, releasing anything from plant waste to dangerous carcinogens, but it isn't only natural or "sweet gas." Flares use steam, but what they are burning is often a toxic chemical soup that is so commonplace in Texas cities and poor counties that, under Governor Bush, the state has moved up to No. 1 in ozone precursor emissions. (Air toxics become transformed and create ozone pollution.) Amazingly, Houston managed to outdo Los Angeles in 1999 as the city with the highest levels of ozone smog in the nation. Houston is only one of a half-dozen of the state's largest metropolitan areas to be warned by the Environmental Protection Agency that their eight-hour smog levels threaten human health. Governor Bush's latest response was to write to the E.P.A., only last June, asking that the Texas counties in violation be designated "unclassifiable" and exempted from federal penalties. The E.P.A. has asked the governor to reconsider.
In December 1998, Odessa residents living downwind of the newly expanded Huntsman plastics plant were engulfed by black, toxic smoke—so thick they needed to drive with their headlights on in the middle of the day. That eerie "flare" lasted for two weeks. Houses shook, and terrified residents couldn't sleep or concentrate. Children wheezed and coughed and came down with bloody noses and headaches. The flame climbed a hundred feet in the air and could be seen from 30 miles away at the Midland Country Club.
But the Midland office of the state's environmental agency, T.N.R.C.C. (Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission), did nothing. The local air-section manager, Mike Hagan, excused the event as an "upset," which is what they call an unscheduled release of chemicals. The T.N.R.C.C. doesn't track the number of upsets at each plant, and some, like Alcoa's Rockdale smelter, can have upsets daily. Ludicrously, the agency puts no limit on the amount of toxins or duration of releases. A Huntsman Corporation executive in charge of environmental matters, Don Olsen, insisted there had been no flare. "There just isn't evidence that anything like that happened." he said.
In fact, in the first three days of the two-week upset the plant burned more than 60,000 pounds of ethylene, a suspected neurotoxicant that has adverse effects on the nervous system; more than 30,000 pounds of propylene, which adversely affects breathing; and hundreds of pounds of benzene and butadiene—both recognized as highly hazardous carcinogens which promote cancer of the liver and are toxic to the heart, the blood, the respiratory and intestinal and immune systems.
Gene Collins, president of the Odessa chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., organized residents into one of the largest protests against community pollution in the state—3,100 individual affidavits from people who complained of health problems and medical bills. The enforcement division of the T.N.R.C.C. cooperated with Huntsman in negotiating a $7,500 fine, which the agency agreed to waive when the company offered to make a contribution to the betterment of the affected community.
Last October, Huntsman told the Hays school it was putting in an expensive new air-quality monitor, right on the school grounds. It was actually provided by the T.N.R.C.C. in response to the community outcry. "A Huntsman person came over and explained they would be monitoring things 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says the principal innocently. "We feel confident they are monitoring the air, so we feel like it's safe for the kids." Hays has 350 students, of which the majority are black or Hispanic. The principal admits that some parents have complained that their children are having problems with "allergies," but says the school's complete attendance records are a year or two behind. Careful about what she says, since many of the children have parents who owe their jobs to the Huntsman plant, the principal praises the company for taking an interest in their school. "They get real involved in our science fair, and they provide computer equipment."
"What good does it do if you give a child a computer and then 20 years later he gets cancer from all the pollution he got from going to Hays Elementary?" asks Dr. Neil Carman, a former air-quality-control inspector for the T.N.R.C.C., widely known as "Trainwreck." "The whole system they use is a hoax and a fraud," says Carman, who quit the agency in disgust in 1992 and now works for the Sierra Club in Texas.
The Huntsman operation in Odessa is not the worst case of alleged environmental recklessness in Texas, but it is a classic example of how the interests of the oil and power and petrochemical industries are protected by the Bush administration, while the population is virtually helpless against the dangerously mounting pollution levels. The T.N.R.C.C. insists it does have "guidelines"—E.S.L.'s, or environmental-safety levels—which are pseudo-standards that the agency can apply or dismiss at its discretion. But they mean almost nothing. Why? Because Texas is not enforcing its clean-air laws. Under the federal act signed in 1990 by President Bush, each state was allowed to choose its own strategy. Under Governor Bush, the Texas strategy was conceived by industry executives working with the governor's office and blessed by the three commissioners of the T.N.R.C.C.—Ralph Marquez, a 30-year veteran of the chemical industry; John Baker, a professional lobbyist; and Robert Huston, an oil-industry consultant—all appointed by Governor Bush.
Here is how it happened in Texas, and how it might be expected to happen at the national level under President Bush.
An alarm bell was sounded in Bush's office in January 1997 by his point man for environmental policy, John Howard, who warned in a memo that the "industry has expressed concern that the T.N.R.C.C. is moving too quickly and may rashly seek legislation this session." The legislation in question might have closed the grandfathering loophole that allows the worst of Texas air polluters to continue operating their decades-old plants with outmoded technology.
