November 3, 1998
From inside the Lincoln Town Car, all blue-silver like the river snaking through Willie Nelson's smoky rancho deluxe, it's impossible to miss the cloud cover beginning to burn off over the Texas Hill Country. It's a little after 9 a.m. on a slightly chilly day, and as the clouds are erased there are the soft bumps and shoulders, the same loping country that LBJ retreated to, bouncing along in his own Lincoln on the banks of the capricious Pedernales River . . . in the same bit of Texas that Willie Nelson and his aging coterie of snaggletoothed mad-dog musicians like to claim as their outpost.
Sometimes the Midland good old boys remind him: Back in '75, back then his West Texas friends would yodel and snort when they saw him. Here comes the Bombastic Bushkin, George W., that SOB . . . George Dubya! Back then, one night, he and Charlie had had some beer and had finally decided, hell, that it would be all right, important really, to walk onstage at the Ector County Coliseum with Willie and his band. And all the while Willie was vaguely aware of something happening behind him, all the while Willie kept staring in his usual goggle-eyed way into the cosmic otherworld and the band was going to be playing Whiskey River, take my mind.
His Lincoln is in downtown Austin now, and it's slamming hard off Lavaca Street and straight onto a sloping driveway. Wheels flashing, it's surging just inches from the still-opening automatic wrought-iron gate. It's rolling right to the rear entrance of the faded white governor's mansion. The building, Greek Revival-meets-southern-plantation stately, is crawling with splattered, callused remodelers, many of them Hispanic, dressed in soiled jumpsuits and hanging from a cobweb of scaffolding. They're smiling. And they're nudging each other: "Señor Suerte" . . . "Mr. Lucky," whispers one of the admiring workers, nodding toward the Lincoln.
He's riding shotgun, his right arm is hanging out the window as if he's in the lead car in the homecoming parade in Amarillo, as if he's gone cruising downtown Fort Worth in a T-Bird, as if there's somebody out on the drag by the University of Texas whose attention he desperately wants to get, as if it's Midland in the 1950s or Houston in the 1960s and the smiling mothers on the baking sidewalk are halfheartedly shielding their curious daughters' eyes. George W. Bush's brow is doing a Lone Star two-step up and down. It's election day. He's leading by an extraordinary margin and projected to be the first Texas governor ever elected to consecutive four-year terms. The numbers are huge, and in the shadowy piney woods creeping toward the Louisiana border, a woman comes up to him at an old-fashioned political rally and presses a jar of fresh Henderson cane syrup into his hand. Outside the weathered Camino Real Hotel in El Paso, an elderly Mexican immigrant grips his shoulders and won't let go as he stares into his eyes. In the soul of the new high-tech Texas, in Austin, computer billionaire Michael Dell invites him to his yawning hillside manor one Saturday in January; on Monday, the first thing George W. does is write a note, just like his father trained him to do, carefully scribbling notes by the thousands, shorthand-scrawled missives suggesting an intimacy, a lingering friendship: Dear Susan & Michael: Laura, the girls and I had a fine time Saturday at your party. We especially appreciated the tour of your home. It is great. I look forward to future visits. Sincerely, GW.1
Looking out the car window, he can see the little army waiting for him outside the mansion. It makes him laugh, he can't help it, and it makes him want to scream something out the Lincoln: "Hey . . . welcome to Reality Day!"
The driver brakes the car hard just short of the porte-cochere. The governor of Texas bolts from the car and takes a few strides to the back door of the mansion. Up close, the 142-year-old refurbished building looks like any one of a thousand fraternity houses, one of those older homes that the family of an iron-willed nineteenth-century industrialist donated to the local university-all Ionic capitals and ribbed columns, all stately and ghostly, a witness to twinkling soirees, toga party chants, and pregame rallies. Bush shoots the cuffs of the white dress shirt under his gray suit. The rolling amoeba of coffee-clutching reporters that has been waiting all morning for him begins to tumble in his direction. CNN, The Washington Post, Associated Press. He's winking at his boys, the fraternity of security detail men and the armed, white-hat-wearing Texas Rangers, who can't help but grin too as they line up outside the mansion's back entrance. The energy level out here is set at the usual, nice, rollicking pitch. He suddenly shrugs his shoulders.
"I'm glad Reality Day is here!" he yelps into the air. "Yesterday was Speculation Day. Today is Reality Day!"
