the choice 2000

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interview: jim pinkerton
photo of jim pinkerton

Pinkerton was an advisor to President Bush's 1988 campaign. He speaks about George W. Bush's role in President Bush's campaign and the relationship between father and son. He also provides insight into George W. Bush's own political career and what he learned from watching his father.
What were your impressions of George W. Bush when you first met him?

The first rule of a campaign, from the point of view of a campaign staffer like me, is that the candidate's family is always trouble. You just sort of go through life hoping you never meet them, hoping they never meet you, because they're always going to think you're not loyal enough... And so you just figure you're better off working with your own team, your own boss, and let the candidate's family get shipped off to go cut ribbons and whatever else. That was certainly true for the Reagan children, the few of them who were at all involved in Reagan politics. So my view of George, Jr., as we always called him then, was he's here. We've got to be nice. It was probably another year or two before he was there a lot, and we really became if not friends, at least close co-workers.

So how did he fit into your philosophy?

Well, he turned out to be a nice guy, and he turned out not to want to throw his weight around. He turned out not to demand special things for his father in terms of special treatment. I mean, obviously we were all working for him so it wasn't like we were working for somebody else, but it was just a case of can we get our jobs done, as opposed to spending all of our time, you know, calligraphying, with memos and so on like that. So that was one element. The other element is of course, a lot of candidate's families, I'm talking more broadly here about almost all candidates' families, they want special perks. They want briefings. They want trips. They want rides. They want whatever. And it's hard enough to get one guy elected. It's also hard enough to do that, and cater to the family at the same time.

Bush didn't do that?

He did not do that. We really came to know each other in 1987 when he came to work full time at the Bush campaign. And he made it very clear to me and everyone else. He said "Look, I'm here as a resource to help any way I can. I'm not here to give orders. I'm not a line officer." He spoke in sort of a business terminology. "I just want to help. I just want to see my dad get elected. That's all I care about." And we sort of pinched ourselves and said, "Wow, does he really mean it? I mean, we're not going to have some spy in here just ratting on us all of the time? We're going to have somebody who is actually a helper to us, and helper to the campaign?" It turned out to be great.

How did he end up in the campaign at that point in time?

Well, at the time it was just presented to me as here is George W. Bush who wants to help out. And I do believe the Bushes are a tight family, in terms that it would be natural that a son, maybe the eldest son, would come and pitch in. All of Bush Senior's brothers and sisters were active in the campaign. He had a lot of cousins floating around too. It is a genuinely extended, but nonetheless close knit family. I have since read that Bush was sort of between oil industry gigs and so on, but that wasn't really clear to me at the time. He was just here to help.

How did he fit into the family, as the eldest son? Was it apparent that he was the elder son?

It was apparent that, yes, he was literally the eldest son. Was he sort of the obvious future, once and future king, future inheritor of the Bush mantle? Not at all. I mean, I really didn't think of him that much in political terms back then. I thought of him as sort of a business man. During the course of that campaign he got involved with the Texas Rangers and so on. And while I always thought he had a political dimension to him -- he had in fact run, but he had also lost in 1978 -- I figured "Look, here is just a guy who is sort of sorting out his options, going through what a lot of people go through at 40" or whatever he precisely was at that time, about 40. Just looking for sort of a way to make a contribution, and whatever options he wants to put in front of himself it will be better if in fact his father wins.

So what was his role?

His role was to show up every day, and see what needed to be done. And then he went on a fair number of trips.

George was always fun to be aroundhe had a sense of humor, and a sense of lightness to him.  People liked being in his company.  We had an office building on 15th Street, and Lee Atwater was in the corner, and Rich [Bond] was in the other corner, and the rest of us were sort of in these middling offices along the hall. And George had a slightly bigger office along the hall. He made no special requests as to corner office, and fancy couch, or anything like that. It was a very austere, even sort of ordinary campaign headquarters. And they just gave him an office and said "Okay, look. There are things that will come up, and we'll need you to go meet with this group of visitors, and these ambassadors."

Campaigns, especially when they're in Washington, naturally sort of get overrun with not even just hangers on. Hangers on are bad enough in terms of old friends, old Washingtonians, old bureaucrats, defeated politicians and so on. You also get the diplomatic core, you get a lot of foreign correspondents. I mean, nobody wants to fool with Japanese TV in a campaign. You don't want to be completely impolite. So what you want to do is you want to find somebody who will talk to them, and make them happy. I got stuck with my share of those, but whenever I could, I would say to George or to his assistant, "Hey, does anybody want to meet these Japanese? They want to come and talk to you." And it worked out great.

Do you remember any specific stories, like when the Japanese would come and George would go talk to them?

It wouldn't just be the Japanese, it would be the Texas Republican Woman's Federation. It would be just sort of any group of people.

