Who chose George?
It took luck, hard work and a brand name for Governor Bush of
Texas to become the front runner. Now the question is, Can he
make it to the White House?
By Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs
June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EDT (1559 GMT)
At times over the past three years it has been hard to know
which story to believe about George W. Bush--the one about the
pretender who was plotting to seize the throne, or the one about
the reluctant son of the noble family who wasn't even sure
whether he wanted to be King. This week, as he roars out of
Texas with so much money and momentum behind him that people
can't agree on whether this is the campaign's beginning or its
end, the best way to grasp what has happened may be to imagine
that both stories are true.
The plotting began, so quietly, not long after the last
presidential campaign ended, if not always by Bush himself, then
by those close to him. When the subject came up with their 5,000
closest friends, his parents suggested, ever so graciously, that
they might not want to invest in any other candidates until they
saw what young George was going to do. Michigan Governor John
Engler, meanwhile, was recruiting a mighty power base among the
nation's G.O.P. Governors, the only Republicans who got away with
their shirts after the 1998 elections. From his nest down in
Austin, campaign guru Karl Rove lured moneymen and operatives
from every important state into a Virtual Smoke-Filled Room built
out of calls and faxes and 300 e-mails a day. And all the while,
Prince George stayed home, breaking all the rules of politics and
inventing his own. He went nowhere near Iowa or New Hampshire,
gave few big speeches, held no fund raisers, cruised to a
crushing re-election victory in Texas and pulled in more than $7
million just in the month after he announced he might run.
But by the time the party had fallen at his feet with the
nomination on a velvet cushion, he had to launch a whole other
campaign, more private, but just as important. Of the thousands
of conversations he was having, the most interesting was the one
he was having with himself. Bush is the son of a man who ran four
times. He knows what it means to hang up your life in the closet
and pack your heart and health and conscience into a carry-on
bag, and then set out for the airport and never look back. It
wouldn't be much fun. He wasn't sure he was ready. And he wasn't
sure the time was right.
Funny thing about timing, though. It turns out that this may be
the perfect time for a candidate with doubts. People like him
without knowing much about him because he doesn't seem to want it
too much. What could be more appealing, coming after a President
who started running before he could walk and seemed willing to
sacrifice anyone to win and hold onto the White House? And how
better to reach out to voters who think the system is rotten but
are too detached even to be disgusted anymore? Bush's wife Laura
has the campaign slogan for the Age of Indifference: "You know,
it doesn't matter," she told TIME. "If he wins, it'll be great.
If he doesn't, we still have a life."
In a TIME/CNN poll last week, 62% of those surveyed had a
favorable impression of him, even as 73% admitted they needed to
know more. And so this rollout is all about making introductions.
If they get this right, Bush aides whisper, the G.O.P. nomination
might be all wrapped up in the next three weeks. That is a
breathtaking admission of a breathtaking strategy: raise so much
money, lock down so many endorsements that the spotlight follows
you everywhere, your opponents freeze to death in your shadow
and, best of all, you cruise straight past the primaries and into
the general election as "a uniter, not a divider," with none of
the debts and scars and promises that slow candidates down just
at the point when the campaign becomes a sprint. The Republican
faithful would forgo their normal feedings of litmus tests and
put up with this soggy message of "compassionate conservatism"
because Bush has a message for them too. Three words: I can win.
Now he just has to prove it will work.
"I never dreamt about being president," Bush told TIME. "It
hasn't been part of my life's game plan. All of a sudden, people
start talking to me about the presidency..."
The Bush team loves to recall the moment in the summer of 1997
when Karen Hughes, Bush's communications whiz, walked into the
Governor's office with a poll showing him suddenly ahead of all
the other Republican contenders. "You've got to be kidding me,"
Bush said, a reply conveniently retailed to reporters since. The
polls were a bit fluky: a Republican working for Bush conceded
that some 40% of those who picked Bush in the early days thought
they were voting to bring back the Old Man, not Junior. But that
was also the summer when the giants started to fall and the party
cracked wide open: Jack Kemp and Colin Powell weren't in the
game, Newt Gingrich was nearly toppled in a coup attempt in the
House, and the other candidates seemed to have been running since
the dawn of time without getting anywhere. "There was this
vacuum," says a Republican strategist, "and it became like space.