He starts to bob in a bantam rooster strut across the hand-laid bricks in the circular driveway. His head is tilted back, all chinny defiance. He's done twenty-three press conferences in the last seven days: Dallas, Austin, Waco, San Antonio. His caffeine-sucking press handlers, saggy faces, bad skin, and droopy shoulders, are all dragging, but he's still up at 6 a.m., still crackling to jump on the King Air campaign plane: San Angelo, Wichita Falls, Sherman. There have been dozens of reality days, speculation days, one after another.
"Oh, it's been a long campaign!" he shouts, still beaming, still antsy.
For weeks, the first son had been on the phone, taking meetings in his cavernous second-floor office and debating the merits of the new slogan. It was, he and his advisers had decided, compact. Al Gore will deride it and the knuckle-draggers will complain, but it will really put some velvety distance between himself and Newt Gingrich, between himself and all those other soon-to-be defrocked bastards. And it was, though hopefully no one will notice it, the exact same slogan his father's closest aides had once devised to describe the elder Bush to Christian voters back when he was finally sure his 1988 presidential campaign was rolling forward: Compassionate Conservative.
This morning, the first thing was to call his father. They had been making these calls for decades, these election-morning calls. They talked about the same things they had talked about face-to-face several weeks before, during the annual, almost giddy August retreat at the ninety-six-year-old seaside family compound in Maine. In Kennebunkport, it was obvious. It was celebrative. The numbers were impressive. The crafty backdoor Democrats in Texas were still falling all over themselves for the first son. Jeb was going to win in Florida. His father had said he'd decided he would take Jeb's and George W.'s mother and go to Florida. He wouldn't be coming to Texas, where he had done all that grinding backroom muscle work to force the modern Republican Party onto its feet and out of that pockmarked landscape in oil-stained West Texas, out of that sickening humidity in Houston, every day his starched white shirt sticking to his chest like a moist blanket. He wouldn't be coming to Texas, where he had done all those things that had made it possible for his first son to become governor. More important, he said, that I go to Florida. The first son had agreed.
Exactly twenty-five years ago, he'd had a different conversation with his father. That night, he'd been drunk, and he was out driving with his fifteen-year-old brother, Marvin. After he had rammed through the garbage cans with his car and walked in the front door of the house . . . he was ready, if it was going to be that way, to fight his father. He was from Houston, Texas, he was beery, he had no real career, it was late, and for most of his life he, more than anyone in the family, had been measured against his father, his grandfather, the Bush legacy. That night, he'd stood in front of his father, in the den, and asked his father if he was ready to fight: "I hear you're looking for me. You want to go mano a mano right here?"
Now, this morning, he was happy his father was traveling to Florida and would be with his younger brother. Through five decades, there has always been a Bush as governor, senator, congressman, or president. Since the early 1950s, there have been only rare, random interludes when a Bush hasn't been in a prominent political office. This one, for the first time, is one the first son is going to claim on his own without all those losers, all those psychobabblers, who pretend to know him, who want to analyze him, who waste their time looking for some deep-rooted angst, some inner, complicated undulations . . . all those soothsayers from the Northeast . . . all the weak-willed products of the 1960s, the people who fell for all that claustrophobic, indulgent William Sloane Coffin guilt at Yale and Harvard . . . the ones who whisper that they can always see his father's shadow hanging, nagging, pacing off to the side.
All year, the extraordinary poll numbers have been delivered to that second-floor office at the State Capitol, the one with the collection of 250 autographed baseballs neatly arranged in a dark-wood display case, the Western painting with the lone rider that his Midland oil buddy Joe O'Neill III . . . Spider! . . . had loaned him, the rows of framed photographs on the counter behind his chair, the photos, staring at his back, of his stern grandfather and his misty-eyed father. All year he has led by pneumatic numbers in every poll, including the national prepresidential ones that say he's more popular than Colin Powell, Steve Forbes, and Al Gore. All year in Texas it's speculation squared: He had already made the calls to set Newt Gingrich's resignation in motion, hadn't he? Larry Flynt was investigating him, wasn't he? Hasn't a Texas reporter called up his press office and asked if the governor ever killed anyone?