What I always learned was that people come in with something to talk about. Something is on their mind, and it's either a business thing, or a lobby thing, or whatever. And they only have so much gas in them. And so if they talk to somebody else for 45 minutes, even if the new person has heard none of the previous conversation, the original talker is still kind of talked out. So if they talk to somebody else for 45 minutes, and they talk to you for 10 minutes, they're happy. They go home happy and say I let everything off of my chest, it is ventilated out now, so I'm content.

George would do more than his share of the listening process. Let people just blow themselves out talking to him about whatever was important. And not only did they get to talk, and hear themselves talk -- which is half the battle -- they also could say "Listen, it wasn't just talking to some flunky like Jim Pinkerton, it was talking to somebody who no doubt will share this with the Vice President." It was great.

So what do you think they went away with? How did they size him up?

I remember thinking to myself that he did a good job. That he had a kind of a patience and a kind of sense of humor, and so on, about it that again, it didn't leap into my mind that "Hey, this guy is running himself 10 or 15 years hence." I thought to myself "He's doing a good job. This is probably not a skill which you can really put in the market." Stand in for my father running for president. This is kind of a one shot thing. That's really what I thought about it. This is sort of a one shot thing that George was doing back then, as opposed to part of some grand plan.

Did he show off some sort of charisma? What came out of him?

He's not, wasn't then, and isn't now, an orator. I mean, you wouldn't just get something to have people standing on their chairs. It was just more, in a Marshal McLuhan sense, nice and sort of charming in a kind of Dave Garraway chitty-chatty way as opposed to rabble-rousing. But I thought he was effective. And I know that they had him on many more trips to Iowa and elsewhere because they thought he was good. And because, let's face it, again, a campaign needs to have a presence. You need to have people there.

Was it clear that he was headed towards a political career of his own?

His heart was business that I could see. And I thought that is where he was going to wind up. I was aware that he had a political side. I remember he was learning Spanish. Back then he would sort of walk around saying little Spanishisms that you could sort of halfway understand just from...but that could have been interpreted, even in 1987-88 as part of the game of campaigning for his father.

Again, I thought from his point of view the whole '87-88 experience worked out well. He got a chance to sort of do something for the family. I think he probably felt a little black sheepy in terms of the previous, you know, 10 years or 20 years of his life. And here was his chance to really put some equity back into the family, and then also develop some human capital that would serve him no matter where he went after that.

From what you saw, what were the expectations of the father to the son? Was there an expectation that he'd follow in his father's footsteps?

Well, he followed his father's footsteps in terms of high school. Harvard Business School is sort of close enough in terms of the [graduate] track...Bush Sr. never struck me as the type who would be in there micro-managing his children. I think he would be the type who would say "Look, I have done the best I could to raise you. My wife and I have stayed together, and we've raised a good family. You're always welcome, and we want you to come back and come home with us, come visit us and whatever" and it just sort of worked out well. The kids all turned out okay. It's not a family of bohemians, and it's not a family where they would sort of do wild and crazy things. It is a sort of socially and sort of personally mostly conservative group. It's not a complete shock that all the little acorns fell not so far from the oak in this case...

The pattern in George Jr.'s life is sort of less heroic and more predictable. Well, he was born in Texas, so he stayed in Texas. His father was in the oil business, so he was in the oil business. His father had run for office, so he ran for office. Sometimes you don't want to do something different just for the sake of doing something different. If you're in a gig that's kind of working, and it worked for your father, it's not a great shock that you'd do it for yourself too. But was it risky to run for governor? Well, it's not really risky. You do it and you see if you win. It's riskier to run for president, but once you're already governor, it's not so risky anymore. It's not Bush's fault that nobody has really confronted him with some moment of crisis there in his life. That's what happens when you're living in a peaceful and prosperous country. There just aren't that many occasions where you're really summoned to the precipice and people see whether you've got vertigo or not.

Both father and son are both certainly politically savvy.

Well, I think that Bush Sr. and Jr. were sort of a cliche, it sounds kind of sappy, they were good listeners. It's hard for me to imagine a good politician who isn't a listener. There are some. But the good ones tend to be listeners. They tend [to be], if for no other reason just to con you into thinking that they like you and so on. But they're all good listeners.

And I think that Bush, Jr. was, you know, he felt that they had hired Lee Atwater, Rich Bond and all of those other people to run the campaign and so on, and I think he felt that they knew something that he didn't know.

The father was like that. The father was sort of like "Okay. I hired this guy to do this. I hired that guy to do that." And the father had a certain degree of sort of compartmentalization. "Look, I hired you to do this, now don't go starting to do that, because I put you in this category here, and you're the guy who does this" and so on. "Don't screw things up." That's sort of the down side of that in terms of over compartmentalization.... I always felt like he was listening, and was grateful for the opportunity to sort of get my side of the case out there, and probably used that to my own advantage.

But it necessitated him showing a fair degree of patience with me, and I can only assume that he was doing that with other people too. And that much listening, you can't help but learn something. You can't help but sort of get in the habit, and you can't help but sort of accumulate judgements about people, which will come in handy if and when you start running your own campaign.