It was huge."
Ever since that time, the Bush team has insisted that what
happened was more good luck than hard work, that the party came
to him. "This is the closest thing the party has ever had to a
genuine draft," Rove told TIME. Added Hughes: "We returned a lot
more phone calls than we made." All true: Bush may not be quick
to create opportunities, but he is quick not to miss them.
"Nothing in politics just happens," says veteran consultant Scott
Reed. "What they have done is nothing short of awesome."
They began with a happy coincidence. The whole thing would be
over before it began if Bush didn't get re-elected Governor of
Texas, a state with a history of tossing Governors overboard
after one term. Staying focused at home would also keep him out
of the fray that was chewing up other politicians. And since the
Texas Governor doesn't have much power, he had no choice but to
build a big coalition, work with the Democrats and generally
conduct himself in a way that offered a perfect contrast to the
eye gouging going on in Washington. Together Bush and his
coalition would pass the biggest tax cut in the state's history,
reform its tort-liability system and boost reading scores enough
to give him bragging rights on a national scale.
But if Bush stayed home and didn't open the door, he didn't slam
it either. He left it ajar and started flirting. The G.O.P.
moneymen are a skittish lot: they love a winner, hate being left
behind, and once a bunch start to go, the rest tend to follow.
This time around, there was so much hunger for a winner that Bush
could actually hope to do something no one had ever managed
before: sweep the money primary, the first big test of whom the
insiders like, and pretty much coast through the ones that
involve actual voters. The other candidates, still hoping that a
surprise breakout in Iowa or New Hampshire would win them enough
attention to make up for all the ads they couldn't afford to buy,
weren't counting on Bush's sucking all the oxygen out of the race
before it even starts.
Bush had a giant basket of names to start with--from Texas, from
his father, from his work in Major League Baseball, from Yale,
Harvard and Andover. He and Rove appealed to the old hands in a
new way: he actually asked for their opinions before he asked for
their money. He questioned them about the political landscape,
about the other candidates' strengths and weaknesses, about
policy--the kind of intellectual stroking that fund raisers don't
normally get. And Bush's team set out to pull in a whole new
cadre, people who hadn't been interested in politics before
because it was an old man's game, who had watched the Democrats
anoint the baby boomers in 1992 while the G.O.P. grayheads
fumbled. As Bush told a fund raiser in the fall of 1997, "If I do
something, I'd like to have my friends who have some campaign
experience around me. It's not going to look backward. I don't
want people who are cynical and scarred from my father's time."
By fall, Rove was in steady contact with operatives in key
states, asking veterans whom to call, whom to meet, how to make
approaches and what they were hearing. His line to them was the
same: "Keep your powder dry." It was too early to ask for a
commitment, but with those four words, the Bush team froze dozens
of fund raisers and organizers in place so no other candidate
could win them over. Robert Bennett, the Ohio party chairman,
recalls the early feelers from Rove that summer. "They weren't
ruling it in; they weren't ruling it out. But they were leaving
the definite impression that they were--how shall I say
this--heading for a presidential effort."
That first year, Bush made only one mistake: he gave a flat
speech in Indianapolis, Ind., at a party event designed to
showcase the contenders. But even this tiny stumble turned out
for the best. Bush had a reason to avoid beauty contests for the
next two years and a handy reference for lowering expectations.
He remained extremely disciplined in interviews, telling the
stories about how he didn't want to grow up to be President, he
wanted to be Willie Mays, keeping his famous temper in check,
turning the other cheek.
Before long, the 2000 question dogged Bush everywhere he went.
"He'd get on an elevator," says Hughes, "and people would say,
'I hope I can call you President someday, Governor.' Every week
there would be another poll. And Danish TV would turn up in
Beaumont. It just built and built." The buzz became a
distraction, so Bush called a press conference in October to
explain, in a parse-this-if-you-dare statement, that he had not
made up his mind. Said Bush: "It is not in the best interests of
Texas for me to say right now that I will not run for President."