Six years ago the Houston Chronicle ran the wrong picture of him. It was on a Sunday, the final day leading up to his carefully scheduled official announcement that, without ever holding any other elected office, he was going to run for governor of Texas. Of course, by mistake, the newspaper had run a picture of his father: "In some copies of Sunday's State section, the wrong picture was used in a story about George W. Bush's address to the Texas Federation of Republican Women."2
He said it didn't bother him. But whenever the extended Bush-Walker clan assembled for their annual meetings at Kennebunkport, they watched him, as they always did, because they wanted to see what he would do or say next. He was the oldest, most incendiary, of the five kids, but he was always more than that: Primus inter pares, as his erudite, wordy Uncle Bucky liked to harrumph. First among equals, maintained Bucky.
His uncle, especially, loved to watch his nephew, wondering how he would turn out. He could see the patterns emerging, even when he had taken him to his first ball game at the old Polo Grounds, watching the New York Giants play the Cincinnati Reds, and even later, sitting in box seats at Shea Stadium, keeping tabs on the New York Mets, one of the baseball teams the Bush family would own a piece of over the years. Bucky saw the way Jeb, Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy deferred to Little George . . . no one ever called him Junior, unless he allowed them, unless it was someone he knew very well. Bucky saw the way the three younger brothers stepped out of his way, just the way they stepped aside for their mother. Little George, Bucky liked to tell people, was "as close to being the boss as you could be. I mean . . . they looked up to him and respected him and were . . . maybe . . . a little afraid of him from time to time."3
Now the glum Texas Democrats, truth be told, knew what people had said inside the walls of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington after he first got elected: "The guy is a fucking giant killer," said one normally soft-spoken, level-headed DNC researcher. The Bush clan had assumed that Jeb was going to be elected to high office first. Jeb was the ideologue, Jeb's face wasn't going to wash over with anger, with rage, as his older brother's was prone to do. There might be a time for George W. Bush, but not in 1994, not in Texas, not against Ann Richards.
He would raise his profile, establish his own identity, but he wasn't going to beat the high-haired populist incumbent with the splendid approval ratings . . . the way she pounded the Bushes, sounding like rusty nails at the bottom of a coffee can when she went on the national talk shows. What about the cover of Texas Monthly, the photo of her sitting on a motorcycle? Don Henley from the Eagles loved her. So did Steven Spielberg. They gave her $50,000 each. She got money from Robin Williams, Annie Leibovitz, Linda Ellerbee, Gloria Steinem, Willie Nelson, Marlo Thomas, Rosie O'Donnell, Donald Trump . . .
Donald Trump! She'd ladled Texas acid on George W.'s father at the Democratic National Convention; the one-liner, about George Bush being born with a silver foot in his mouth, was one for the ages. In 1994, she'd done it again, unblinking and over and over again, serving it up as pointed as an ocotillo, talking about an anemic link at the tail end of a gilded Bush dynasty. Her family had grown up desperately poor, on hardscrabble Texas farms in hamlets called Bugtussle and Hogjaw. She had been raised as an only child in a microscopic town outside of Waco, the small city sometimes called the "Heart of Texas," and her relatives survived from paycheck to paycheck provided by her grandfather's job driving trucks with Humble Oil. And Richards called the New Haven-born Bush the Little Shrub.
As the campaign between the most popular governor in America and the most powerful political family in America ground forward, Bush was confiding to a friend in Dallas that he was worried that Texans would never see him as a "real person"; that he was in his forties and that when they heard his name, they still simply thought of his father.
Early on, his chief political adviser ordered him to avoid the media, to avoid all the people wanting to talk to him about his father, about a modern American dynasty. The strategy, instead, was to carry around four ideas, four issues, only four campaign issues-education, crime, welfare and tort reform-to one more town hall meeting in Waco, one more 4-H show in Abilene, one more rusted-out cotton gin in faraway, forgotten Lubbock.
The strategy was to make him more Texan than Ann Richards and also to extinguish any anger. He was always moving, wrapping his lean arms around the Luby's cafeteria lady, her cheeks slathered with dollops of hopeful rouge, and posing for a picture in some population 600 Texas town, or he'd go to the high school in Sherman, not far from the Red River, insisting to the fidgeting juniors and seniors, I have no ill will or feel negatively toward Ann Richards. . . . I find her to be an interesting soul.
