Who Is George W. Bush?

How conservative is George W. Bush? How capable? This week, the staff of Texas Monthlymagazine allows Slate readers to eavesdrop as they discuss what kind of president Bush would make.

As I watched the ups and downs of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, I kept having a vague feeling of déjà vu that I didn’t understand. Then suddenly I did understand, and I guess I was missing it because it is so very obvious. He’s got the same problem his father had.

I’ve read some of George Bush’s books about his years as president—I’m not a glutton for punishment; it’s just part of the constantly glamorous life of being a magazine editor—and I must say I was surprised to find a man I liked better than I thought I would and who was doing a better job than I gave him credit for. I know he was telling his own story his own way, so he’s hardly an objective source, but even so you could tell that he was a very good inside player who could make reasonable decisions when the time came. On the other hand, I also happened to hear him speak in Dallas during the 1992 campaign against Clinton and saw a man I didn’t like, who didn’t seem to be doing a good job, and who was so bizarrely out of touch that I’m sure the speech lost him votes among the audience. 

I think our governor has a similar problem. He’s pretty effective up close but he can’t figure out how to present himself as he really is in public. He never gave a particularly good speech as governor. He won the first race for governor by hammering the same four points over and over—welfare reform, tort reform, juvenile-justice reform, and education reform. He repeated these points like an automaton. But as governor he turned out to be something completely different. He didn’t really stick to any script. He knew how to make friends even with the Democratic leadership of the Texas House and Senate. He learned really quickly how the legislature works and how the government works. He got good people around him, and off we went. He loved all the give and take, all the ribbing. If he knew you, he would roll down his car window and call out to you as he drove by. It was pretty hard not to like him; just as in the books I read it’s pretty hard not to like his father. And the schools in Texas are better and the legal system is better and the government as a whole is as much better as you could expect.  But the man we’re used to seeing as governor is not the man we’ve been seeing on the campaign trail. 

And speaking of the campaign trail, am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that the questions that the national press seems so concerned about were never important issues during his two campaigns here in Texas? Drugs, for instance. Rumors floated here and there, but the Texas press never pursued them, just as they didn’t push too hard to find out about what Ann Richards’ history with drugs may have been. Bush didn’t have to keep answering reporters’ questions about the rumors, and there wasn’t any groundswell from the state wanting to know. Neither did anyone here wonder if he’s a yahoo. That’s because set against a Texas background it’s so clear that no, he’s just not. He’s an Eastern-educated, white-collar, suburban, country-club, likes-to-have-a-good-time kind of guy. He’s an example of exactly what true-blue Texans are talking about when they say Texas is losing its distinct identity.  Bush is Texan all right, but he’s American, too, in that west-of-the-Mississippi style that makes it possible for people to slip effortlessly between Orange, Texas, and Orange County, Calif. Lyndon Johnson could never have moved to another state and won an election, but Bush might have. Gore is an American east-of-the-Mississippi type; and he’s an American from Tennessee exactly the way Bush is an American from Texas.