After the moneymen, the next constituency to woo were the
heavyweights who really control the Republican Party these
days--the Governors, with their early-warning systems and their
fund-raising networks and their serene distance from the party in
Congress. One of the first to sign on was Montana's Marc Racicot,
who had called in September 1997 out of the blue and told Bush
that if he runs, "I'll be there." You're early, the Governor
replied then, given the fact that he hadn't even announced
whether he was running again for Governor. "Well," Racicot
replied, "I'm from the West, and I know a good horse when I see
Before 1998, the Republican Governors had never coalesced as a
power base, partly because there had never been such a critical
mass, 32 of them in all. In contrast to the sinking Congress, the
Governors were emerging as stars, centrist and practical CEOs who
were busy fixing welfare and improving schools and cutting taxes
while Gingrich fiddled. And they came to the table bearing gifts:
their organizations, their financial backers and their
endorsements. Unlike Clinton, Bush had never been a big mover
among the other Governors, never an intellectual force or a
policy genius. But they all knew him, many liked him, and most
could see he had a priceless brand name.
At the center of the recruitment effort was Michigan's Engler, a
two-term Governor who had spent much of the 1990s turning the
Republican Governors Association from a paper tiger into an
organization that could raise $20 million in a single cycle.
During 1998, Engler was the Republican who worried most about
how the G.O.P. of Gingrich and Trent Lott had grown too detached
from Americans' lives. "A lot of us decided he was the best
candidate," Engler told TIME last week. "We wanted to be able to
work with someone early on." Though careful to be discreet,
Engler privately began to lobby his colleagues on the phone or
in meetings, one at a time, sounding them out with an invitation
and a warning, similar to what the fund raisers were hearing:
Don't wait too long; when the train is leaving the station, you
don't want to be the last to climb on board. "I think George
looks strong," he'd say to his colleagues. "What do you think?"
And he wasn't always so subtle. At one RGA meeting Engler
gathered his colleagues around a table and said, "I think it's
got to be someone out of Washington. The only way we take the
presidency back is if it's someone from this table." As a
participant put it later, "We all knew he wasn't talking about
Bill Janklow of South Dakota."
Bush matched this effort by appearing as a guest star at
carefully chosen fund raisers in key states. It was an
old-fashioned way to do favors--and broaden his financial network.
He and his father campaigned for Jim Gilmore in Virginia in 1997;
the $500,000 take stunned even Gilmore's aides. There was a
growing curiosity about this popular Governor with the big halo;
organizers and activists and consultants wanted to see for
themselves whether he had the right moves. In May 1998 he went to
Ohio fund raisers for gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft and helped
raise $700,000. "Bush was a huge draw," said Brian Hicks, who ran
Taft's campaign. "People who would normally write a check but not
attend the event attended the event. And those who normally do
both but don't care about pictures got a picture."
In these early, intimate meetings, people wanted to see if he was
one of them. Was he truly a conservative or a moderate, a
Christian, a tax cutter, a libertarian? What breed of Republican
was this guy? Bush seemed to have found a universal language.
Warren Tompkins, a veteran G.O.P. operative in South Carolina,
watched Bush come into the Palmetto State last year to raise
money for Governor David Beasley. Tompkins recalled how people
from both left and right remarked afterward, "This guy is talking
to me." "Shoot," said Tompkins later, "that's when I thought this
thing is gonna be real."
The hunger for a winner was about the eternal appetite for access
and power, but there may have been something else at work as well
among Republicans who had come to view Clinton's presidency as
fundamentally illegitimate. It was not just that the Republicans
had all but owned the White House for years. It was that Clinton
had won by stealing their issues and then selling them better
than they had, had not honored the office, and it was time to get
Nowhere did the zeal for a winner work to Bush's advantage as in
California, a state where the G.O.P. has factions inside
factions. In April 1998, Bush went West to campaign for
gubernatorial hopeful Dan Lungren in Los Angeles, San Francisco
and Silicon Valley. At one event, about a dozen of Lungren's
biggest backers practically cornered Bush during a private
conversation and pressed him to run. Bush demurred, in deference
to Governor Pete Wilson, who was still considering another run at
the nomination. But he winked. "I want to be your second choice,"
Bush told them, tipping his hand.
The deep wallets all dove in, not just Wilson guys but Lungren
backers and old Reaganites and factions that usually try to have
nothing to do with one another. Bush refused to rank them, stack
the chairmen atop the vice chairmen; instead he made them all
"pioneers," committed to raising $100,000 each for his campaign.
