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UNITED STATES
JULY 12, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 27


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." In the summer of 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 be counted on to 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. 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 plainly decorated office, where he chewed an unlighted cigar and spat bits of tobacco leaf in the general direction of a foam coffee cup. He sauntered around the campaign office in his Texas boots, cracking jokes in his tequila-sharp twang and earning a reputation for temper. 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.'"

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 November 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.

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