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How George got his groove

The late-blooming Bush was a failure at 40. But he changed his life and found a road that led him to the statehouse and beyond. Here's how

By Eric Pooley with S.C. Gwynne

June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EDT (1559 GMT)

TIME magazine

Tom Dickey ducked into George W. Bush's office and found his boss in a rare pensive mood. It was the spring of 1986 in the West Texas town of Midland, and Dickey, a young geologist at Bush's oil-exploration company, Spectrum 7, had come looking for some optimism--usually a good bet from Bush. After all, Bush was that lean, kinetic, glass-half-full kind of guy who loved edgy verbal sparring and dumb nicknames (he called Dickey "Total Depth," a drilling term that matched his initials). But this time Bush was fresh out of optimism. With his cowboy boots propped up on his desk, he was leaning back in his chair, gazing out the window at the parched and desolate landscape of Midland, 50 miles from the New Mexico border. The financial capital of America's largest oil-producing area, Midland was a boomtown going bust.

Since January, the price of oil had been dropping like a stone, from $25 to $9 per bbl. Independent oilmen like Bush were going under every day, dragging with them six of Midland's banks and its real estate, oil-services and retail industries. From the Rolls-Royce dealership on down, the whole town was getting shuttered. "I don't know, Dickey," Bush said. He was about to turn 40. He had been telling his employees that the hard times would last a few months, that they would just ride 'em out. But he let down his guard. "I don't know where the hell this is all going," he said, watching a helicopter touch down at the bigger, still successful operation across the way. "Dickey," he said suddenly, "you need to get out of here. You need to go where there's some action."

Bush might have been talking about himself. Normally, he liked to plow ahead, come what may. "The Bombastic Bushkin," as his friends called him, had never had a life's plan, never needed one. But now he was feeling stuck, restless, more than a little bored. He wasn't making money or having fun. He didn't have to worry about putting food on the table (Bushes never worried about that), but money was a way to keep score, and he was losing the competition, courting failure in the same business--the same town--where his father, the Vice President, had struck it rich 30 years before. Spectrum 7 was bleeding to death. He would either have to sell out or shut down.

He had other issues, as well. Booze was one. He drank too much--never during the day and not enough to count as bingeing but so much that his wife Laura and at least one colleague had urged him to quit. God was also on his mind. Bush had been opening up to his faith, reading the Bible seriously for the first time in his life. "I believe my spiritual awakening started well before the price of oil went to $9 per bbl.," Bush says today. But he acknowledges that 1986 was a watershed year in his life, "a year of change, when I look back on it." He pauses. "I really never have connected all the dots that way."

The Austin powers

In separate interviews with TIME Laura and George W. Bush offered straight talk about booze, ambition and their life under the magnifying glass:

Laura Bush

ON HIS DRINKING: "George was very disciplined in a lot of ways--except for drinking. And when he was able to stop, I think that gave him a lot of confidence and made him feel better about himself and easier about himself."

ON HIS AMBITION: "I knew he was going to run...if ever the timing was right. What we didn't know in 1977 was that his dad would be Vice President and President. That kept us from running a lot of years, kept us just on the sidelines, watching."

Governor Bush

ON THE WAVE OF SUPPORT: "There are tides of history that are larger than the participants. I'm a cork in a raging river."

ON RUMORS OF A WILD PAST: "The speculation is out of control. The whole 'wild' thing is overblown, but maybe that's my fault. I should have had a more clinical discussion about [my] drinking. But this is a world where the whole game is to destroy somebody, and I'm not participating. If people don't like the way I'm handling it, they can find somebody else."

In an interview with TIME, he is looking back from a vantage point that's both lofty and unlikely: the polished-wood confines of the Governor's office in Austin, where he has been enjoying the life of undeclared presidential front runner. How did a man who was, as a cousin once described it, "on the road to nowhere at age 40" find the road that led him here? Even some close friends are surprised by Bush's sudden rise. Others who knew him casually years ago are astonished that he might be deemed presidential timber. "If George is elected President," says Midland geologist David Rosen, a Democrat who was once a neighbor of Bush's, "it would destroy my faith in the office. Because he is such an ordinary guy. Likable and decent? Sure. Presidential? I wouldn't say so."