But to finalize sort of the track we're on, what part does the candidate, George W. have in sort of designing his program, his campaign? How much does he rely on people to sort of bring stuff in?

Stipulating that I wasn't there, and had no role in the '94 campaign and so on, as I look at the issues that Bush has talked about, compassionate conservatism, tax cuts, tort reforms and so on, these are issues that I find totally credible within the Bush [program]. I find tax cuts, tort reform, education, tough on crime, I find them completely in tune with the Bush I knew 10, or 12, or 15 years ago. We can argue about nuances, but this is clearly the same guy that he was when I knew him well, and the fact that a guy like [Karl] Rove would come in and the issues, agenda wouldn't be much different than what the candidate always sort of thought and believed, that's the sign of a good campaign, because that's a campaign that will succeed.

If we've put a guy on TV every day for a year saying something he doesn't believe, or doesn't really believe in his bones, you'll get a bad candidate. Because he'll look like a fake, and his eyes will shift around, and so on. That's just a formula for failure.

Sometimes they win, but they don't tend to do very well. I think that's a little bit what happened to George Sr. I mean, George Sr. got a bunch of issues that people like me liked, that he didn't really believe in, and so he ditched them when he had a chance a year or two later, and caused a kind of fatal coalitional crunch inside his own party that in large measure cost him the '92 election. I think that won't happen in a George Jr. presidency because I think he is probably much more comfortable with the ideological agenda that made him successful as the governor of Texas, sailed him through the nomination process, and has taken him this far.

What are your impressions of George W. compared to his father?

George, I believe, is quicker and probably more canny about people, and so on, than his father is. That might just have been because I met George Jr. when he was younger, and sort of more like me. I mean, I never met George Bush until he was vice president, or into the campaign of 1980. So he was much more of an august figure 30 years my senior and so on. So maybe he was quick and I just didn't know it. But I always had the feeling that...George [Jr.] had a better sense of contemporary politics as it was working out on a day to day basis than his father did.

I mean, there is much to admire in George Sr. George Jr. has had a less heroic life, to be sure. In less heroic times there is less occasion for heroism, there is less occasion for sort of grand diplomacy and so on. This is much more of a time of making things work, and trying to improve things, and sand off hard edges, and try to raise the general water level. I think that's been Clinton's success has been he hasn't tried to do heroic grand things, he's been content to do little things, and they've added up into two terms in office.

What did George W. learn from watching his father's career?

I think, [he] learned a lot from his father's campaigns in terms of how to win, and then how to lose, both, '88 and '92, and then said "You have to be respectful of the Republican Party's base, what they believe."

And there are some issues that carry over better from the Republican party base to the national electorate. I believe that the country shares the basic economic freedom, pro-business, limited government ideology the Republicans have. The country as a whole has a more watered down, moderate version of that, but nonetheless, that's something that you can transfer from Texas to the country. You can't transfer abortion, school prayer from Texas to the country. I think he made it very clear that compassionate conservatism meant we're going to have economic freedom, pro-businesses, do some stuff on education to make that better, but we're not going to have a Christian country. We're not going to try and transplant the ideological views of Dallas or Houston to the country as a whole.

And that was what Republicans are looking for. Republicans are tired of losing after '92 and '96. They wanted something different than Ralph Reid and Jerry Falwell, and Bush gave it to them, at the same time while preserving good relations, in his own case, with Ralph Reid and Jerry Falwell. So that trick of not being seen as a candidate of the Christian right, but nonetheless being friendly with the Christian right, was the sort of synthesis that enabled him to get from the Republican primaries into competitiveness here in the general election.

Do you have a story you can tell anybody if you want to define this guy. I mean, if you didn't know anything about him, is there one memory, one story you would tell that would help to define who he is?

[During the 1988 campaign], they sent us to Iowa, and they say 19 stops, not cities, 19 stops. On a map it looks fine. And then we get there, and it's a single engine plane. And I say "Hmm." The first thought that flies through my mind is Buddy Holly. He was on some little engine plane flying to Iowa and plunk into the cornfield. So I said just to avoid the hex, "We'd better call this the Buddy Holly Tour that we're making here, just to make sure that we sort of already incanted the bad karma out of the situation," and George kind of laughed...

It's just...having a sense of humor about it. I guess that's the one thing that I could add, is that George was always fun to be around. He was light. He was not a great joke teller, and he was not a cut-up, but he had a sense of humor, and he had a sense of lightness to him. People liked being in his company. Does that add up to charisma? Does that add up to the ten-step Dale Carnegie course? I'm not so sure. But it does add up to a guy who wears well in the national stage. I think people can look at him and say even if we're not going to vote for him, he's not somebody we hate. He's not Goldwater, or somebody who is easy to really demonize. He is a pleasant guy. And so the sense of "Let's go do this." There is a slight risk, but it's something that has got to get done for the cause, for the team" made me want to get on the airplane with him.

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