the choice 2004 [home]
homeleadershipgeorge w. bushjohn f. kerrydiscussion
interview: wayne slater

photo of wayne slater

For over a decade Wayne Slater has reported on George W. Bush for The Dallas Morning News, and he is the author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush. Here, he offers an overview of the president's personal and political life, focusing on his six years as Texas governor, his decision to run in 2000, the impact of 9/11 and the president's religious faith. He also describes Karl Rove's instrumental role in the political rise of Bush and the Republicans in Texas, including how in 1990 Rove was in Austin talking about upcoming campaigns and told another political consultant, "'You know, this guy George Bush, very impressive guy. I think I could make him governor, and here's how you would do it.' He already had in effect a sort of early blueprint to make George W. Bush the president. " This interview was conducted on July 1, 2004.

He's a person who, at the core, has absolute confidence in his ability to get something done, whether it's the education bill or whether it's winning over adversaries.

Is George W. Bush a Texan, or not?

George Bush is a Texan. He wasn't born here. But he really was raised here in a way that his father wasn't. His father won the hearts of a lot of Texans, but he was always seen as somewhat a New Englander; and George Bush isn't. I think one of the reasons he's not is because Texans sort of instinctively understand that President Bush, when he was governor and running for governor, is a guy who has a good mama and daddy. They know the mom and daddy.

Moreover, he was a good, smart, upstanding, bright, intelligent guy, but he's not pretentious. He's not haughty. He talks like we talk. He acts like we act.

When he talked to people in the legislature here in Austin, he was somebody who was a peer, not someone who was superior. You never see him condescending. He always seemed, even in his inarticulate best, as a real Texan.

In fact, the inarticulateness, in a way, is part of the charm.

Among Texans, they love this. If someone looks too smooth, too slick, puts every sentence with a verb and a noun together in a very eloquent way, that's someone you've got to watch out for. Bush never looked like that kind of person.

But it's not studied?

This is not studied. This is him. This is the way he talks. This is the way he is.

You know, in Texas, there's this tradition among real smart people who may talk dumb, who may talk like they're Southerners, who may not appear to be as smart as they are. Many of these are trial lawyers, often bankers, small-town bankers. There's a wonderful aspect about these people who are very smart, may not be as articulate, may not be as polished from a New England or from a New York point of view, but are just as smart as all these Yankees -- who, years and years, have come down here and have found their pockets picked on business and legal and other matters. George Bush falls right into that category. He's one of us.

 

His stumbling about with language. What do you think it reveals about the way he thinks? What's happening in the mind of George Bush?

A lot of people have misinterpreted his directness and what appears to be a sort of simplicity with his being stupid. He's not stupid. He's not gratuitously intellectual. In fact, he's very suspicious of intellectuals. Part of the way he thinks is direct and simple -- not simplistic. …

related link

He did go to Phillips Andover. He did go to Yale. How did that affect his political career in Texas?

You know, it's funny. When he ran for office first, it was in a race that he lost as a member of Congress in West Texas. He ran against a guy who was very smart, very sophisticated in the sense that he talked like a West Texan and acted like a West Texan. But he was very, very smart as a candidate, and used the fact that George Bush had gone to prep school and had gone to Yale against him.

There were these events where George Bush, the young, bright, upcoming candidate, would go to a debate or to a campaign rally against his Democratic opponent. And his opponent would make him look ludicrous by making side remarks about, "Well, maybe that's not the way you did it at Yale. I know they do this way in prep school," and so forth. That scored big points in the constituency that George Bush was trying to win. Of course, he lost that race. ...

That must have galled Bush.

Yes. Bush himself has always thought of himself as a Texan, though he was born in Connecticut, went to prep school, went to Ivy League schools in graduate school and undergraduate school.

He's always felt an affinity for Texas. He's always felt himself alien in a place like New England or New York, and very much at home in a place like Texas. So when in his campaign against Kent Hance, who was running as a Democrat against him for Congress, he was depicted as this elitist from Ivy League community, then it absolutely was something that infuriated him. It worked very well against him.

I think he learned something about that, because when he ran for governor, he went out of his way to be down to earth, direct and, if not hide the fact that he went to prep school and Yale, not make a big deal of it.

Back to the late 1960s. … Help paint a picture of a guy who, in a way, sees himself as a Texan. He's uncomfortably situated in a place and time when the political mood is shifting left -- the Vietnam War -- and he's head of a fraternity at Yale. This strikes me as a very awkward period for him.

His college years at Yale were the most tumultuous years of the 1960s, and he was right there in the heart of it. He was anything but a part of the radical left. He felt very much ill at ease with the community of hippies and yippies and the protestors of that war. ...

George Bush is a member of a fraternity and is a button-down student at the moment of the most tumultuous point of the anti-Vietnam War movement in America. He's a member of a fraternity at a time when fraternities are going in the opposite direction. He's a conservative at a time when this whole liberal activist movement was emerging in America and was so powerful. ...

There was a moment on campus at Yale in which Bush remembered that he talked to William Sloane Coffin, this famed anti-Vietnam activist and pillar of the anti-Vietnam activist movement in America. He says Coffin made a disparaging remark about his father. Bush took this very much at the heart. I think it was an important moment for Bush, because he's remembered it all these years. It was important because it made it clear to him that he was very much on the other side of the emerging movement. He was on, in a sense, the wrong side, the receiving side of a movement that was growing, and was going to win really in this debate about Vietnam.

He saw it as a movement of pretentious elitists. … He believed he was a conservative at a moment when the entire world seemed to be tending toward the liberal, even activist, even radical. He felt very uncomfortable.