The late bloomer is a rare but recognizable presidential type. Think Harry S Truman or Ulysses S. Grant. No one can say whether George W. Bush will join their ranks, but it is possible to trace how he changed his life and made such a thing possible. The answers are in West Texas in 1986, Washington in 1988 and Dallas in 1990.

Within a few months of his encounter with Dickey, Bush quit drinking. Soon after, he sold his ailing company for a miraculous profit and moved his family to Washington, where he worked on his father's 1988 presidential campaign and, he has said, "earned his spurs" in the old man's eyes. He helped put together the group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team and plotted a run for Governor. It was as if someone had thrown a cosmic switch and his future came into focus. "Let's face it, George was not real happy [in Midland]," says oilman Joseph O'Neill, one of his closest friends. "It's the first-son syndrome. You want to live up to the very high expectations set by your father, but at the same time you want to go your own way, so you end up going kicking and screaming down the exact same path your father made. George didn't learn to channel his energy until middle age, and he didn't feel real comfortable until he went to Washington. He hated Washington, but it charged him up," says O'Neill. "Then, with the Rangers, he really hit stride. It took some hard times and big jobs to bring out the bigness in him."

1986: Boom and bust

The office towers of Midland are monuments to the high hopes and short memory of man. The downtown buildings, which rise 20 stories above the West Texas scrub, sprang up during the good years--mid-'50s, late '70s, early '90s--and stand half-empty during the bad. In 1973, Midland's most feverish era was touched off by the Arab oil embargo, and suddenly everyone who had ever lived in or passed through the place came looking for oil. When George W. showed up in 1975, not yet 30, he was a curious amalgam of West Texas and East Coast--a Midland childhood mixed with schooling at Phillips Academy and Yale, then a succession of jobs, parties and girlfriends in Houston, none of which fired his imagination. After being rejected by the University of Texas law school in 1973, he applied to Harvard Business School--without telling his family he was doing so--and was accepted. M.B.A. in hand, he headed for a buddy's ranch in Tucson, Ariz., and stopped to visit friends in Midland. There he met one old pal after another who was getting into oil, and "it occurred to me that Midland was the place. I needed to go," he says. "There was excitement in the air. People were beginning to get the scent."

His friend O'Neill told him he should learn the oil business by working for an established company a few years. George was too impatient for that. He hired himself out for $100 a day as a landman, searching mineral-rights titles in county courthouses around West Texas. "I basically taught myself," he says. Bush's move to Midland is at the heart of his official myth. Driving out in an old Cutlass with $20,000 and a dream, scraping by in tatty chinos and beat-up shoes. It's as close as the son of a President can get to calling himself a self-made man. The details may be true, but the message is bogus, because it ignores Bush's extraordinary family connections. He tried hard to be a regular guy but wasn't; he was famously frugal--"so tight he damn near squeaked," says a colleague--but didn't really need money. Rich friends of his father backed his business ventures.

They also backed him when he decided to run for Congress in 1977, after only two years in town. (Yet George W. didn't want his father to campaign for him; he wanted to do it himself.) The decision to run violated a basic family tenet: First make your mark and your fortune, then run for office. Only those who knew him well had seen it coming. "He wasn't obsessed with politics, but it was always there," says Charles Younger, a Midland surgeon and longtime Bush jogging partner. A famously eligible bachelor, Bush had also surprised friends by courting and marrying--in just three months--a librarian named Laura Welch, who was as reserved and knowing as he was brash and noisy. She made him promise that she would never have to give a speech. (So much for that vow.) "We campaigned the whole first year of our marriage," she says.

Like his dad, Bush had no patience running for small-time local offices; no one gave him much chance of winning his race. But he was a natural--handsome, "not the smartest guy in the world but smart enough," as Younger says, blessed with an honest love of pressing the flesh. He won the G.O.P. primary, then ran against state senator Kent Hance, who used a populist tactic Bush would never forget. Hance compared his own West Texas "credentials" with Bush's Andover-Yale-Harvard ones. When Hance got through with him, Bush smelled like some exotic houseplant on a New England windowsill. "I remember going to the American Agricultural Convention in the Lubbock Coliseum," says Bush. "I was surrounded by farmers. They wanted to talk about the Trilateral Commission. And I look over their shoulders, and there was Hance. I take my hat off to him." Bush lost, 47% to 53%. Never again would he let a rival paint him as an elitist. "George has got a lot folksier since then," says O'Neill.