That June, executives of Marathon Oil and Exxon sent a letter to other oil executives with good news: Governor Bush, it stated, "asked us to work with his office to develop the concepts of a voluntary program to permit grandfathered facilities in Texas." These are plants more than 30 years old, and they account for more than a third of all industrial emissions in the state. Executives from more than a dozen oil and chemical companies, including Huntsman, together with their lobbyists, met through the fall of 1997 in complete secrecy until they had drafted a new law to their liking. One troubled DuPont engineer sent out an E-mail stating, "Clearly, the 'insiders' from oil & gas believe that the Governor's Office will 'persuade' the T.N.R.C.C. to accept whatever program is developed between the industry group and the Governor's Office."
Then Governor Bush created a blue-ribbon committee, misleadingly named CARE, to bless the new program. On June 18, 1999, Bush sealed it with his signature on a law that makes it entirely voluntary for companies with old, grandfathered plants to cut their pollution emissions. That spring, when Bush announced his intention to run for president, his campaign was jump-started by contributions from the owners of these same grandfathered plants and their law firms. Among the most generous were Enron ($103,100), Exxon ($19,200), and Shell ($25,000). Vinson & Elkins, the law firm that represents Alcoa on air-pollution matters, contributed $184,800. Baker & Botts, which has lobbied on behalf of eight grandfathered polluters, including Huntsman, gave $82,000.
Probably some of those highly paid lobbyists were on the links the day in mid-July when I had a late lunch at the Midland Country Club. The club, once frequented by George W., hosts luncheons for oilmen who belong to the Landmen's Association and Natural Gas Producers. After a game of golf they might enjoy oysters in crawfish cream sauce and green chili and then sit out on the veranda, boasting about their latest prospect.
Suddenly, from the veranda, I noticed what looked like a big torch in the sky. "Could that be a flare from the Huntsman petrochemical plant?" I asked the assistant manager of the club. He wrinkled his nose. "It doesn't look very nice."
I was in Midland that day doing interviews for this story. Having read a report that almost a quarter-million children in Texas attend school near grandfathered plants that emit smog-producing pollution, I had asked for an interview with the principal of the Hays school. When I called Gene Collins, a graduate of Baylor University who is the N.A.A.C.P. man in Odessa, he said, "Y'all picked a good time to come up here. Huntsman is passing out flyers in the community announcing they are going to have a flare and an upset [defined as accidental!] tomorrow starting at six a.m." It was the first time the company had given Odessa residents a warning of a flare, though it is legally required to do so by the E.P.A. Collins sounded genuinely pleased: "They are really trying to do something for the community."
Collins was not available when I called back. The company had started flaring 12 hours in advance of the time given in the flyer, and he was passing out gas masks to residents. My Texas researcher, Mike Smith, and I drove over to Odessa to experience a flare firsthand. As we approached the low-income neighborhood of South Odessa, a rumble was noticeable, and a tall narrow flame lit the sky above the squat houses. Residents were in the streets handing out thin tissue masks. I stopped to speak to Mary Hernandez, whose neck was collared by a raw red scar. "I had a thyroid tumor removed three months ago," she said. "Like a golf ball."
She was checking on the elderly residents, many of whom have obtained oxygen tanks. The mothers and grandmothers looked very worried. "This one has been going for two or three nights already," said Bobbi Palmer, a retired grandmother of 15. "The rolling—at night it sounds like thunder. The kids get very upset because the noise keeps them awake." Collins says, "We have a much higher than normal rate of kidney cancer. So many people in Odessa are on kidney dialysis now, we have a special clinic for it. And just about everybody has some sort of respiratory problem."
After less than an hour I noticed my own throat closing up. My eyes were running, my voice became hoarse, and I began to feel disoriented. The company's response had been a program called "Shelter in Place": people were told to tape their windows and seal themselves in during a flare—hardly humane in the 90-plus-degree summer heat for people whose air-conditioning is to open the windows and doors. Dozens of Odessa residents had traveled to Austin last spring to petition Governor Bush for help. He ignored them.
That evening we stopped by the Hays school to see the new monitor. It looked like a small railroad car, padlocked, with a little glass jar attached to sample the air. We could hear it "breathing," sucking in the air, but Collins said that when he'd asked for data from it, the local T.N.R.C.C. representative told him they didn't have the staff to read the data. (The T.N.R.C.C. has 3,000 employees.) After a month of chasing around, a technical person at the T.N.R.C.C. campus in Austin downloaded 13,000 pages of data documenting the emissions at the Hays school on an hourly basis from the time the monitor had been installed, nine months before. The results were shocking. Even Dr. Carman, the former T.N.R.C.C. inspector who had worked for years in the Odessa plants, had never seen anything like it.
"It's like having an open incinerator in your backyard, but this incinerator is burning a very large soup of toxic chemicals," said Dr. Carman after analyzing the data from the three days in mid-July when I had followed the flare in Odessa. "With all of the toxic air releases occurring in Texas—tens of thousands of them—this is the first time a continuous monitor has recorded, in real time, emissions from a flaring episode in Texas," to Dr. Carman's knowledge.
