Most of us have heard that George W. Bush is running for president this year. Many remember that he’s the son of former president George H.W. Bush and a Yale grad like his poppa. News-watchers know he’s been governor of the great state of Texas since 1995, and sports fans may recognize him as a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. To learn more about the man who may soon become Leader of the Free World, read “Shrub.”
The title of this slim volume is a nickname given the candidate by author Molly Ivins, the well-known columnist. She and co-author Lou Dubose (editor of The Texas Observer) examine Mr. Bush’s record from their vantage point as longtime analysts of the Lone Star State’s political scene.
“Dubya” (another Bush moniker, from the local pronunciation of his middle initial) is a really “likable guy; you’d have to work at it to dislike him,” they write. With a talent for “locker-room joshing, slap-on-the-butt stuff, political hoo-ha,” he calls most of Texas’ 181 legislators by their first names, if not their nicknames, and is “one of the most amiable, up-close-and-personal governors this state has ever known.”
He is also lucky: “If they tried to hang him, the rope would break,” the authors suggest. He became governor just as $17.3 billion from a suit against the tobacco industry – “the largest settlement in the history of Earth” – cured Texas’ fiscal problems. The $2 billion it provides in the current budget cycle happens “to just exactly pay for the tax cut on which Bush is running for president.” Ironically, the windfall had been engineered by trial lawyers, whom Bush has always hated.
His good luck began with being born into a wealthy and well-connected family that includes his father, the ex-president. Back in 1968, when Dubya became draft-eligible, Big George was a congressman. Young George quickly got into an elite unit of the Texas Air National Guard, notwithstanding a long waiting list. “After scoring the absolute minimum on the qualifying test,” he jumped ahead of 150 pilot applicants “who often had to wait eighteen months to be considered for flight school” and spent the peak years of the Vietnam War flying F-102s in American airspace. When this later became a political issue, George W. denied that any family members or friends interceded on his behalf. He still sticks to this story, despite sworn testimony in a recent court case naming a close family friend as advancing his career as a Guardsman.
Ivins and Dubose relate how Bush the younger became a Texas Oil Man in the late 1970s with start-up money contributed by family friends and other investors “speculating in political futures and cultivating connections with the son of the vice president of the United States.” Few of his oil deals paid off until one firm signed an offshore exploration contract with Bahrain. Shortly before its price dropped abruptly at the onset of the Gulf War, Dubya sold most of his stock in the company at a handsome profit.
Another lucky break was buying into the ball club: his 1989 investment of $640,000 grew to $15.4 million by the time he cashed out in 1998. Part of this bonanza came from the taxpayers of the city of Arlington, who coughed up $191 million to build the Rangers’ new ball park. After their properties were condemned, the owners of the 13 acres it stands on had to go to court to obtain a fair price – moneys that the team then said were payable by the sports authority (ultimately, the taxpayers). But soon after he was elected governor, Bush’s attitude toward property rights seemed to change: in 1995 he signed his state’s first “takings” legislation, which would have made condemning the stadium site difficult, if not impossible.
Though Bush claims that his governorship demonstrates his leadership abilities, this book informs us that Texas’ “weak governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else’s.” According to the state’s constitution, the position has less power than attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner and, surprisingly, even lieutenant governor.
Ivins and Dubose outline the great cultural differences between the eastern and western regions of the state, and even between Bush’s home town of Midland and its sister city of Odessa. Among the state’s Republicans, this is reflected in a “doozy of a split” between the Christian right and “country-club conservatives.” The authors credit Bush with a “masterful straddle” in “keeping a moderate face on the Texas Republican Party while keeping the Christian right happy.” He himself is “a born-again Christian who wants a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, although he seldom mentions that in front of a general audience.” He “was brought to Jesus by Billy Graham in 1985, but he got religion in the political sense at the state party convention in 1994, when the Christian right took over the Texas Republican Party.”
By contrast, no conversion to economic conservatism was necessary. “He owes his political life to big corporate money; he’s a CEO’s wet dream,” the authors say. They “find no evidence that it has ever occurred to him to question whether it is wise to do what big business wants… These are his friends, and he takes care of his friends – sign of a smart politician. That it matches up nicely with his major campaign contributions is a happy synergy for Governor Bush.”
Dubya’s fund-raising ability is phenomenal. By the end of 1999, he had already collected such a large campaign war chest that he declined to accept federal matching funds and therefore won’t have to observe the spending limits required in exchange. Last year he announced that he wants to raise the limits on individual contributions – a no-brainer, since most of his contributors are wealthy. This “wretched” proposal would mean “the end of democracy and a direct leap into oligopoly, rule by the rich,” say Ivins and Dubose.
Their book shows how gifts from energy companies and other polluters, the National Rifle Association and the radical right have been handsomely repaid. As governor, Bush advocated private-school tuition vouchers, legalized carrying concealed firearms, made it harder to sue businesses for damages (“tort reform”) and blocked stiffer clean air and water rules.
Dissecting his positions on taxes, health care, education, crime and drugs, the authors show that Bush’s conservatism isn’t as “compassionate” as advertised. Saving the worst for last, their final chapter describes how after “careful wooing of the Hispanic vote” that helped him win the governorship in 1994 and 1998, he neglected the needs of the Rio Grande valley, a mostly Latino region “so desperately in need of public money and infrastructure that one highly regarded Republican state senator called for ‘a Marshall Plan to save it.'”
Instead of help for the state’s neediest, “Bush’s public policy has given Texas austerity budgets in order to provide relatively meaningless tax breaks to property owners. Bush criticized his own party in Washington for trying to balance the federal budget ‘on the backs of the poor.’ They may well ask him what he thinks he’s been doing in Texas.” The book ends by warning that “George W. Bush is promising to do for the rest of the country what he has done for Texas.”