Bush went back into oil. He started hiring for his own company, Arbusto (Spanish for bush), raising money from a network of East Coast backers who were close to his father and uncle, money manager Jonathan Bush. Among them were drugstore tycoon Lewis Lehrman, who lost a bid for Governor of New York in 1982; venture capitalist William H. Draper III, who would become president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank during the Reagan Administration; and Celanese CEO John Macomber, who later landed the same post.

If connections got him in the door, talent sealed the deal. "The politician was in him," says Jim McAninch, who ran Bush's drilling operations in the early days. "He was a great promoter and a great money raiser." He also had, as a former colleague puts it, "a photogenic memory"--a malapropism that captures his gift for the social side of life, his Clintonian ability to remember names of countless people he has met only briefly.

As CEO of Arbusto, Bush developed the same management style he uses today, a flat structure with easy access to the boss who guides but doesn't sweat the details. "He hires good men, and lets 'em do their job," says McAninch. "He had a lot of oil-field savvy even though he didn't have a technical background." In its first five years, Arbusto drilled 95 wells, hitting oil or gas about 50% of the time, an average performance. "George used to say, 'Man, we need a company maker,'" recalls Dickey, who discovered some vast oil fields in later years, working for other companies. "I always felt bad I never found one for him. He was the best boss I ever had."

In 1982, Bush stumbled by trying to go public with a drilling fund just as oil prices dipped. That year he also sold 10% of his company to a Panamanian company run by Philip Uzielli, a longtime friend of Vice President Bush's top adviser James A. Baker III, who later became Secretary of State. What raised eyebrows was the price Uzielli paid: $1 million in exchange for 10% of Bush's company, whose total worth at the time was $382,000. Bush says the infusion wasn't a bailout. Arbusto, he says, "wasn't in trouble. We were in growth mode." Bush says he met Uzielli through investors and at first didn't know of his ties to Baker. "Jim Baker didn't introduce me to him. Jim Baker didn't pick up the phone and say, 'Phil, you must invest with George W.'" So why did Uzielli pay so much for his 10% stake? "There was a lot of romance and a lot of upside in the oil business," Bush explains. "Everybody thought the price of oil was going to $100." Uzielli, who has said he lost money on the deal, couldn't be reached for comment.

In 1984, Bush merged his company with Spectrum 7, an oil-drilling firm run by two supporters of his father, Bill DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds. It was a good fit. Arbusto had oil prospects; Spectrum had a network of investors. The merger doubled the size of Bush's operation, and the Spectrum people wanted to upgrade his image with fancy furniture and a company car, but Bush wouldn't hear of it. "Those were the doodah days in Midland," says O'Neill's wife Jan, "and a lot of people couldn't resist--jets, boats, cars. George didn't go for that." He liked the image he had.

He was optimistic, but a sign that high hopes weren't warranted had come in late 1983, when the First National Bank of Midland collapsed under the weight of bad loans. "We had a saying that year," says oilman Don Evans, now national finance chairman for Bush's exploratory committee: "'Stay alive till '85.'" But '85 was worse. Oil prices sagged, and investments dried up. By December, rumor had it that oil prices were about to plunge, and it happened right on schedule in January 1986. As prices cratered, those who had been using their oil reserves as collateral defaulted to the banks. Midland's economy folded like a bad poker hand. Bush had always followed conservative business practices, and since he'd had his network of investors to tap, his debt exposure was less than that of many others. He took a 25% pay cut, and his staff took smaller ones. But soon he realized that unless he found a buyer, it was just a matter of time before Spectrum died.

"Everybody was in pretty much the same boat," says Evans' wife Susie, who has known George since elementary school, "and everybody pulled together. When times were hard, we had dinner parties." At some of those parties, George drank more than was wise. "Usually the next morning," Laura Bush says, she would tell him he should quit. Spectrum president Paul Rea gently suggested the same thing.

Bush and his friends say the media have made too much of his drinking, that the W didn't stand for Wild, that the rumors are overblown. (Bush now jokes about the stories: "I bought cocaine at my dad's Inauguration," he facetiously told a writer for Texas Monthly.) Among Bush's Midland crowd, the favorite mind-altering substances were beer and whiskey. And most people say Bush's consumption was not especially gaudy.