You saw this years later, when Bush ran for president, and what did he talk about? He talked about the 1960s. He said that was the moment when everything went wrong. It was the "feel good, do it" moment. He railed against that, scored great political points among Republicans and some grown-up parents of the 1960s who were now more moderate in the 2000 race. But it was exactly the kind of thing that he took out of that. Not simply that he was on the wrong side, but that he was on the different side of a moment that actually did damage to this country.

But now there's this great irony. How do you square the fact this button-down kid then used this connection to get out of going to Vietnam? He doesn't join the war.

This must have been a moment of enormous conflict for George Bush. Do you go to Vietnam, or do you not? So many of his peers at the time were doing everything they could not to go to Vietnam. Of course, members who [were] closest to him weren't going to Canada either, because they were moderates or conservatives. But nobody wanted to go to Vietnam at that point, and neither did George Bush, apparently.

But on the other hand, here he was the scion of a rather established family, a conservative, someone who was the son of a fighter pilot in World War II. He had to make a decision. So what he ultimately did, with the help really of some family friends, was find that there was a middle-ground approach -- serve in the military by going to the Guard, but find yourself most likely not in a place like Vietnam.

I think in his mind what he saw was it was a solution to really an almost insolvable dilemma. How do you, on the one hand, avoid Vietnam -- as he and so many others wanted to do -- but at the same time, stand up for the conservative values and represent the father who was a war hero? So I think that's why he decided the way to get in was to go to the Guard.

So he went to Lt. Gov. Barnes?

That's right. What you had here was a moment that was so classic among people who had connections. The Bush family, remember, always had connections. What you had was a family friend. Go to the lieutenant governor, the most powerful political figure in Texas at that time, and someone who really had the ability to move someone in line for a spot in the National Guard. That person went to Barnes, the lieutenant governor, and the rest is history.

But he doesn't go into public service like his granddad and his dad. He follows another path. It's not clear at this point that he really knows what he's doing -- or what's going on?

In so many ways, George Bush actually follows the father, but not nearly as successful as the father. He went into the service, but it was Guard. His father had been a military hero, a fighter pilot in World War II. He went into business much as the father did.

What he did at that moment was moved after a time to Midland, Texas, the place where he had been as a young boy, where his father had worked in the oil business. He worked for a while as a land man, which is an early job that you have. You're just scouting out some land and working on it. Learning the business of oil. Learning how it works. Talking to people who live in Midland, making connections.

They knew who the father was. They knew who the Bushes were. So they watched the son and thought he seemed like a bright, interesting guy. At one point, he did what so often happened to George Bush. When he decided he wanted to go into business, he got some help from Daddy's friends. Some investment people, including members of the family, gave him some money, invested in the beginning of a series of energy companies.

He wanted to build a big energy company and be very successful. He and a couple of friends, Donny Evans, a long-time friend from Midland, and others, and they started a small business. Basically the business was a failure.

Now that was either a function of George Bush's inability to do business, or a function of the fact that they decided to go into business at the exact moment that the entire oil industry in America collapsed. It was a disaster.

Much of Midland was under a real problem, and many people went bankrupt during this period. Interestingly enough, George Bush succeeded, not by making money, but despite the fact that he lost it in every venture that he did. The companies that he had kept being bought out, or new investors would come in to prop up the old company or become a new company.

That happened about three times. Then his company would survive, doing these succession of companies in which new capital would then flow. He would remain on the board or in charge of these newly invigorated companies, invigorated by the cash of his father's friends who were investing in the son, who were investing in the oil business at a difficult time, who were investing perhaps to stay close to the father, to show loyalty there.

But in every case, George Bush had the father's friends bail him out. And in every case, he was losing money. ...

There's sort of a picture emerging here from this -- both Bush at Yale and Bush in Midland -- of this sort of Wrong-Way George. He's kind of going right when the country or the students are going left; he's going to the oil business when the oil business is taking a hit.

In retrospect, you can look at the whole trajectory of George Bush's life and say that he made these unpopular or unprecedented or unexpected decisions. Politically he was a conservative on campus at a time when everything was moving liberal. In terms of early business, he went to West Texas and began an oil business at a time when the oil business was ready to collapse.

Every decision he made it seemed was a bad decision, was the wrong decision, and was not the smart decision that anyone would make. I have to think that if this had not been George Bush, a member of the Bush family which was prominent in Texas, if it'd been Joe Schmo who had tried to make these same kind of decisions, he never would have survived, certainly the business environment. There were so many companies that failed in Midland who didn't have the Bush family friends to help bail them out through a succession of businesses.

Throughout this time, George Bush is making decisions, I think, living a life that was really counter to sort of the various trends that were going on. ...

He goes through a religious conversion during this period of time. It's not insignificant. He talks about it. He writes about it, but he writes about a version in Kennebunkport. There's another story. Maybe you're familiar with the Arthur Blessitt story? What do you think of that?

...The one thing I'm convinced of-- Because I've talked to George Bush a lot about religion, especially when he was governor, I think it's very real to him. When he talks about his religion, which he really didn't do in an open way until he ran for president, and late in the presidential campaign in 2000--

When he talks about it, and talks about his conversion experience, the reconversion, he talks a lot and writes in his autobiography about Billy Graham. He doesn't write about Arthur Blessitt, this sort of odd duck of a evangelist who came and was part of a sort of the tent show movement, who was really something of a throwback of an earlier age, an almost Pentecostal age, in a sense.

In an odd way, Billy Graham represents High Church, and Blessitt represents sort of Lower Church. Both of them are committed to faith and salvation. But the Graham story which the president presses, I think, in a sense is true. Billy Graham's experience and conversation with him led him to Christ, but also has the veneer of High Church, of respectability, of the great Billy Graham who was so much an important part of the Bush family.