"He did to California what Tito did to Yugoslavia," said Wayne
Berman, a top G.O.P. fund raiser in Washington. "He pulled all
the factions together and said it is better to live together than
Bush and his people talk about currents too powerful for any one
politician, however canny, to shape. "A lot of this you just
can't control," Bush told TIME. "Like generational change. Like
incumbency. Like the tides of history." The tides of history, in
1998, could not have been more helpful if he had aligned the
moons and planets himself. A popular Democratic Administration
was drowning in scandal. The Republican Party in Washington was
obsessed, adrift and seemingly intent on proving to voters that
it had no clue about what was actually on their minds. And all
the while Bush was waltzing to re-election in Texas against a
Democratic opponent so hapless that the Democratic lieutenant
governor endorsed Bush instead. Bush remarked to his father
during the summer that the trickiest part of the job was keeping
expectations under control.
But after Nov. 3, there was no controlling much of anything
anymore. While Republicans around the country were wiped off the
map in key states like California, Bush won his second term with
nearly 70% of the vote, including 65% of women, 49% of Hispanics
and 27% of blacks. The most divisive Republicans were the ones
who went down in flames. Bush had heads snapping with the breadth
of his support. And, by the way, his brother Jeb was now the
Governor of Florida.
From that moment, among Republicans, the sheer hunger for victory
swamped all distinctions of rank, ideology and geography.
Corporate chieftains were calling down to Austin, wanting to come
visit. Petitions began appearing from state legislators, some
orchestrated by Austin, some not, calling on Bush to run or
signaling their support if he did. Silicon Valley executives
starting taking out ads in newspapers pumping his candidacy. The
checks came in unsolicited at state party headquarters, to
Republican consultants, to old friends of the Bush family.
At this point it became impossible to separate what the Bush team
was doing to fan the flames and the sheer heat of the inferno.
Yet the striking thing about this moment, after so many months of
quietly working the bellows, is that it seems to have singed even
Bush himself. The more it grew and burned out of his control, the
less it looked as if he'd have any choice of walking away. Even
if the expressions of reluctance had been designed to signal his
distance from the process, the doubts now took on a life of their
own. Yet each statement of uncertainty only tended to cement his
position as far as everyone else was concerned. "The more he said
it," said a G.O.P. consultant, "the more he doth protest [too
much]. But the more attractive he became."
Bush was caught in what a longtime friend called a "heart and
head" problem. His head was in the race, but his heart wasn't.
Within his inner circle, especially the tight-knit, politically
hard-wired Bush family, the debate cut right to the bone. His
mother told an audience that if he didn't run, she'd kill him.
But his brother Marvin, who has never cared for the political
maelstrom, thought he'd be crazy to do it. Sometime last summer,
Bush had explained to his brother that he was leaning toward a
run, but he had not made up his mind. "I'm not there yet," was
the quote that made the rounds in the family. Some concerns were
almost biblical, the cycles of fat and lean years. Did he really
want to be the one who presides over the next Bush recession,
given how his father had suffered in contrast to eight years of
the Reagan expansion?
And then there were the people who mattered most: Bush was not
keen about subjecting his teenage daughters to the scrutiny that
he and his siblings had endured in the 1970s and '80s. When he
sat down with daughters Barbara and Jenna to talk about running,
it was as though Chelsea Clinton was right there in the room.
Would there be tabloid stories about every boyfriend, every rock
concert, not to mention the Secret Service agents in the college
dorm? Bush's wife Laura, a funny, private woman, was pretty blunt
too. They already had a wonderful life, more than they could have
imagined. Did they really want to have to ride a motorcade to go
to the grocery store?
But the doubts weren't just about his daughters or his wife but
about himself as well. He wasn't sure he was ready. No one admits
to that publicly, but Bush came close. He has told audiences
proudly that he doesn't need a poll or a focus group to know what
he believes. But he also knew what he didn't know. With so much
catching up to do, so much risk if he kept talking publicly about
"Grecians" and "Kosovians," Bush imported the best brains in his
party for a crash course on how to sound like a President.