Jim McAninch's daughter frequently baby-sat for the Bushes' twin girls Barbara and Jenna, "and George would drive her home late at night, after his social events," McAninch says. "I never saw him drunk. If I had, I wouldn't have let him drive my girl." Charlie Younger, who jogged three or four miles with Bush most every day, allows that "George would have more fun than the average guy at the party." For Bush, it was too much fun. "I didn't drink every minute of the day," he says, "but I drank too much."

He confronted the problem once and for all during a three-day weekend in late July 1986 at the Broadmoor, a grand old resort in Colorado Springs. The Bushes and their closest friends had gone there to escape the Oil Patch and celebrate a communal 40th-birthday party: George and Don Evans both turned 40 that month, and their wives would reach the milestone in the fall. Joe and Jan O'Neill (she was also nearing 40) were there as well. The men made for the links--"George plays golf like it was soccer," says O'Neill, "chasing after the ball and trying to hit it again before it stops rolling"--and everyone went to chapel at the Air Force Academy. One night Neil Bush came in from Denver for dinner, and the friends stayed up late, laughing and drinking.

"We weren't that loud," says O'Neill. "But the next morning, nobody felt great." Contrary to some reports, Bush made no dramatic breakfast-table declaration about quitting. He said nothing--at first, not even to Laura. "It's easy to say, 'I quit,'" he says. "But this time I meant it." It wasn't until they got home that he told her he was finished with alcohol. "He just said, 'I'm going to quit,' and he did," Laura remembers. "That was it. We joked about it later, saying he got the bar bill and that's why."

Part of what prompted him to give it up, a friend says, was that "he didn't want to do anything under the influence that might embarrass his father," who was preparing to run for President. George W. was also experiencing a religious awakening, one that began with his now famous 1985 encounter with evangelist Billy Graham, at the Bush-family compound in Kennebunkport, Me. After praying privately with Graham--"It was a real personal religious visit," he says--he joined a men's Bible-study group in Midland, "taking inventory of himself," his friend Donald Ensenat says. As the economic crisis deepened, so did his faith. "The words took on a new meaning," he told TIME. "It's not simple, and each person's walk is different. I have sought redemption, and I believe I have received it. And now it's up to me to live the life."

As he did so, his friends and family say, he became less edgy, less angry, more comfortable with himself. "George was already disciplined in a lot of ways except for drinking. He was a great runner," says Laura. "And when he was able to stop, that gave him a lot of confidence and made him feel better about himself." While Bush was working on these issues, in the summer of 1986, something else happened that would also have a profound impact on him, allowing him to leave Midland with his head up. A corporate savior appeared.

After the oil-price crash, Bush had begun looking for a bigger fish to swallow his little one. His "bail-out strategy," as he calls it now, was to have Spectrum bought out by a publicly traded company so his investors would have a shot at getting their money back. Texas-based Harken Oil & Gas (now known as Harken Energy Corp.) had been buying up troubled independents on the cheap, and Spectrum fit the profile. In one six-month period before the acquisition, Spectrum lost $402,000. It was $3 million in debt, with no hope of attracting a dollar for new drilling. On Sept. 30, 1986, less than three months after Bush's 40th birthday, Harken swooped in with an angelic deal. In exchange for Bush's 14.9% stake in Spectrum, he would receive Harken stock worth some $320,000--his first real personal wealth. Bush was also made a Harken director and retained as a consultant at $80,000 a year--$5,000 more than he had made at Spectrum. He got generous stock options, and Harken hired some of his employees. As for the dozen who weren't hired, Bush worked his network hard and, impressively, found oil jobs for all of them.

What did the Harken bosses see in Spectrum? Some productive oil wells, to be sure, but mostly they saw the son of the sitting Vice President. "His name was George Bush. That was worth the money they paid him," says Harken founder Phil Kendrick, who sold the company in 1983 but stayed on as a consultant. Whatever the motivation, it was liberating for Bush. He had money and no day job, a combination that let him accept an offer that had been lurking in the back of his mind for more than a year--a job that would provide action, fun and something more important. It would get him back into politics and put him close to the old man.