I think there was something that was real in the experience with Blessitt; I have no reason to believe otherwise. But I think that Blessitt and his community represented that kind of Low Church aspect that I think Bush is uncomfortable around. …

There's the wild George Bush. Is it overstated?

I know a number of reporters and his political adversaries have gone after the idea of the crazy, wild George Bush with questions of womanizing and drug use and so forth. I think that's overstated. I think a lot of that he alluded to when he first ran for president, saying, "You know, I'm just not going to talk about it and list all the problems that I had. They're not that big. But I'm just not going to get into that for my daughters," or for whatever reason.

I think that really made a lot of people want to know, "Gee, what did really happen to this guy?" when, in fact, my sense is talking to all the people I've talked to, seen everything I've seen, is that his experience was not particularly different than other upper middle-class, down-to-earth Texas young men. He obviously had girlfriends.

But the idea of him being a wild, crazy guy in a way that's really disreputable I think is crazy. What we do know is that he was arrested for drunk driving, and that's not good. We know about that experience. We do know that he had a succession of girlfriends, but he was unmarried at the time. My gosh, he's a young adult man, fighter pilot in the Guard.

He kind of fails as a businessman. He's got social issues, and he accepts that. But he says, "The Texas Rangers, that's my success. This shows I'm a successful businessman."

The Texas Rangers is a perfect example of the kind of success that George Bush had, in the sense that his contribution by and large was as a front man. He was the face of the Texas Rangers as the managing general partner. He was the guy who understood in terms of what we'd now call marketing what was very appealing; the very aspects of his personality, not his business acumen, because he didn't have it -- but his personality and the name, which he did [have].

He had a box-- or it's not a box. But he had a seat out there on the field, right at the edge of the field. He'd wear his cowboy boots. He'd have a shirt on. He'd have a cowboy hat sometimes. He'd sign baseballs. He was the front man for a team that was very, very important.

Most important, this was an organization that made money, an enormous amount of money for George Bush. This was the only real financial success that he had and the basis of the money that he has now -- not on its business acumen, but essentially on the ability to sell people to raise taxes to pay for a new ballpark. It was a real estate enterprise. The people who were behind him, who organized this real estate enterprise, were really smart businessmen.

… Now, a baseball team's a good thing to buy. … But more important than the baseball team was the baseball stadium, and more important than the stadium were the attending buildings and the land around it.

What in effect happened was a group of very smart businessmen -- these were the people who were around George Bush, who invested in the Rangers -- put together a program in which they would build a brand new ballpark and a new industrial enterprise, new buildings; effectively, a giant real estate operation that would be worth a whole lot of money.

In order to do that, they did what all these owners of ballparks do. They basically went to the public and said, "Will you finance this?" In effect, that's what happened. Arlington, the community that wanted the ball team and wanted to keep the stadium, raised its sales tax. It was key to raising the money to build this giant real estate enterprise.

The stadium and then other businesses came in and made this group millions and millions and millions of dollars. George Bush was in the front as sort of the front man. The businessmen were making a series of very smart and shrewd real estate decisions in and around the ballpark that made the Texas Rangers, the corporation itself, millions and millions of dollars.

They also effectively seized a lot of land through application of eminent domain. [That] doesn't seem like a true Republican conservative thing to do. What's going on here?

One of the ironies about Bush's business success with the Rangers is that virtually everything they did is sort of anti-capitalistic. They basically had a monopoly operation that was government financed through higher taxes. They had the government go in and seize the land of private people in order to make the entire real estate deal go successfully.

It's exactly the kind of thing that you could see candidate George Bush, if he was on the other side, railing against if a Democrat [were] his opponent.... But he was in the heart of it.

How come he got away with it?

…I think, for a couple of reasons. One, he stayed largely behind the scenes on the specific campaign to raise taxes. The litigation dealing with these land deals was something that he never really talked about. Other lawyers did, and others. So while Bush was the front man for the ball team, when it came to these government-related and questionable -- or at least controversial -- decisions that seemed so antithetical to a Republican point of view, he was never around. You know what I'm saying?

But he's still the managing partner of this, and he becomes the president. It never gets raised really as an issue.

Ultimately, this issue was raised: both the eminent domain issue and the tax issue, the irony, the fact that the ballpark was built by raising taxes. I think one of the reasons George Bush got away with it as a young candidate for governor was that he was so friendly. He was so appealing. ...

When he ran for governor and when the issues of eminent domain-- When they took private land for private good, and when they raised taxes in order to pay for a ballpark for a group of millionaires, the issue was raised. But it didn't go very far. Part of the problem for the Democrats in raising this issue was the people who would be most offended by that sort of anti-Republican approach were the Republicans [who] wanted George Bush to be governor. They were willing to forgive him.

The other thing I think that happened was that, in the case of the land deals, very few people really wanted to talk about it very publicly, at least, I couldn't find that many people at the time. So it became kind of an abstract business transaction and legal morass that was difficult to understand.

Most importantly -- and this happens in communities where you have ballfields -- ultimately, the heart of this entire enterprise was a baseball team. The people of Arlington voted themselves to raise their own taxes. The people of Arlington gave the authority to the government entity to go and take the private land. So it was the people of Arlington who really wanted this ballteam, as so many people in these professional sports towns want their ballteam, and were willing to put up with almost anything in order to get it.

Let's talk about Bush as governor. When did you first meet him?