That was exactly when the family thought that maybe, maybe, something had happened to him. His favorite cousin, Elsie Walker, couldn't believe it: Little George, the turbulent cosmos inside every family gathering in Maine, the combustible brother who doled out what he liked to call "behavior modification" to the wandering, disenchanted members of his father's White House staff? Now, somehow, he was holding it all back, holding on to it "like a dog with a bone," said a vaguely worried Elsie. She immediately sent off a telegram to Barbara after she saw the way Richards was working him over in their debate, trying to get him to snap and he wouldn't . . . not this time. Elsie's telegram to his mother began this way: "what has . . . what did he do?"4
He was supposed to buckle and erupt. His sister, Dorothy, knew he was still wrestling with it. They all watched him, his brothers and the cousins-Elsie Walker, John Ellis, and the others-who swirled around him every summer at Kennebunkport.
"Then he just kicked the living shit out of Ann Richards!" yelled Ellis.5
He knew what Richards's closest friends were saying: She really doesn't want the job anymore. Pinpointing the weak spots was almost easy. Concede the Austin version of Texas, that version of Texas that might be Easy Texas without all the hassles-without the urban anxieties, the rural paranoia, the suburban fears. Concede that part and instead take the four issues and deliver them to the federal-loathing outbacks of Texas, places filled with wistful, charged affection for the days when Texas was its own republic. Take them to the Petroleum Clubs, the private clubs with the drowning-pool-deep carpets and all those regulation-hating oilmen that you could find in almost every downtown in West Texas-the clubs with white-gloved waiters and Charles Russell paintings or thick blocks of burnished oak mounted with yet another Frederic Remington sculpture. Take them and deliver them to the endless stretches of block-long Chevy Suburbans in Dallas and Houston that were toting the soccer mothers hell bent on Family Values; to the religious right, all the antiabortion Southern Baptists shoulder to shoulder inside the massive cathedrals that look like Graceland at the side of Interstate 35; to the quiet but omnipotent Dallas Citizens Council, the one that had elected every mayor in the city for decades before and after John F. Kennedy was killed, the one that blacks still gingerly called the Dallas White Citizens Council.
This is what he grew up with when his father was working the rooms, never standing still, first in Midland and then in Houston. These were the same people he knew from his time living in and jetting out of Washington, crisscrossing the country in service to his father. But right up to the end, his friends didn't think it would happen. They knew that, deep inside, even he had his doubts. He'd lost his first race, a bare-knuckled congressional race out in West Texas, when the Democrats finally played those dynasty and carpetbagging cards on him, when they reminded all the wheat, cotton, and sorghum farmers up on the South Plains of the Panhandle that he was from a soft carpet in Connecticut, that he had spent nine years of his life in the three most exclusive schools in America. They hammered him just as they'd hammered his father during his father's first run for office in Texas: Tool of the Eastern Kingmakers. One of his intimates, Pete Laney, the Democratic Speaker of the Texas House, knows for a fact that Bush surprised himself when he finally won a race in Texas.6
Now, all of 1998, it's not just another new round of speculation, it's the millions of campaign dollars rushing in from every direction, so much of it that he has reminded his deep-pocketed contributors not to forget the fact that his brother is running for governor in Florida. There's been really only one fractional, microscopic glitch on the road to gubernatorial reelection against his Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro, an earnest sixteen-year veteran of state politics with a cottony voice and the intellectual, well-intentioned demeanor of Al Gore: the Debate.
At Team Bush staff meetings, they talk about the assets, the liabilities. Even the people who know him well, are saying it's no good, it's going to be shades of Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen all over again. They can practically hear it now, the unsubtle invocation of the Texas political saints: Governor Bush, I knew Barbara Jordan, and you, sir, are no Barbara Jordan. He finally agrees to a single debate, but his people make sure that it is scheduled to be held in remote, isolated El Paso-practically in Mexico and the hardest city to get to in Texas. They make sure it will be moderated by just one El Paso newspaper reporter, and everyone else who could truly hurt him, from CNN to the Baltimore Sun, is banned from the actual debate room in the television studio. They make sure it's held on a Friday night in the middle of high school football season, when the entire state is consumed by the narcotic, religious addiction of Texas high school football. "I don't have to do this," Bush tells people all week on the cramped King Air campaign plane. "People told me not to do this, but I'm gonna do it."