1988: Dad's campaign

The offer had come from Lee Atwater, the brilliant, erratic young political hotshot Vice President Bush had picked to be campaign manager for his coming presidential bid. On April 27, 1985, Big George had called his family to Camp David to meet the staff that would run his campaign. George W. and his brother Jeb--a Florida real estate investor who was generally regarded as the political comer among the Bush kids--had doubts about Atwater's loyalty because his consulting firm was doing work for Bush rival Jack Kemp. George W. asked him, "How can we trust you?" Atwater came back with a challenge: "Why don't you come up here and watch? And if I am disloyal, you can do something about it."

The proposal lurked in Bush's mind throughout the hard times of 1985-86. He says he didn't think seriously about it until after the Harken deal, but some employees say it came up earlier. "He was ready to go," says Dickey. In summer 1987 the Bushes sold their house in Midland, loaded up the family wagon and drove to D.C. Bush says he had no idea what he'd do after the election.

When he got to town, Junior, as he was known there, joined an election effort ruled by committee and split between warring factions: Atwater's campaign team vs. the Office of the Vice President--"the clerks," as Atwater and Bush took to calling them. The Lee-Junior relationship began as a mutually exploitative one. Junior saw Atwater as a talented hired gun; Atwater saw Junior as a job-insurance policy and a hot line to the candidate, someone who could help sway the Vice President to do what had to be done to win. "Pretty soon Lee and Junior were basically colluding to manipulate Bush," says a colleague. "You'd hear George say, 'I can't ask him to do that,' and then Lee say, 'Goddammit, you have to!'"

George W. weighed in on strategy but showed less interest in policy; no one took him for a candidate in waiting. (For a man who likes to appear transparent, he sure was hard to read.) He and Atwater became jogging buddies and friends. "They were more alike than either had imagined--energetic, flippant, irreverent," says someone who was close to Atwater. Both were reformed drinkers, with Bush firmly in recovery and Atwater limiting himself to the occasional beer, with cigarettes on Fridays. (Atwater, stricken with brain cancer in 1990, began a spiritual quest in his final days. Bush read the Bible at his bedside.)

The young Bush threw his weight around as necessary, serving as "loyalty thermometer" and blunt instrument, coming down hard on leakers, loose cannons and snarky reporters, mediating staff disputes from a generic office, where he chewed an unlighted cigar and spat bits of tobacco leaf in the general direction of a foam coffee cup. He recruited key staff members like press secretary Pete Teeley, traveled the country as a surrogate speaker and sauntered around the campaign office in his Texas boots, cracking jokes in his tequila-sharp twang and earning a reputation for temper. "We had more than a few yelling matches," says Teeley, "and sometimes you'd just have to leave him alone and come back at him later."

His swagger masked insecurities. In private, a friend says, "he'd say things like 'People are only coming to see me because of who my dad is.'" As he developed a reputation as an enforcer, Bush turned it into a joke. "Am I Maureen Reagan?" he'd ask, referring to the President's daughter, the second most feared member of the Reagan family. "People think I'm Maureen, don't they?"

Those insecurities fell away as his relationship with his father deepened. This was the first time the two had worked together closely as adults, and Big George came to appreciate his son's political instincts. "It was a wonderful experience for both of us," the former President told TIME. "He was very helpful to me, and I think it toughened him for the real world." From Midland, Bush's friend O'Neill saw the change. "George went up there as Sonny Corleone and came back as Michael," he says, using an analogy from The Godfather--meaning Bush went from hothead to heir apparent.

When George Bush won the election, his eldest son returned to Texas, a move that shocked Washington careerists, who saw campaign work as a way to grab a piece of the power. But Junior had something else in mind. When he moved to Dallas in late 1988, he was thinking hard about running for Governor of Texas. It isn't clear when he got the idea--he mentioned it to a friend as early as Thanksgiving 1988--or what he thought he had to offer besides his stewardship of unsuccessful oil companies. Still, he told a reporter in early 1989, "If I run, I'll be most electable. Absolutely, no question in my mind. In a big media state like Texas, name identification is important. I've got it."