The first time I really saw him was in 1991, 1992, the Republican National Convention, where I would see him on the floor and with the Bush family and so forth. There'd been widespread discussions before 1990 that George Bush was a guy to watch [in] the political landscape. ...

The key instrument of those discussions was a political consultant who was working at the time in Texas, a guy named Karl Rove. Rove was largely unknown outside a small circle of friends in the Republican Party in the mid- and late 1980s. He was involved in various political campaigns. He had worked for the father when the father was with the Republican National Committee.

Rove, in 1990 -- I believe it was February or March or April of 1990 -- was sitting in Austin, Texas, with another political consultant. They were talking about some political campaigns that were on tap that year. And he said, "You know, this guy George Bush, very impressive guy. I think I could make him governor, and here's how you would do it." He explained how it would be done.

"George Bush, very impressive guy, you could make him president. Here's how you'd do it." He already had, in 1990, in effect a sort of early blueprint to make George W. Bush the president of the United States.

At this time, this guy Karl Rove was systematically taking apart the Democratic Party. Could you tell me that story?

There was a moment across much of the South where the demographics were moving in the direction of the Republican Party. The South, which had been so strongly Democratic, was moving politically with more and more Republican figures. But in the middle to late 1980s, early 1990s, the Republican Party had made very little headway in Texas.

A key instrument of the move to move the Republican Party was Karl Rove, the political operative, who was representing a number of low-level Republican candidates and business interests, and beginning the process of rounding up money people and running candidates who would begin to win down the ballot in Texas. Rove saw that the demographics favored the Republicans, that Texas was about to change. It might take a decade, a decade and a half.

But in Rove's mind -- almost nobody else's in Texas at that time -- he saw the possibility that, as the Republican Party put together business money and strategically recruited candidates, some of them former Democrats who were conservative, who would now rerun as attractive Republican candidates, then they could build a party and build an infrastructure and ultimately take over the corridors of power in Austin, Texas.

The remarkable thing was that when Rove first started with his vision ... there were in effect no statewide Republican candidates in Texas. Republicans had almost no candidates in the legislature. By the time he went to the White House with George W. Bush, every single statewide candidate was Republican.

What did he understand that was fundamentally changing about the parties?

Rove saw, I think, a couple of things. He saw in Texas that voters were, by and large, moderate or conservative, and that if in fact people saw candidates who reflected those values and were attractive candidates, they'd vote Republican. He saw in the early Reagan numbers. Reagan was a person who, although Democrats would vote for Democrats in Texas down the ballot, Texas was one of those states that he saw Reagan Democrats vote in great numbers for Ronald Reagan. ...

He saw a state like Texas and others in the Southwest, where business was going to move a new kind of a person to Texas -- not simply the long-entrenched social Democrats who remembered the Depression, but a new group of suburbanites who were going to be part of a new movement; not just cattle and oil, but high tech and other businesses, computer businesses. These were people who, in many cases, were upper middle-class or middle-class people. They were going to settle in suburbs. These were going to be people who increasingly would vote Republican.

Rove had this blueprint that was in incredible detail, precinct to precinct, in which he saw that on this year in 1980, a certain number of people vote Republican. But by 1990, he could make it another percentage. By 2000, it could be an enormous percentage of Republicans. He saw the trajectory.

But why were the Democrats losing their base? Why were they falling apart?

The Democrat Party in Texas, like in much of the South, began to be seen by moderate conservatives as the party in effect of minorities, as the party of the liberals, as the party of discredited ideas of big government.

By their very nature, Texans are independent and conservative even if they're Democrats, and they don't like the idea really of that big a government. They find appealing the idea of independence, of self-assuredness, of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. ...

People in Texas saw the emerging Republican Party as better reflecting their views. They saw the Democratic Party as reflecting the dwindling base -- that's Hispanics and African-Americans. African-Americans were a smaller percentage really in terms of voting. Although Hispanics were growing and continue to grow as a population, they don't vote in the numbers that they represent. It's a smaller percentage.

So white voters in effect -- especially people who were coming from elsewhere -- Rove saw would be Republican, and they'd be Republican in bigger numbers. Ultimately, what was going to happen was Republicans would vote for people not simply for a Supreme Court and maybe comptroller or state treasury, but for governor and for dominance in the legislature. And that's what happened.

The story as you told it in your book [is] about how he's got everybody signed up. Then he sees this guy [George W. Bush] and he takes him to the governorship.

Karl Rove increasingly became the political figure in Texas behind the scenes. He represented every Republican. At one point, every Republican who would run for office and win the nomination in Texas had Karl Rove as his client. The one guy he didn't have was George W. Bush, a guy he had known for years, a guy whose father he had worked for and a guy he had to convince, "You can run for governor. And I can make you governor."

George Bush was skeptical. He didn't think he was going to win. He didn't think he could win. George Bush believed the press. The press was that Ann Richards, the incumbent governor, this extraordinarily attractive figure, a national titan, this Democrat who became a star in Texas, was unbeatable. In fact, George Bush's mother even said to him, Barbara Bush said, "You can't beat Ann Richards."

But Karl Rove knew he could, and he basically worked him. He explained to him with the numbers, with the commitment, with the conviction how he would do it. Effectively, what Karl Rove said was, "The numbers are working in your direction. There are people who will vote for you. The Republican Party is emerging as a constituency that can elect you."

"Two, you will run against her in a way that you will never attack her." Whatever we think about liberation and equality and so forth-- The idea, especially in 1994, of a man publicly attacking a woman on a political stage was something that would be political suicide.

Rove went out of his way to make sure that Bush would never appear to attack Ann Richards, at least in public --that everything he talked about would be above board and about policy. And the policy they talked about more than any other policy was her failure as a governor.