The debate unfolds with few hitches, and after it, Bush is in the hallway, wiping the moisture from his upper lip and rocking on his heels again. The next morning, on the Southwest Airlines flight back to Austin, one of the Democratic candidate's top aides is pulling his own bottles of beer out of his coat pocket and waving them around. The flight attendants are glowering, are circling him, huddling with one another. They demand that he step to the front of the plane for a stern lecture on airline regulations. Some of Bush's top aides are on the same plane, watching quietly, smiling quietly, pretending not to smirk as they peek over the El Paso Times. It has been like this all year, the uncomplicated campaign and uncomplicated, Reaganesque messages. And, all year, best of all, nobody from the national media seems to even want to know who the Democrats are sacrificing, who the poor political lifer is, and he keeps getting visit after visit from Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Al Gore.
Ten, twelve, finally fourteen times the Clintons or Gore show up. Meanwhile, the Democrat's mother has been manning the back door of the Democratic campaign headquarters that party activists have been forced to set up in a ratty, wires-hanging-from-the-ceiling downtown building in Austin, a building scheduled to be gutted. In the drought-plagued summer, the guy's mother is the one signing for the UPS deliveries, picking up the dozens of sticky, half-empty Dr Pepper cans, sidestepping the Himalaya of oily pizza boxes tossed in the falling-down hallway. No way Bush's mother is coming down from Kennebunkport to give her signature to the UPS driver in a building that should be condemned.
Through each droning-with-heat summer day, each week after week as the temperature squats above 100 degrees, the incestuous little group of Texas political spin doctors swears they have never seen anything like it. Over platters of chicken-fried steak and okra at the Scholz Beer Garden, or over bowls of gut-wrenching hot stuff at the Texas Chili Parlor, they're marveling at the message discipline and the money: Bush has been burning cash in the last few weeks by, of all things, running Spanish-language ads on prime-time TV. He wants something his father and his grandfather never got when they were elected to office, something the Republicans never get in Texas: he wants Hispanics to vote for him; he wants African Americans to do the same.
In every speech he has begun using the line about "living life on the sunshine side of the mountains"-so often that it sounds like the Great Communicator talking about "Morning in America." In Austin, at least one bookie is handling the Bush-minority-vote projection in between bets on the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Texas Longhorns.
As the campaign skips along from one blistering hot day to the next, his dough-skinned chief political adviser, his personal, private spin doctor, can't help himself. Everybody must have a nickname, and the spin doctor has a quality nickname, Turd Blossom-as in wherever-he-goes-something-is-sure-to-pop-up.7 Turd Blossom finally blurted out a week before election day what everyone else knew but wasn't saying: "Yeah, you're right, the governor's race is over."8
He's still bouncing by the Lincoln, deciding whether to go inside the mansion. A reporter in the driveway wants to know by how much he will win. The projections have crested at a possible 70 percent of the vote. "Foxy," begins Bush, staring off at some distant point, tugging on his tie, and using his favorite nickname for the reporter, "one vote would be good."
He waits a second, a country-fried, good-old-boy pause preferred by people in the heart-arresting oil business in Texas. It's something he picked up from all those 1970s nights of worrying about dry oil wells and drinking with his friends from that broad, conflicted wildcatter's patch out in Midland and Odessa.
"I think I may be able to get sixty percent," he trumpets, his head still cocked, his face still shiny. He's winking now, moving closer to the herd. A decade ago there was the day he pulled all of his business partners aside, the investors who had allowed him to be part of their seventeen-member group by giving him 1.8 percent of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and said he would do all the talking. He'd be the out-front guy: I know how to handle the press.
In Austin, in Dallas, in Houston, when the political lifers heard what the young Bush had said, when the people who'd seen this kind of thing before in Texas heard what he had said, they couldn't help but smile. They remembered what LBJ, the Colossus of the Hill Country, had said on one hot, hot day in mid-July 1965: The press helps me. . . . The press is one of the best servants I have.9 For all of 1998, this is how it will go, using all the lessons learned about the national media when he served in Washington as his father's loyalty monitor, his media monitor, and his direct arm to the hard Right, the Christian Right. He was headquartered in his father's 1998 campaign command post, in his little office in the Woodward Building, working next door to his mentor Lee Atwater, the founding prince of wicked political spin. And what was it Mary Matalin, Atwater's heir, had admiringly called the first son? A "political terrorist."