He had little else. As he would tell TIME a few months later, "My biggest liability in Texas is the question 'What's the boy ever done? He could be riding on Daddy's name.'" Bush knew he needed an accomplishment, One Big Thing to lay at the feet of Texas voters. And when he got a chance to reel one in, the opportunity came--like so many in his life--straight out of the Bush family Rolodex.

1990: One big thing

Bush had learned from Bill Dewitt, his old Spectrum 7 partner and a major donor to his father, that the Texas Rangers were going up for sale. The team was owned by yet another Bush family friend, Eddie Chiles, who decided out of admiration for Bush's father to give George W. a chance to buy the team. George W. had been a baseball zealot since his Little League days in Midland. He had played at Andover and briefly at Yale. (He was cut from the team. Dad, of course, was team captain there in 1948.) "George had always dreamed about owning a baseball team," says Laura. "He always wanted to own the Astros. To live in the wall of the Astrodome like Brewster McCloud."

For President Bush, the tongue-tied patrician, baseball had been a way to connect with his kids. One time during George W.'s college years, when he had incurred his father's wrath by leaving a summer job early, "George felt really bad," Laura says. "So then in a little bit his dad called and said, 'I've got tickets to the game tonight. Do you want to go?' And George knew his dad was making everything O.K."

Bush hustled to bag the Rangers. He assembled a group of investors, including DeWitt, Reynolds and Yale chum Roland Betts. Peter Ueberroth, then commissioner of baseball, persuaded financier Richard Rainwater to join forces with Bush. Together they bought the team for $83 million in April 1989. To fund his minuscule $500,000 share (eventually his investment grew to $606,000), George W. borrowed from a Midland bank where he was a director, using his Harken stock as collateral. He and Edward ("Rusty") Rose, front man for Rainwater's investment syndicate, became the team's managing general partners.

Bush acknowledges that his name and connections played a major role in his success. "Look, I don't deny it. How could I?" he says. "Being George Bush's son has its pluses and negatives. Eddie [Chiles] felt comfortable with me because he felt comfortable with my family. But I was also the person that aggressively sought the deal. I was a pit bull on the pant leg of opportunity. I wouldn't let go."

Bush critics charged that he was just a front for the moneymen who actually ran the team, an empty suit with p.r. skills. But according to his former partners and people close to the team, Bush was an engaged manager who played a substantial role in transforming the Rangers from a shabby franchise to a success story. Along with Rose and Rangers president Tom Schieffer, Bush led the drive to build a fine new stadium, paid for by local bonds. (The Ballpark in Arlington opened in April 1994, seven months before he was elected Governor.) "George did a valuable thing for the franchise," says Schieffer. "He gave it glitter and celebrity. The first thing you've got to understand about him is that George is the most likable person you will ever run into."

The Rangers deal put a lid on Bush's dreams of running for Governor in 1990, but to see him during the Rangers years was to witness the emergence of a major Texas politician, one who at last had an identity distinct from his father's. He exploited his Rangers power base, giving speeches across Texas in support of the team and sitting in the stands next to the dugout for all 80-plus home games--visible to local TV cameras, munching peanuts, signing autographs. "It was amazing," says Betts. "Sometimes he would be there an hour after the game, still signing."

Bush's well-crafted, down-home style was always on display. He hated to ride in a limo, even someone else's, and the Bushes lived in a modest brick house. Their main luxury was private school for the girls. He dressed as indifferently as ever, in ratty suits and eelskin boots emblazoned with the flag of Texas. At the Rangers office, he insisted on wearing a pair of shoes with a large hole in them, prompting his colleague Rose to buy him a $120 pair of Gucci loafers for his birthday. "George took them back to Neiman Marcus and exchanged them for cash," says Schieffer.

Bush describes these years as idyllic. "I am sure all families have got interesting anchors, little memory scraps and moments of history that remind them of the importance of family," he says. "For me it was taking the kids to the ballpark." He took his wife too. "Laura and I spent hours of quality time together watching the game," he says. "Here we were in August. The team was out of the race. We just visited."

By 1992 he was everywhere--in his box seat signing autographs; out in the towns of North Texas delivering what he called the "Baseball, Apple Pie and First Family" speech. Once he'd been a dutiful, uninspired speaker, but all those years of surrogate stumping had paid off. As his father's re-election campaign rolled around, his message became more overtly political, though never on his own behalf. Instead, the pitch was either for his father or for Republican Congressmen, who had begun to view him as a real asset. He peppered his speeches with references to his parents. "I know you wished the most famous Bush could be here tonight," he would say, "but Mom was busy." Or: "I know I'm here to talk about baseball but I need to help the old man stay employed."