The one area where she had failed, in Bush's eyes, was in the area of criminal justice -- people who should be in prison who weren't in prison. The rise of juvenile crime was something that concerned a lot of Texans, although the statistics under the Richards administration basically showed that, actually, by the time she was running for reelection against George Bush, crime was actually falling.

It didn't make any difference, because the campaign, run by George Bush and Karl Rove, convinced people that crime was at its worst. They believed it. It was a weakness. They exploited it brilliantly.

He then, ironically, takes programs that she's promoted on education and becomes the education governor.

Yes. You know one of the things that governors do is they handle education. That's sort of the military defense of governorship. We don't have an army. But education is the most important thing in effect that a government does.

What George Bush does as governor is finds himself in an interesting point. He's surrounded by Democrats by and large, although more and more Republicans are going to be in office. Still, the lieutenant governor who presides over the Senate's a Democrat. The House and Senate are Democrat. He's the governor. So he has to work with these Democrats in a way.

Many of these Democrats like the education ideas that Ann Richards has espoused. So George Bush picks up on those and adds his own spin, in effect, presses the issue of accountability. In fact, that's what we see now in the "No child left behind" in presidential years. It started right here in Texas.

He pushes these ideas, which in effect were part of Ann Richards' ideas, and made them his own. He understood that, in Texas, the most important thing for the voters who are most likely to vote for him is that their kids' schools are good schools, that their kids are getting the best education possible, that the schools are well-funded and that their kids are prepared for college.

He takes on the issue of education as one of a very small number of issues, which is a mark of Bush -- only tackle a few things, and tackle them with intensity. He's very, very successful in emerging as the education governor.

But is he the education governor?

The interesting thing about Bush is he pressed the issue of education in a way that -- I'm not saying it's false, that he didn't believe it, but in a way that it was really others who really laid the groundwork for him. It was a whole history of moving toward accountability in education. It was a whole history of people who wanted to put money into education.

In fact, George Bush's biggest defeat as governor was on education, although most people don't know this, even in Texas. He pressed this extraordinary plan -- which is really an excellent plan in the minds of many people -- to put more money in our kids' schools by lowering property taxes and raising other ways of raising money. It was something that his political consultants and around him said, "Don't do. It's political dynamite."

But he did anyway. He saw himself as the education governor. In order to become the education governor, he had to do something big, something extraordinary. He had to, at one point he told me, "Spend the political capital that I'd gained in order to do something that's truly meaningful. That is to lower property taxes dramatically and put real money and change the education system of Texas."

He failed, and he failed in part because the plan that he pushed -- which ultimately was redone by allies in the legislature, Paul Sadler being the most important one of those -- failed with his own Republicans in the House and Senate. ...

But his legacy is of being successful on education, being successful on reducing taxes.

Yes, it's funny. When he ran for president in 2000, we'd go out to these campaign stops. I spent the entire year pretty much on the airplane with him. What I would hear early on in the Republican primary was, "Here's this great education governor. He did all these great things. And he--" and so forth. In effect, I would have to explain or we would write when people would ask, "Well, he did some things. But some other things were not done quite the way he wanted it."

He did do some accountability. But some measures were tempered, I think, by wiser heads in the legislature, so that the schoolchildren were best dealt with. When he talked about lowering property taxes -- dramatic lowering of property taxes -- when he talked about that in Texas, he was really talking about something that was a fairly modest achievement.

When he was governor and his education plan effectively failed, the legislature ultimately sort of fell back on a position of lowering property taxes a modest amount through a certain mechanism. ... They had a billion-dollar surplus, so you apply it to property taxes. It wasn't much of a relief. It was nothing like the plan that George Bush had put into effect. ...

What kind of governor was he? What were his work habits?

... He was an extraordinary popular governor, in part because he was so personable. That works at a state level. You don't really see that in the presidency as much as you do at a local level, where you're out with people and you're very accessible.

He was a very diligent person. I can remember that, shortly after he was elected as governor, you go right into a legislative session. Worked very hard in the legislative session. Between legislative sessions, the governor has very little to do, actually, in a place like Texas, where it's not really a strong governor state. So a friend of his, who was working on the staff, was in his office one day. Bush asked, "Now what do we do?" And the guy said, "Well, you don't do anything. Because between legislative sessions, you make a few appointments. You meet with some people. There's almost nothing to do."

He didn't want that at all. He really actively began to talk about working ideas. That's when he began first to talk about taxes inside. Changing education. Defining who he was. He was a very active governor.

Some of his habits are that he is absolutely, precisely on time. The mansion is across the street from the Capitol. So he would arrive, sometimes walk, sometimes be driven by his security detail, at exactly the same time. Whether it was 7:00 in the morning or it was 7:15, he was right there.

He would work straight through the morning, a series of meetings and so forth. His meetings are 15-minute meetings. As governor, he never liked hour-long meetings.

When you gather people around him, he did exactly as governor what he does as president. He surrounds himself with a very small group of people he trusts, whose instincts he regards well, whose ideas he'll consider. And rather than read big long memos, he wants one page.

Rather than hear 15 minutes of recommendations, he wants to hear a minute. He wants to hear from a series of people, "What do you think? What do we do about this issue? What do we do?" He distills from those ideas what his decision is. He makes a decision, and moves on.

I don't know of any case that I can remember where he's regretted the decision that he's made. He recognizes decisions were wrong, but he says, "You have to make the decision based on what you think at the time."

