George W. Bush gazes out his airplane window at a patchwork of farms spread out like a Texas-size quilt. He shakes his head and grins his father’s crooked grin at a questioner. “It’s impossible not to think about 2000,” Bush said. “It’s all I ever hear.”
“Do I want to be president? Am I going to run?” the Texas governor said, repeating questions posed to him throughout this daylong campaign swing. “But I’m not going to fall into that trap.”
Yet for all his coy denials, this is a velvet trap. Bush’s blue eyes sparkled as he said, “I could win, you know.”
Bush has not decided whether to seek the presidency, but many Republicans consider him the early favorite. He is flattered by the attention. And this son of a president is intrigued by the notion of expanding his family’s legacy.
“I think I’ve assumed the mantle,” said Bush, discussing his rapid rise from a father’s campaign lieutenant to a national political figure.
For now, Bush, 51, is focused on winning a second term. Though the state has a long history of deposing incumbent state executives, Bush will easily win Tuesday’s GOP primary and leads his Democratic opponent by as much as 50 percentage points in the polls. He’s raised $13 million.
He won’t take re-election for granted, not after watching his father’s popularity plunge from Gulf War highs in 1991 to an Election Day loss in 1992.
“Anybody named George Bush knows there’s no sure thing in politics,” said state Sen. David Sibley of Waco, Texas, a longtime friend.
The loss left the younger Bush embittered, especially at the media’s treatment of his father and brothers. Yet he said the prospect of intense scrutiny won’t be what keeps him out of a presidential race.
He has dealt with his demons.
He drank his last drop of alcohol during his 40th birthday binge. “I was drinking too much alcohol, and it was consuming my time and energy,” he said. About this time, Billy Graham “rekindled religion” in his life.
His interviewer wondered if Bush could survive the inevitable search for skeletons. “Yup,” Bush said with no hesitation. An awkward mention of President Clinton’s troubles ensues.
“Have I been faithful to my wife? Yes,” he said.
How about dope, another Clinton trip wire. Raising his eyebrows, Bush said with a grin, “As governor?”
Bush figures he can be playful because he has never run from his wilder days. “I did some irresponsible things when I was young and irresponsible,” he likes to say.
His face is younger, less angular, but he looks a lot like his old man. He is cracking jokes, swapping stories and talking sports. A few minutes later, he approaches a smiling elementary school student and blurts, “Phonics works, dude!”
He presents a striking contrast to an earlier version of himself, a man remembered in Washington as a hard-nosed 1992 operative with a short fuse. Bush has mellowed in office.
“There’s a big difference between being a lieutenant and being a general,” Bush explained. “It’s a different role. Mine is now to lead.”
His leadership produced a $1 billion tax cut, tough-love juvenile justice reform and a high-profile campaign to whittle down illiteracy rates. Bush is seeking re-election with a tightly focused agenda: education and cultural stewardship.
“We must address the fundamental problem facing Texas and America today: a culture that says, ‘If it feels good do it, and blame somebody else if you’ve got a problem,”’ he said recently.
Bush says he won’t be accused, like his father, of a lack of purpose. “I’ve got the vision thing,” he said, a riff on his father’s tortured syntax.
He sees himself as a “compassionate conservative” - moderate enough to win a general election, if barely conservative enough to survive the GOP primaries.
Some conservatives question Bush’s commitment to welfare reform, school choice and low taxes. The tax issue is critical to Bush, given his father’s failure to keep a “no new taxes” pledge.