Thursday, April 04, 2002

The Bush Thing

Those of you who know me or my work know that I am related to President George W. Bush. He is my first cousin; my mother's brother's son. A number of emailers have inquired as to what I think about President Bush, what my view of him is. I wrote about this very subject for the Outlook Section of The Washington Post just prior to the 2000 election. Following is the article, which I think I have the right to reprint:

November 5, 2000

Back in May, Alan Webber, the editor of Fast Company magazine, wanted to interview the major party presidential candidates on the subject of the new economy. As it happens, I am both a first cousin to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and a columnist for Fast Company, so Webber asked if I would help arrange things. Negotiations ensued, and in late July Webber was granted two hours with the candidate en route from San Diego to Austin. Webber knew little of Bush, other than what he had read in the papers. Needless to say, his expectations were not high. So he was "blown away," as he told me later, by how much he liked the Texas governor, how engaging he was, and how smart he was on the subject of the new economy and the impact of disruptive technologies. "Ever since then," Webber said a couple of weeks ago, "I've thought he would win."

One of the odder disconnects these days is knowing well someone who is well known. It has been my privilege, through a happy accident of birth, to have known George W. Bush all my life and to have been able to count him as a good friend throughout my adult years. (Bush is six years older than I am, so he was a "big kid" to me when I was growing up.) And I can assure you, as certainly as my counterpart Marty Peretz will assure you with regard to Vice President Gore, that the Bush I know and the Bush you have read about over the course of this campaign are two almost entirely different people.

George W. Bush is the real deal. He's smart, engaging, enormously energetic, possessed of dynamic leadership skills, funny, wry, optimistic and fully aware that what is here today may be gone tomorrow. He knows he will never be as smart as, say, his running mate, Dick Cheney--but he wouldn't undertake the responsibilities he will soon undertake without hundreds of Dick Cheneys and Condi Rices at his side. He's comfortable in his own skin and equally comfortable in the presence of strong women and strong men.

It is said of professional golfers that some learn by doing, some learn by watching, some learn by reading, and still others learn by some combination of the three. George learns by doing and watching; he's an amazingly quick political study, and his powers of observation are razor sharp. He remarked to me last year that the first 100 days of his first term were "crazed," because there was so much to learn in so short a time. "But after a while, I got into the rhythm, you know, and it came to me and then I knew I could do the job well."

The electorate saw this same quick learning curve during the presidential debates; inside of one week he went from being uncertain and nervous (during the first debate) to being confident and forceful (during the second). By the third debate, he had mastered thematic messaging, always bringing his answers back to his agenda, his frame of reference. The forums that were supposed to be his undoing became his springboard instead.

But it's not George's quick wit and keen intelligence that recommend him so much as it is his character. One of the things about quitting drinking as a decision of conscience is that it's not just about throwing away the hooch. It's about living life as you had hoped you would live it; with honor and integrity and compassion, and an abiding sense of life's possibilities and promise.

Once George committed himself to a more serious life, amazing things began to happen. He helped elect his father president of the United States. He became the managing director of the Texas Rangers and along the way built himself a political base in Texas. In 1994, he was elected governor; four years later was reelected with a stunning 69 percent of the vote. The day after that, Republican governors from across the country turned to him and asked that he be the party's standard bearer in the 2000 presidential election, forsaking their own ambitions to advance the larger cause.

All of these things happened because more and more people came to sense in George a seriousness of purpose and a willingness to put aside differences to get things done. I remember standing on the platform at the first inauguration in Texas, on a cold January day, and listening to him draw a line in the sand on immigration policy.

At the time, it was fashionable in certain conservative Republican circles (in reaction, presumably, to Ross Perot's strong showing in the 1992 presidential race) to favor all manner of restrictions on legal immigration into the United States. And the three states that dealt with this issue on a daily basis were California, Texas and Florida.

Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson would later try to ride the anti-immigration issue to the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, but George wasn't interested in fashion. He stood his ground on principle. His message, more carefully phrased than rendered here, was: "Let 'em in. We're a nation of immigrants. Don't ever close that door." After the speech I congratulated him, and told him I admired his willingness to put the issue front and center at the very beginning of his first term. "It's the right thing to do," he said, "and I'm not ever going to change my mind about that." And I thought to myself, if he holds to that, if there are issues on which he will never bend, he might just be president of the United States someday.

What's been missing from our political life for far too long has been principled leadership. In the morally berserk universe of the Clintons, in which allegations of perjury are "compartmentalized" without shame, Washington has lost its bearings. There is so much ill will in large measure because there can be no shared sense of the common good in an environment dominated by such utter mendacity and ethical squalor.

Bush's election will change that. And if he learns the ropes in Washington as quickly as he did in Texas, and stays true to himself, it is altogether possible that he just might be great. There's greatness in him. His grandmother and grandfather were great people, as are his mother and Dad. So is George. I commend him to you without reservation.

November 5, 2000