Key point in George Bush is that he doesn't study things in a meticulous way, the Clinton way or the way Jimmy Carter did, with the sort of in-detail discussions and understanding of a particular problem. He pays people to understand problems, and he trusts people who are around him. They're supposed to fully vet and understand and come to a point of view and give him their best advice. From the series of people, he considers all of the recommendations, makes a decision accordingly and then moves on.

Being a student and meticulously going over papers has gotten a bad name from Carter to Clinton. They're using [that] against Kerry. There is a [perceived] weakness as to whether or not he gathers enough diverse opinion.

Yes, I think one of the myths about George Bush is that he's stupid. He's not. But he is not curious; that's not a myth. That's absolutely true. He wants to know about as much as he needs to know to make a decision and then move on. He knows fundamentally what he believes in terms of business, in terms of free enterprise, in terms of the role of government. He wants to hear people not just on that side, but other sides. But he makes decisions that are consistent with that.

He has never been a student in the way that I think people who dip themselves deeply into the material are students. He's always, I think, been happy with that. ...

This is a guy, then, that decides under the advice of those around him to run for the presidency of the United States. There's got to be an education process that takes place here for him.

The thing about Bush is, he actually is a pretty quick study when he wants to be.

Interesting model developed in Texas. When he prepared to run for governor of Texas, he surrounded himself with a small group of experts, who basically taught him about government. This was a group that was formulated by Karl Rove, his political director. Part of the effort to prepare George Bush to run for governor, Rove understood -- "You don't even know how the state works. You've got to learn how does it work. What is a budget? How many highways do we have? How do you pay for education?"

So this small group began meeting in a building in Dallas and sometimes here in Austin. They had classes in which they taught George Bush, "This is State Government 101."

The same thing happened when he ran for president. Rove and others understood -- and the president understood --that he did not understand this extraordinary number of things you had to understand as a candidate for president and as president. ... People like Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and others would come here and teach him about, "This are the countries that are in NATO. These are the issues that are at stake in the Mideast. This is what's happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

You had the education side. You had the financial side, the domestic side. Taxes.[They] would come in and talk about the size of the federal government. How much is off budget, how much is on. How Congress works.

It's remarkable that the son of a president, someone who had been governor, someone who understood and lived an entire life in the fishbowl of politics, still had to be taught about politics and government in order to be up to speed as a candidate for president.

What was the Palo Alto/Austin shuttle?

There was something else that was happening politically at the time; not only was George Bush learning the policy that he needed to know if he was going to be a candidate. Karl Rove, his political operative, was putting together the politics, the infrastructure that he needed, which would pay off ultimately in support and money down the road.

He began a front-porch campaign of people from around the country. These are political leaders, mayors, governors -- influential types who would shuttle in and out from different places. They would have little lunches with George Bush. A group from a California and Arizona and Florida would fly in and talk to George Bush as he ostensibly was trying to figure out, "Do I want to run for president? What would happen? Can we talk about this?"

Inevitably, we -- the press -- would be called over to the mansion afterwards. A group would come out, absolutely dazzled by this George Bush person, and would talk about, "He ought to run for president."

Bush himself would say, "Well, I'm still thinking about it."... When he was a reluctant candidate, or seemed to be, at a time when in fact he had decided he was going to run for president. This was all show. ...

Was George Schultz important on the national stage as a kingmaker, do you think?

One of the things that happened to Bush was -- in part because he was seen as a figure who had the name and the possibility, and so people began to get on board -- he began to attract people of some stature. ...

You saw George Schultz, a guy who when Bush finally did announce that he was going to run for president, was right here in Austin at the convention center -- this extraordinary political figure, but a figure who had a lot of heft, a lot of support to the president.

People began to look, not only at George Bush, but the fact that he was surrounded increasingly by people of stature and people of substance. Clearly, that made him appear to be a formidable candidate.

He becomes the president, promising to unite Washington, something American people would like to see. He fails. Why?

George Bush said, as a candidate, "I want to change the tone in Washington." Part of that is because it's political rhetoric, and that's because the polls and focus groups wanted -- most people wanted that to happen, so it was an appealing message. But part of it was being he really wanted to do that. He really thought he could do that.

What he never really understood I think fully was, as governor, he was a governor at a key and important point of transition in Texas. He was a Republican who was surrounded by Democrats at the highest level. So he had to work with Democrats.

Some decisions were made by key Democrats, most of whom were really kind of moderate and conservative, even if they were Democrats, especially by the lieutenant governor of Texas, the most powerful political figure, a guy named Bob Bullock. The decision was made, "I like George Bush. I'm not going to fight George Bush. We're going to work together, this Republican governor and this Democratic legislature, to do some things that are best for Texas."...

I've talked to Bush about this when he was a candidate for president -- that the environment in Washington is different than in Austin. And he'd say, "Yes, I know that. But you know, I can do this." Bush had this enormous confidence in his ability in a room, one-on-one or in small groups, to win you over, Democrats and Republicans alike. He'd seen the success that he had had in Austin. He thought he could translate that to success in Washington.

He truly thought he was going to go to Washington and sort of mend some of these fences with his own -- even though it sounds naïve -- charm and ability to deal one-on-one, behind closed doors, in a gregarious, gracious way, to win over his adversaries.

He failed in an extraordinary way.

Where is the presidency, pre-9/11?

Well, you know, it's funny to watch George Bush. His early months as president, he seemed to be floating about, unlike his first year as governor, where he had a series of fundamental things that he wanted to achieve and Democratic members of legislature who helped him achieve it.

In the Congress, he had an adversarial relationship. In terms of his proposals, they were seen increasingly conservative, and in ways that he fought big opposition. The instrument of government was large, unruly, and he was in a large part unsuccessful.