The two themes--baseball and politics--merged nicely. Bush gave a talk in 1992 to the Republican Forum, a political club in North Dallas. "It was an amazing speech," says Jim Oberwetter, a friend who is now governmental-affairs director for Hunt Oil. "The only way I can describe it is as baseball patriotism. There was nothing political in the speech. Politics came with the person, so he did not have to talk about it."

Baseball was how he talked to his dad, raised his kids, made his money and ran for office. His political base was built on twin platforms: his Rangers celebrity and the prodigious campaigning he had done for his father throughout Texas in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. "His dad had a lot of races," says Laura. "...A lot of the people from his dad's races were still there."

All the while, hammers were ringing and saws whining at the new stadium in Arlington. The Ballpark fulfilled Bush's desire to do One Big Thing for Texas. Bush also knew it was increasing the value of his Rangers holdings, though he didn't realize how drastically. When his group sold the Rangers in 1998, Bush's initial $500,000 investment paid him almost $15 million. He had finally followed his dad's rule: Provide for your family before stepping into politics.

The Dallas years were marred, however, by a p.r. nightmare that arose from his sale of his Harken stock. In June 1990, Bush sold all 212,140 of his shares for $848,560, more than 2 1/2 times their original value. His mistake was to sell the stock less than two months before Harken reported a stunning $23 million second-quarter loss. (Bush says he did not know Harken was going to report the loss and thought he was selling into good news--the forthcoming announcement of a new drilling contract.) But it was widely assumed that Bush, a director of the company, had insider knowledge and dumped his stock in advance of the bad news. He compounded the problem by failing to file an SEC disclosure form.

The stock sale put him on the front pages and proved an embarrassment to his father's 1992 campaign. It also called attention to the little-known fact that in early 1990 Harken was awarded an exclusive contract from the government of Bahrain to drill for oil off that country's coast. With no offshore-drilling experience, Harken was an implausible choice. It was easy to assume that Bahrain was trying to curry favor with the President by giving business to a company tied to his son. Harken insiders say Bush actually opposed the deal (he was right; the wells turned out to be dry) and had no role in negotiating it. But the press had a field day drawing lines from the Middle East to the White House.

Bush was stung, but not fatally. An SEC investigation concluded that he had done nothing to merit punishment. One month after he was cleared, Bush resigned from Harken's board--and declared for Governor.

"I knew he was going to run again at some point," says Laura, "if ever the timing was right. We didn't know that his dad would be Vice President and President. That kept us from running for a lot of years." In 1992, when President Bush lost to Bill Clinton, "George and Jeb were freed, for the first time in their lives, to say what they thought about issues," she says.

And he was off. As Bush traveled the state, running as a baseball man and stadium builder as well as Famous Son, moving toward an upset of popular incumbent Ann Richards, he applied the lessons he'd learned from his father, his mother, Kent Hance, Lee Atwater: Trust your instincts, stay on message, be down-home, enforce discipline. His campaign deftly exploited Texans' fear of crime, though crime had been dropping in the state for years (somewhere, Atwater was smiling). Richards baited Bush mercilessly, calling him an elitist and a "Shrub," and everyone expected Bush to lose his famous temper. He never did. He stayed sunny and folksy and on message all the way to the statehouse.

The campaign trail brought back memories--long days and nights in the car with his father on the endless highways of 1964 and 1970, and aboard the campaign planes of the '80s. They reminded Bush of the distance he'd traveled. "His feelings were sort of hurt because Barbara and Jenna, who were 13, did not really want to travel with him," says Laura. One trip brought the family to the steps of the county courthouse in the North Texas town of Quanah, and Bush remembered being there with his dad 30 years before. The girls weren't impressed. But an old man came up and told him, "I remember you when you were here last time." "It was very touching for him," Laura says. "It made him want to weep." He had always figured he had more in common with blunt, sharp-eyed Barbara Bush. "I've got a lot of my mother in me," he says. But at that moment, he surely was his father's son.


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Cover Date: June 21, 1999

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