The "normal" level for benzene in the area ranges from .5 to 2 or 3 parts per billion (p.p.b.) molecules of air. The evening I was in the neighborhood the benzene level spiked up to 6.5 p.p.b. At 11 p.m., after the last local newscaster left, the benzene level jumped to 13. But we were still being exposed to the effects of a truly stratospheric climb recorded at seven that morning—up to 269 p.p.b., at least a 200 percent increase! And benzene wasn't the only deadly carcinogen the plant was spewing. There were also high levels of toluene and butadiene, both neurotoxicants that are considered extremely hazardous to children's development as well as to the reproductive health of men and women and particularly to the unborn.
"This is dramatic evidence that these flares are not burning everything, but rather releasing a mixture of highly toxic chemicals into the air at ground level," Dr. Carman said. "I can tell you, the T.N.R.C.C. has no idea what this stuff does to people. They are certainly not going to tell anyone that it is killing them, because that is bad for 'bidness' in Texas."
The Huntsman plants are among hundreds of such outmoded, free-flaring facilities. And the saddest part, says Dr. Carman, is that what comes out of most of these plants is not even monitored.
When I read off the data from the Hays monitor to a director of enforcement at the T.N.R.C.C., Joe Vogel, he was evasive. He isn't a toxicologist, he said, he's a business-administration person. Yet he insisted, "A lot of short-term spikes don't necessarily have a health impact.… There is not a refinery that does not have upsets." The managers of another Huntsman plant, in Port Arthur, had been found criminally guilty in 1999 of falsifying reports on a similar incident of a huge benzene release. (One of the convicted managers was a former state air-pollution regulator; while on appeal he still has his job with Huntsman.) "We have never been able to prove a condition of air pollution, because we were never able to prove that the smoke impacted the neighborhood," says Vogel about Port Arthur.
Vogel failed to say that the T.N.R.C.C. has set acceptable levels for short-term releases, and Huntsman had clearly exceeded them and may be endangering the health of the community. The short-term safety level of benzene is four p.p.b. an hour for 24 hours. On July 11, the average measurement of benzene per hour in South Odessa was 20 p.p.b. My call must have set off alarm bells in the Salt Lake City headquarters of Huntsman. A conference call with Don Olsen was arranged by a lobbyist with the public-relations firm created by Governor Bush's media guru, Mark McKinnon. "We bought this plant because we thought it helps Odessa and the end products it makes are necessary for society," said Olsen. He also said that the company had spent millions on putting in a new flaring system. "We're working closely with the T.N.R.C.C."
But he said he knew nothing about a July flare, nor about any data generated by the expensive new monitor, and professed ignorance of any benzene releases. When he heard some of the numbers, he changed his story: "The T.N.R.C.C. or E.P.A. has not contacted us about that. It's not our responsibility to read the monitors. If they find something wrong, they have the responsibility to tell us."
The next day Huntsman's excuse was to say the monitor wasn't even operating on the three days for which we had data. Several days later, the company provided us with a duplicate of the data from the T.N.R.C.C. but insisted that all the chemicals recorded were far below levels of concern. They also tried to blame the pollution on a nearby rubber plant. Huntsman put out 2,936,559 pounds of toxic chemicals in 1998—25 times as much air pollution as the rubber plant, according to the E.P.A. Other toxic chemicals found by the Hays monitor are primarily associated with Huntsman's facility (propylene, ethylene, propane, ethane, and methane).
"It's a farce," Gene Collins said with a bitter laugh. "Governor Bush has turned his head. Maybe that is how he interprets 'compassionate conservative'—I won't watch your suffering." In the month after the Odessa upset, Collins reported, "we've had two people die from acute asthma attacks. It's really scary."
Even the company's P.R. spokesperson, Barbara Laing, complained, "We fear that Huntsman is being held up as the poster child for Bush's shitty environmental record here in Texas."
I hoped to have an opportunity to ask Governor Bush about his learning difficulties, his religious awakening, and his environmental policies. Coming out of the celebratory Republican convention, I joined Bush's whistle-stop train tour through the Midwest, expecting a real grassroots trip. Instead, it was a long string of privately owned railroad cars. The campaign had hired a top Philadelphia caterer, who was told to "take care of the press, first class," which meant laying on heavy hors d'oeuvres—smoked-salmon napoleons and caviar on crème fraîche—while the train purred through traditionally Democratic states. Crowds were huge and highly charged, but the faces were almost exclusively white.
Running down the roadbed at one stop, I collared Don Evans. I asked him how Bush, as president, would balance his loyalty to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries with the nation's growing concerns about environmental policy. The pause was long. "We'll have a policy position on the environment and energy—it's being worked on." Evans emphasized that the governor has taken "enormous constructive steps to reduce pollution."
The next morning I was told by Karen Hughes, "The governor will not be able to participate in your profile."