It seemed that his administration was listing and wasn't very successful. …In a sense, I think we saw before 9/11 a George Bush who, for the first time that I'd seen him in public life, was not as confident about who he was and what he wanted to do in office -- who seemed almost dwarfed by the office -- whereas before he had dominated the office.

You had observed this guy for a long time. [Then] 9/11 comes. What's going through your mind, as you know George Bush? What insights can you give us?

George Bush has always been the best when he focuses on just a few things or one thing. He never wants to deal with 15 things at the same time. He's a person who, at the core, has absolute confidence in his ability to get something done, whether it's the education bill or whether it's winning over adversaries.

And 9/11-- ...that moment, when he went to the site, we saw a guy who had found himself, who understands fundamentally that there are a few core ideas that [he has] enormous confidence in. He has confidence in himself when it's simple, when it's direct, when it's black-and-white.

He's not good when the issue is nuanced and difficult. He is really at his best when he can deal one-on-one, absolutely right and wrong way. He believes fundamentally in the nature of evil and the nature of good.

In a biblical sense?

He believes it absolutely in a biblical sense. In George Bush's world, he believes -- as many evangelicals do -- that we are engaged in a great drama, and this drama is one in which good is battling evil.

This war gave him a fundamental opportunity to live out something that is very real inside him theologically, and that is "They are the enemy." When he uses the word, "evildoers," he does so in way that resonates beyond rhetoric. It is theological. It is fundamental. It is black-and-white.

He does not give a second thought about the idea that they might have a point of view that ought to be considered. The radicals are the radicals. They are evil. They are the force, in effect, of Satan on Earth. He believes this.

So when he engaged in this conversation with the American people on how to deal in the early hours and the early days of 9/11, he was absolutely in his own element, because he knew he had to ultimately trust God, the fundamental force. He's said so since then -- that you ask God what to do in these cases; not that you're following exactly what God says, but you believe that God will lead you. George Bush believed in this moment that he was God's man at a moment of crisis in a battle between good and evil on Earth.

The relationship with his father is a complex one. What is happening there?

Through George Bush's life, there's been like psychodrama of living up to the father, as any son wants to live up to the rights of the son. So many times he emulated the father in going into the service, but not quite. It was in the Guard, and getting into the oil business, but not quite succeeding. …

I've talked to him about how deeply hurt he was when his father was defeated by Bill Clinton. This was something that deeply, deeply bothered him. Even as governor it would come back to him.

He felt that his father had been defeated, not necessarily unfairly. But his father was somebody he loved very much, and he was a good man who, in his mind, deserved a second term, but didn't get it. ...

As president, fairly or not, Bush garners the ire of his father's former friends. Scowcroft, Baker, others. What's going on?

What happened toward the end of the 1992 campaign, when it appeared that George Herbert Walker Bush was going to lose, was that the son saw that those who were around him had failed his father. He was bitter about that. James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and others were figures that the son saw had failed the man he loved the most -- the man he'd always tried and always failed to live up to, the man he measured himself against again and again and again. Here was his father, deeply disappointed. Here were the men, these other men. It obviously wasn't his father's fault that he lost. It was these people who'd failed him, who had been around him.

You had this kind of split in the community. You had the people who were the friends of the father who were no longer the friends of the son. He'd developed his own group of advisers, his own group of friends. …

That affects policy, though, it seems. Scowcroft was not a supporter of the Iraq policy. What's driving this?

The interesting thing is that if George Bush Sr. was anything, he was more moderate, even in the war, the extraordinarily successful Gulf War. He was a moderate president compared to the activities of the son, who seems, in some minds, extraordinarily direct -- even reckless -- in his approach.

That's really a function, in part, of Bush surrounding himself with a different kind of people. Now, some of these people were associated with the father -- Dick Cheney, first among the group. But some of them were Bush's own choices -- Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice.

Now what you had was George Bush, the president of the United States, with his circle of friends. He began to strike out in a way that was dramatically different than his father. In that small group, which had always been the model for George W. Bush in dealing with policy issues-- In that small group of advisers -- Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Condie Rice -- what you had were people who were in effect moving him in a certain direction. They had an attitude about Saddam Hussein. They were very, very successful in convincing and bringing the son around to a point of view that really, I think, would have been alien to the father, and certainly to the advisers of the father. ...

These were the "Vulcans." These were the neo-conservatives. These were not the people who had advised the father. What we see is a more dramatic, direct president -- and extraordinarily reckless, in the minds of some people -- in the way he's approaching the presidency, a way that I think his father never would have.

What has this done to the relationship with his father?

The relationship with the father and son, from best I see, is still enormously close.

Is the father comfortable with the policies?

You know one thing? We're not going to know. That's one thing that's very, very tight. Whatever you think about the relationship between the father and the son, how often they talk, double it. Triple it. Make it stronger. Make it deeper.

This is a deep, abiding relationship which is about blood, which is about a family that's very, very close, from what I've seen. So even if the father disagrees on Iraq, even if the mother disagrees on the issue of abortion, this is their son. They're absolutely supportive. ...

It's interesting, though. The father is the man he loves most of all. The father is the one who [he]'s always, always held himself as a model against. It is the father's advice likely he is not taking. Now this new group of advisers have really gotten him into an extraordinarily difficult situation.

Cheney becomes a new father figure.

Cheney was perfect for Bush. I remember going to Crawford during the vice presidential supposed selection process, when Cheney was in charge. Cheney is perfect for Bush, because Cheney wins over Bush in ways almost nobody else does. Bush is very smart in dealing with people. He's very intuitive. He's very skilled at feeling you out and understanding you.