Now all of them, each reporter intrigued by the next phase of a Bush dynasty, would be escorted onto the plane in 1998. Each would be brought to his side for a few minutes, the setting overriding the issues, until there would be similar stories and columns and quotes and datelines and headlines (the son also rises), one after another, in every other national magazine and newspaper: somewhere over texas-With the prairies of Texas unfurling below, Gov. George W. Bush stared out the window of his airplane and remarked at how surprised he was by all the ceaseless speculation. "I feel like a cork in a raging river," he admitted.
Months ago, a national columnist wrote that the Democrats were hoping that he would just run for reelection unopposed.
Sometimes it's easy to remember, he tells people he can see it, the first details from those years after his father packed the family and carted him at the age of two from tree-lined Connecticut to the unpaved moonscape of West Texas. Out there, in the Saudi Arabia of the Southwest, he fell right in with all the other bored sons and daughters of the displaced Yankees from Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Kennebunkport-from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maine, and Massachusetts-who had followed the money trail to the sandy, oil-coated outbacks of Midland and Odessa. He was called Little George by the extended clan of Bushes and Walkers in the Northeast, and now he was the eldest son in the First Family of Midland. Everyone knew his father, knew that he was a war hero and the first Yankee to make a million dollars in Midland.
Everyone knew his grandfather, the grave, impossibly tall senator from Greenwich, Connecticut, who would alight in the desert and receive the awed West Texans. Everyone knew "Little George," who rounded up boys on bicycles, who patrolled the tiny city built on top of an ancient dinosaur graveyard known as the Permian Basin. Nobody blinked when he tossed a football through his West Texas elementary school window or came to class one day made up like Elvis. His Little League coach never said a word about the lousy-hitting kid, especially when the coach thought to himself, Jeez, I'm coaching the only Little League millionaire in Texas. That was, they'd say, searching for just the right name to distinguish him from his father: Georgie, Little George, George W. . . . George Dubya! . . . anything but Junior.
At Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he was the head cheerleader and people fed off his energy, the way he was always just there, always remembering people's names, birthdays, habits, parents, brothers, sisters. He wasn't very good at baseball, his father's sport at Andover and Yale. When he got onstage with a rock band back at the prep school, he wasn't very good at singing, unlike his august, bow-tied grandfather, who liked to croon masterfully with the other members of the Whiffenpoof Singers at Yale. But he memorized everyone's name the instant he met them, and it pleased them that he did. It was something he did even better than his father and grandfather. Ten, twenty, hundreds of names, he could recite them all, total recall, minutes after meeting them. And everyone, even if it took him a while to figure it out, got a nickname: If a guy was huge and ugly, he became "Rodan," after the Japanese movie monster. If a guy was breaking him down on the tennis court, someone who was all angles, arms, and limb, he became "Spider." Of course, he liked it when his running buddies in high school called him "Tweeds," as in Boss Tweed-probably better than what they called the three or four Asian, Mexican, or Italian kids at the boarding school: "Chink," "Spic," "Dago" . . . it said so right there alongside their pictures in the yearbook.10 Now, at fifty-two, he still liked to sling the nicknames, it made things immediately intimate, like writing those notes his father had taught him to do. The reporter who won't go away: Mononucleosis. His head press person: The High Prophet. The barrel-shaped chief of staff with the crew cut: Big Country. Even the eggheads, the ones down the line at the State Capitol, get nicknames:
"Tree Man, get up here," he giggles, snapping his fingers, during the otherwise somber July press conference: He wants the arboreal wonk overseeing the Forestry Service in Texas to explain forest fires to the scribes, to explain why the whole damn state isn't spontaneously combusting in the middle of the eighteenth straight day of over-100-degree heat, why that heat has killed at least eighty people so far. As he stands to one side and listens, he sticks out his tongue and makes his funny blowfish face, winking at the Newsweek writer who has come down to Austin, again, to write about Bush as a Presidential Possibility. An aide slips him a note. He pulls his reading glasses out of a suit pocket and, without unfolding them, uses one hand to press them to his face. He scans the room mock seriously, still peering through the folded glasses, holding them with one hand as if they were opera glasses. His staffers, their eyes trailing his every move, are chuckling, and Tree Man is still droning on. "Welcome to Texas . . . feel our pain!" the High Prophet shouts merrily when she spots the Newsweek writer at the back of the drought conference.
Ron Kaufman, his father's dogged, loyal aide . . . a Good Man . . . a Friend to the Bushes . . . an FOB . . . had carefully described his father to the evangelical Right as the Compassionate Conservative in the late 1980s.11 Now it's the new name the first son is borrowing and trying out all over the New Texas, trying out across the country. He's the Compassionate Conservative, not the fraternity president answering inquiries from the cops, not the Yale senior answering inquiries about branding pledges with hot metal. He's not the National Guardsman stranded in an officer's club in deep Georgia, with everyone knowing he was the chosen one whom President Richard Nixon was sending a government plane for-the one who was actually going to be allowed to leave the godforsaken base and be whisked off to Washington for a date with Nixon's daughter. He's not the unproved oilman in the flimsy black slippers he brought back from China, padding around all the tobacco-chewing West Texas ranchers and wildcatters with their sweet-looking $2,000 hand-tooled cowboy boots. Not the one who told people he had something better than an office-he had a great name-while he was living in and working out of a trashy back-alley apartment and saying that a good week was when he made $150 . . . from playing cards. Not the bored assistant trainee with the doomed agricultural company his father had hooked him up with, all those months pretending to be interested when his collar is sweating and he's sitting in yet another meeting with yet another Texas farmer worried about some city boys from Houston who want to buy him out.
Not the one that all the 1998 Team Bush insiders agreed was the best surrogate presidential candidate to send out around the country, the one who most looked like his father, actually moved his arms and head like his father. Not the one always quietly, willingly going below deck to mess with the oily, roaring mechanics of that uneasy relationship between his father and the media . . . between his father and the hard Right, the Christian Right.
Not the self-described loyalty "enforcer" for the president of the United States, the one who quietly flew to Washington to personally confront the White House chief of staff and returned to Dallas satisfied, knowing his words had been heeded, knowing that the White House chief of staff would soon be gone.
"Oh, I think people like the fact that I can see a better future for Texas," he says, shifting back and forth on the balls of his feet. Out here, under those angelic, spread-out wings from the mansion's ancient live oak trees, he really does have this one tucked away. Chuck Norris . . . Walker, Texas Ranger . . . is coming to the election-night parties. Just five days ago, in Waco, in the sometimes unforgiving Baptist buckle of the Texas Bible Belt, where they still debate about dancing on the local college campus, there was a young black child at the campaign stop. He spontaneously stooped and scooped the child up and held him up in front of the cameras: "There is a role for government, but government can't make people love one another. I will tell you this: I would sign the law, I would sign the law, or I'd spend all the money it took in our budget to cause people to love one another. I wish I knew the law that would make people love one another . . . 'cause we'd pass it in Texas."12
His press handlers and security men stared at him. The people who had been watching him for years-the ones who knew he had once drunkenly challenged his father to a fight, the ones who knew he had cursed at the Wall Street Journal editor dining with his four-year-old in a Dallas restaurant13-just stared at him. After he put the kid down, after he talked about love, after he used it exactly thirteen times in his remarks, different reporters couldn't help but scoop that same little boy up too. Nobody, especially reporters, ever scooped up little black children in his father's wake.
Now, the door to the mansion is swinging open. His wife, Laura, an ex-librarian from Midland, steps outside.
"C'mon, Bushie," she whispers.
They married three months after they met. He was thirty-one and a bachelor with a reputation in the middle of a race for Congress-By then, I'd lived a lot of life, and I was beginning to settle down-and they never had time, really, for a honeymoon. They began campaigning the day they got married. People at the Midland Country Club, at the Midland Polo Club were shaking their heads. It had always been a truly funny parlor game: guessing the name of the woman who would marry the Bombastic One.
As she steps outside the mansion, from somewhere inside the old house comes a tangy, muscular aroma of coffee and aftershave. Back in the 1800s, chickens used to skip out of their coops and sometimes skitter across the flat grain planks made from the pine trees chopped down in the pristine woods of nearby Bastrop. Immigrant German farmers who had driven their wagons up from hamlets that would become New Braunfels, Niederwald, and Weimar used to stop sometimes and stand in the mud out on what is now Colorado or Congress Street. If they were lucky, they'd get to see Sam Houston, the frontier legend and ex-president of the Republic of Texas, trudging determinedly around the grounds.
Laura links arms with her husband. She smiles. Her eyes have, as usual, a perpetually alert, wary look. She has nursed her husband through a hangover at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, willed her way through a dangerous pregnancy, and delivered their twin daughters at the big-city Baylor Hospital in Dallas, even painfully learned to speak a few words in public after he promised her in 1977 that she would never have to-even after the first time, when she stepped in front of a small audience in Muleshoe, Texas, standing on the courthouse steps and knowing that she was running out of words, her speech dwindling down to nothing.