Even some of his allies among the Governors caught a glimpse of
the conflict, the flattery and fear of the whole thing. After the
election, Bush went to Israel for a week with three other
Governors--Racicot of Montana, Mike Leavitt of Utah and Paul
Cellucci of Massachusetts. Racicot watched as crowds all over
Israel and the West Bank immediately recognized Bush. They called
his name as he walked by, gathered when he spoke. But Racicot
could also see that the pressure on Bush to run was becoming a
burden, something he was not ready to embrace. Leavitt remarked
that all through the trip, Bush saw his "destiny" flash before
Ask anyone close to him about the moment Bush finally made peace
with running, and it is uncanny how they all paint the same
picture. It came in January, when he was sitting in a private
prayer service before his inaugural, just friends and family.
Pastor Mark Craig started preaching about duty, about how Moses
tried to resist God's call, and the sacrifice that leadership
requires. And as they sat there, Barbara Bush leaned over to the
son who has always been most like her and said, "He's talking to
The story is so perfect, God's calling him to lead a broken
people, it is like candy for the skeptics who believe that every
moment of this extraordinary ascent has been spun and scripted
down to the last amen. It has something for everyone: it works
for the family, for the Christians, for the Texans, the
independents and moderates who don't want someone who feels he
just deserves this by birthright. It works for those who believe
this is all about revenge, with mom sitting there in her triple
strand of pearls urging her son on. It also might have the virtue
of being true.
From that point on, say the Governor's allies, he threw his back
into the race. Within the Bush camp, the dominant conversation
ever since has been how to manage these expectations--with the
answer that if you keep talking about how high they are, it will
seem too conventional for reporters to write about how he failed
to meet them, and so maybe, just maybe, the news cycle will smile
on them and the counterintuitive story of the debut will be that
Bush actually lived up to them. How else to explain the name of
the plane that ferried Bush to Iowa last weekend: Great
"I take nothing for granted," Bush said in a rough-and-ready
maiden speech on Saturday. "I'm running, and I'm running hard.
I'm taking my front-porch campaign to every front porch in this
state." Standing between bales of hay and farm tractors, Bush
drew only broad strokes for reduced taxes and regulation, free
trade, a strong military and an aggressive approach to education.
He made official the mantra of his run. "I'm proud to be a
compassionate conservative. I welcome the label and, on this
ground, I will make my stand."
This summer, Bush aides say, is all about introducing the
candidate and letting folks get a sense of his heart. Come the
fall, when people might start paying attention to politics, there
will be plenty of time for him to lay out a 10-point plan on
fixing Social Security. Some of Bush's opponents have made their
annoyance at all this tiptoeing plain. "People don't know what he
stands for," said Dan Quayle in Iowa last week, wondering how
Junior swiped his crown. "He's got to come in and fight for this
nomination. I'll be darned if we're going to have this nomination
inherited by a particular candidate."
Bush loyalists have a ready answer for that charge. The old days
of the smoke-filled rooms, says an aide, produced better
candidates than the current primary process that has seen Lamar
Alexander campaign nonstop for six years. "The genius of the old
system was that people with the interests of the party at heart
made decisions," the Bush aide argues. "They knew the guys'
characters: He's got it, he doesn't. He's clean, he's a
slimeball. Clinton wouldn't have got very far under that system."
Of course, the old smoke-filled rooms were filthy places, for
cutting deals and making threats and trading bribes, and the old
bosses were not always weighing the merits when they christened
their candidates. It is hard to watch the Bush anointment and not
be shocked by the sheer, almost undemocratic nerve of it, and the
risk that this could all blow up and leave the party with a
choice among broken and, other than Steve Forbes, penniless
understudies. "No matter how much support you get from insiders,
activists, fund raisers, you still gotta run the gauntlet," says
longtime Republican strategist Charles Black. "You gotta earn it
at the polls. That's the beauty of the system. You won't know
until February how he's gonna do."
And so the curtain goes up on a race that may just be beginning,
or may already be in its last act. "If he does well, it's his. If
he doesn't, he could fall so fast. You could have him on the
cover in June--and never hear from him again," says Steve
Merksamer, a top California strategist who is working for Forbes.
"You wonder if they are building a schoolhouse here out of straw.
It's big and shiny, built in 90 days, but the contractor put it
together in a way that when the first stiff wind comes, the house
blows down." For Bush supporters, that's their greatest fear. For
his opponents, that's their strongest hope.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: June 21, 1999