But Cheney fights through all those defenses, because A, he's loyal. He's loyal to the father. B, he never wants to be president. So Bush saw right away he's trustworthy. C, he talks in a way that Bush finds very appealing.

I have seen him persuaded in so many ways with minor issues, if you talk slow, with great authority, and you're a loyalist, who doesn't have an ulterior motive -- at least that the son believes -- you're absolutely convincing to the son.

Cheney was the best, and in effect, the worst person that George Bush could pick for a vice president. He was the best person, because he advised him in ways -- he had been around the world in ways that were different from the father. But he had the relationship with the father. He had the loyalty that the relationship with the father would bring. He had the trustworthiness that Bush needed, but he also had this ability to convince the son that a policy is the right decision. It's a gravitas that Bush has found, in so many cases, something that he can't resist. ...

There was this question of whether [Bush] was trying to establish his own persona early on in the presidency, even though there's a kind of drift soon afterwards. But that's the beginning of him sort of surprising everyone, with --

Yes. I mean, there really have been two George Bushes, maybe three, during the brief tenure he's had in the White House. One was this president adrift -- not quite knowing, succeeding, in policies that he was trying to pursue.

Second was post-9/11, when he became this person very much in charge, very much exactly what this nation needed. He not only succeeded in bringing the nation together quickly and easily -- maybe not so easily -- but defining what it is we need to do in ways that the American people wanted to hear as a leader. He did so in a way that helped him domestically.

So you saw the success of some of his domestic policies succeed at the same time. You saw him dealing not only with the war as a leader, a successful leader of that war early on, and it appealed to us. But [you also saw him as] a person who would work with a tax issue.

That's something that he has never gotten away from. He has never moved in one direction or another. He has pursued doggedly. Now he's successful. He has embraced Ted Kennedy, his ideological evil, and succeeded in a way that he did in Austin, by pursuing an issue on education. He was successful in so many ways. You had a president reborn. This was a very different George Bush.

Now we've reached a point where we've had maybe the third George Bush, and that is the president besieged -- besieged in a way that he's questioned whether he's going to be [reelected].

I've seen very little evidence that he's going to doubt himself. If he does that in the confines of the family quarters in the White House, I don't see it publicly. I see the guy who's very strong -- at least the public image is -- moving forward despite everything that's gone wrong in this episode. Because fundamentally, he says -- and he may believe -- fundamentally, what he's trying to do is the right thing. ...

The core of him is somewhat elusive. Certainly at the core of him is this personal relationship with God. But yet on policy questions, he seems susceptible to the opinions of those around him.

Well, you know you have a moral center and a political center, or a moral center and a policy center. Obviously, they're related. In terms of public policy, the issue of taxes is something he absolutely feels in his gut. That's why he's relentless in pursuing this tax cut.

It's exactly the kind of Republican politics that you would expect him to pursue. It's the kind of thing that he tried to do in Austin, in a different way. It's the kind of thing that he has been largely successful at in Washington, because it's one of those very few things in terms of policy that he's interested in.

But if you really talk to George Bush about the environment in great detail, if you talk to him about some other issues that are not directly part of the things he cares about -- issue of taxes, business, the success of business -- then he really isn't a very interested and curious person. He doesn't know that much about it.

By and large, it appears from the outside as if the ship is listing. It's moving this way and that way. The president is dealing with some issues with great determination, and leaving everything else to, pretty much, to the four winds.

Because he doesn't have strong convictions about a lot of this stuff--?

He doesn't have strong convictions about many things. He has fundamental strong convictions, in the sense that he's a country club Republican -- always has been. Taxes ought to be lower. Regulations against business ought to be reduced. And that's about it.

With that, though, is this fundamental religious core. He absolutely believes that he is at a moment in time, with the presidency and the attack on 9/11, a moment in time in which he's an instrument of God; that he hopes he has God's will; believes he has the hope and the trust of God; that he's carrying out the divine design in whatever he does. It gives him a lot of solace. It gives him a lot of certitude. So where some people see arrogance, people who know him see a kind of solemnity and certitude.

I saw him at the White House, after Afghanistan and the war there, and shortly before we had gone into Baghdad. I have to say, after all the years that I'd seen him -- and I hadn't seen him for about a year -- this is a man that was absolutely at peace with himself, even though he had enormous energy, even though he was the president of the United States. Even though he was at the center of this giant swirl, of political policy, and issues that were so important, [he was] absolutely at peace with himself in a way I think that I had not seen, really, in years.

Even as a governor, where I think he didn't talk about his faith as much-- I think this faith, the idea that he's an instrument of God, is what he not only frames what he is doing, but he has to frame it. Without that, I think he would be lost. I think he would be adrift. But I think that's an anchor for him.

God has become more important to him.

God is the source of his strength. I'm convinced of this. Again, I want to say it isn't that he thinks that he is carrying out God's will, because God whispered specifically which military actions to take. He doesn't believe that.

But he does believe that at this moment in time on Earth, there is a battle. He has been put in a particular position -- that he has to follow the will, that he believes is God's will, that he is God's man and at a historic moment.

That gives him enormous strength and enormous certitude. He does not believe that he is wrong. He does not give second thought that what he might be doing in terms of a pursuit of the war is the wrong thing to do.

I think it is an amazing thing for his enemies to see, because they think it looks like an arrogant certitude. This gives him a kind of strength that I think really allows him to move forward every day, not just with force, but with optimism and strength. Whether we're going down the tubes or not, he thinks he's pursuing a path that is the only right path.

home · introduction · george w. bush · john f. kerry · what makes a good president?
interviews · links · join the discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
teacher's guide · plan a campus event · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted oct. 12, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
some photos copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS