Ballot Box

Campaign Book Report: Ivins and Dubose on Bush

Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush
By Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose
Random House, 179 pages, $19.95
(Click here to buy the book.)

No one would accuse this book of being fair-minded. It’s a mean-spirited, one-sided assault by a pair of serpent-tongued Texas liberals who regard Bush as an affable near-moron who’d probably be tending bar somewhere if he had a different last name. It’s also, in my opinion, the best of the three books written on the subject so far (or five if you count the Fortunate Son fraud and Bush’s own subcontracted autobiography). Shrub is worth reading even if you have a considerably higher opinion of Dubya than the authors do.

The reason is that this trigger-happy indictment does something that the two other, more balanced and conventional biographies (W by Elizabeth Mitchell and First Son by Bill Minutaglio) don’t do, or at least don’t do very well: It critically evaluates Bush’s public record against the background of Texas’ peculiar political culture. While appreciating the comic value of Texas’ eccentricities, the authors do seem to wish their state were more like Vermont. They deplore living among fellow citizens who are happy to accept minimal and low-quality public services as the price of low taxes. With mordant wit, they call Texas a “laboratory for bad government” and “Mississippi with good roads.”

The state’s anti-government ethos has a long history, one that the authors survey ably. The Texas Constitution was written during Reconstruction by people terrified of centralized government. The legacy of that sentiment persists to this day, which explains why the state has retained such anomalous features as a part-time legislature and the weakest governorship in the country. According to Ivins and Dubose, the Texas governorship is only the fifth most powerful office in the state, “behind lieutenant governor, attorney general comptroller and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner.” Other than governmental minimalism, the chief hallmarks of the state’s politics are extensive corruption and intermittent outbursts of fundamentalist wackiness, such as the “secondary virginity” movement, which dominated a recent governor’s conference on youth.

This context leaves readers with a much clearer sense of what Bush can legitimately claim a role in, where he overreaches, and what he gets blamed for unfairly. It’s hard to stick W. with responsibility for all of Texas’ abysmal social statistics, from its high poverty rate on down. But in some areas, Bush has shown so little interest in civilizing his state that he does deserve fault. The book’s most damning indictment is on the environment. In recent years, air and water have been getting cleaner just about everywhere in the country except Texas. And the reason is pretty clearly Bush’s unwillingness to cross what Ivins and Dubose call “bidness.” Faced with the problem of refineries and plants that were grandfather-claused in at the time the Clean Air Act became law in 1971, Bush supported an industry-sponsored “voluntarily compliance” initiative. He then let an industry lobbyist write his clean-air bill.

Ivins and Dubose do cut Bush some slack in their chapter on education. While arguing that the trend toward better test scores was already underway by the time he was elected in 1994, they accept Bush’s seriousness about the issue. They challenge his assertion to have ended social promotion in Texas (a movement spearheaded by Ross Perot) but credit Bush with working to equalize funding between rich and poor school districts. In fact, I think they are too hard on Bush’s education record in other respects, reflexively opposing experimentation with charter schools and accountability standards based on statewide testing, two areas where Bush has been something of a leader. 

Through much of the book, you do hear the sound of one knee jerking. The authors assume that any attempt at welfare reform or tort reform is a de facto evil. They incline toward what my colleague Jack Shafer calls “therapeutic laws.” In one instance, they describe a piece of hate-crimes legislation that Bush opposed as “a bad bill that was desperately needed–if only to reassure minority communities that the government cares about what happens to them.” That way madness lies. Ivins and Dubose also respond automatically on issues like welfare, asserting that Bush’s move to end the allowance for each additional child is based on “a mind-boggling vision of some welfare queen producing a new child annually in order to get an additional $38 a month.” Well, the evidence about the effectiveness of the so-called family cap is mixed. But it’s a caricature to assume that supporters of the idea are all scroogelike meanies. 

Ivins and Dubose compensate for such uncritically lefty urges with flashes of insight into the seedier moments in Bush’s past. One of these was Bush’s unexplained jump to the head of the long line outside the enlistment office of the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Shrub explains how Texas’ then-speaker of the House, Ben Barnes, ran “an underground railroad that quietly moved the sons of privilege from Selective Service offices into a safe haven in Texas Guard units.” Other beneficiaries of this network included the sons of Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally. The authors also do a good, quick job on Bush’s own version of Whitewater–a 1990 episode in which he front-ran his stock in Harken Energy, the company that bought out his failing oil-exploration company. Bush dumped his shares just before the news that Harken was in terrible shape became public and caused its stock to plummet. He was eight months late notifying the SEC of his intention to sell the stock and later claimed that the dog must have eaten his original filing. Another damning story included here is about how the Bush-led Texas Rangers demanded a public subsidy for a new stadium in Arlington and abused their quasi-governmental authority in an attempt to buy out private land at a submarket price.

As hostile as it is, Shrub didn’t make me dislike W. Against his state’s roguish traditions, he stands out as an amiable, honest, and essentially moderate Republican with above-average political skills. Ivins and Dubose think we should be afraid of a presidential candidate with little interest in policy and minimal experience in government. But based on their account, W.’s easygoing insubstantiality comes across as somewhat reassuring. He might not know dog, as Ivins would say. But for all his failings, he doesn’t seem to have done Texas much harm.