They stroll. She tilts her head up to her husband as he begins the speech, the one in which he introduces the new slogan that he has been delivering the last few weeks:
"I believe my philosophy is conservative and compassionate," he says. "I feel great," he adds as he turns to look at Laura. "We know how to run an incumbent's campaign." She nods and whispers something. Her face is shiny, too. They are almost leaning on each other. Without anyone asking, with his hand slipping into Laura's, he's suddenly thinking out loud about his father. For the first time all morning, he's still. He stares out over the heads of the reporters:
"I checked in with my mother and father this morning. They're the ones sweating it," he slowly begins. "We love our dad. He taught us the definition of quality time with his children. There was his love and counsel."
He lets it settle in. That's enough. Jeb knew it, there were days when their father wasn't there. While they were growing up in Midland, their father was on the road, out late, cooking oil deals, calling another YMCA planning meeting to order, registering Republican voters, going off somewhere else to shake hands at some PTA meeting, speaking to the Exchange Club, addressing the library board, finding more people to add to his Himalaya of address books, building a network, never standing still.
He begins angling for the street, the same one his Lincoln Town Car has just driven up. He and Laura are aiming for the voting booths in the old county courthouse just down the street, just outside the gate. For a second, he stops. The rolling amoeba has shifted, it's blocking his path, the security guards are whispering into their mouthpieces. Karen Hughes, his press secretary, the High Prophet, the daughter of an Army general who was the last governor of the Panama Canal Zone, is lurching forward, moving fast in a flanking maneuver. She looks like him sometimes, with her squared-jawed glare. Taller than any of the reporters, she is always positioned fifteen feet away, usually toward his right or left, never his centerline of vision. Now the High Prophet is feverishly waving her arms. She's herding the sheep, trying to prevent them from leaving the grounds of the Governor's Mansion, trying to trap them in old Sam Houston's barnyard. "No, no!" she booms. "Only pool reporters are allowed out of the gate!"
Hughes, whose father trained at West Point, spreads her arms out. She is wielding a legal pad as the governor of Texas pauses to watch. He's grinning, his eyes look like blue Sweet Tarts . . . reporters trapped inside the gates of the Mansion: "Well, we've got the voting mob scene!"
The reporters are frozen when they hear him; they're not sure if they're allowed to leave the grounds of the Governor's Mansion and walk onto the public sidewalk and then the street. His path is clear, he's moving now, out from under the canopy of oaks. People are shouting questions at his back, he's smiling, and it's just like Reagan blithely and steadfastly disappearing toward that voice-drowning whir of the helicopter. Karen Hughes is still frantically waving her arms as she blocks anyone from leaving. She has a long reach. She has slightly angled the top half of her body over, a good offensive lineman's trick, giving her more power and stability. No one can edge around the High Prophet. No one gets to the quarterback, and he's glowing as he sneaks a peek at the scene unfolding over his shoulder. He's shouting again: "We're gonna need traffic control!"
He slips his arm around Laura's waist and they glide together, almost as if they were dancing. Suddenly, still trapped inside the gates of the Governor's Mansion, Charles Zewe, the serious, erudite correspondent from CNN, is screaming. "Bullshit!" he thunders. "That's a public street!"
Zewe is bloodred. He pushes his cameraman forward. Hughes, stoop-shouldered, has advanced to the sidewalk now. She has one eye on the first son and Laura. She takes one last hard look at the press pool. She freezes the pool with a glare, spins, and wobbles into the street. Lately she has been openly bristling at anybody who thought all that Compassionate Conservative business was just some late-breaking mush to court all the people who somehow still supported Bill Clinton: "What part don't you like?" the High Prophet would eventually demand. "The Conservative part or the Compassionate part?"
Now the gates are wide open, but no one instantly chases the first family of Texas. Then, finally, the reporters begin to slowly pad outside the gates of the Governor's Mansion by ones and twos. By then he's moving too fast, he's too far ahead to catch. Up on the scaffolding, the remodelers have taken a break to watch the commotion. They're smiling as they watch him walking west and occasionally turning to look at the commotion in his wake. If he kept pushing forward, he'd just disappear into the rolling soul of the Texas oasis.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from First Son by Bill Minutaglio. . Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.