Memo To: Molly Ivins, The Progressive
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Bush Column
What a dandy column on your Governor, the frontrunner, in the June Progressive! It is the best I've seen thus far, Ms. Ivins. I've never had the pleasure of meeting you, but have long admired the political commentaries I've seen, whether as reprints from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or in the periodical press. I've been amazed, so far, that so little has been written about George "Dubya" the "Shrub," as you refer to him, that whittles him down to size. I've been observing and writing about presidential politics for more than 40 years and I never have seen such a mountain made of such a molehill. George W. may someday be prepared for the White House, but it really is hard for me to imagine him getting it together by next year. I wrote and posted here a "Memo on the Margin" about him on April 29, "Brother, Can You Paradigm," which questioned his ability to even understand the requirements of the job in this totally new world. In a recent letter to my clients, which I will post here sooner or later, I compared him to Warren G. Harding, who was ill-equipped for the presidency, but won in a 1920 landslide anyway after being chosen in a smoke-filled room by the GOP Establishment. The GOP organization certainly is behind Dubya, but can he make it through the primaries, where ordinary people get to vote as they did not back in the nominating process prior to 1952? I've been going into the Progressive so often lately that I've decided to make a bookmark and commend it to my website fans... http://www.progressive.org/ivins9906.htm. To make it easy for my website browsers, I've imported just this once...
* * * * *
OK, DUBYA. Everybody wants to know about Dubya. He's the Man, the Republican nominee, the next President of the United States. All the polls say so. The inevitable nominees and next-Presidents the polls have been wrong about is without number but -- like Charlie Brown and the football -- the press corps falls for the same trick every time. At about this point in the 1992 election, practically no one outside Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton, and Dubya's daddy had a 90 percent approval rating.
Poor Shrub, what an awful position to be in: frontrunner about whom nothing is known, suffering from inflated expectations worse than the Superman balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. He can't speak, he can't govern, he doesn't have any ideas, he's done almost nothing--what can he do but disappoint people?
He is, however, a nice guy. You'd really have to work at it to dislike George Dubya Bush. He is, as we say in our quaint Texas fashion, affable out the ass. Perhaps the chief misunderstanding abroad about Dubya is that he has been governor of Texas for the last four years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as "the weak-governor system." All the Southern states have it: It's a hangover from Reconstruction, and Texas has it worse than most. If you win two terms as Texas governor, by the end of that time you might have a majority of your appointees on some important commissions, but that would be about it.
By virtue of the state constitution and the senate rules, our lieutenant governor usually has more power than the governor. Until this year, the Lite Guv was Bob Bullock, a wily old trout, and Shrub was just smart enough to do whatever Bullock told him to. There grew a father-son relationship between the two to the extent that Bullock, a lifelong Democrat, endorsed Shrub for reelection in 1998.
But we still don't know whether Shrub can govern anything. On the evidence, he's not greatly interested in governance. If you think his daddy had trouble with "the vision thing," wait'll you meet this one. He doesn't seem to read about or know about or care much about how government actually works. To this day, when someone comes in to see him about some fairly complex subject--say, nursing home regulation or home health care--his response is to spread his arms wide and announce, "I don't know anything about it, you'll have to talk to so-and-so on my staff."
In our more optimistic moments, we consider this evidence that he knows how to delegate. For just one for-instance, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson is a much better governor. But Shrub does have some real political skills, and political skill should not be despised. He has done two very smart things. First, he knew he had to go after the Hispanic vote. Texas becomes majority-minority in 2003, and Hispanics have already passed blacks as our largest minority.
Unlike that doofus Pete Wilson in California, Bush has never attacked Hispanics, blamed "illegal aliens" for the state's problems, or proposed to kick the children of illegals out of school. Instead, he spent an enormous amount of his time as governor going to Tejano political, cultural, and social events, getting to know most of the players by sight and first name. According to his office, he speaks Spanish, although fluent Spanish speakers doubt that. He can easily read a couple of sentences in Spanish; conversation is a different matter. At to-dos, they tend to cue the mariachis after he's done his two sentences.
Second, he has accomplished a formidable straddle by keeping a moderate face on the Texas Republican Party while the entire operation has been completely taken over by the Christian Right. It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the Texas Republican Party is now run by the Christian Right: chair, vice-chairs, grassroots, lock, stock, and barrel. At their convention in Fort Worth three years ago, they voted against a resolution in favor of civility, pretty much on the grounds that it was a secular plot. It was quite a moment.
While Bush is by class, birth, and education part of the American elite, which is, in turn, largely Christian as a matter of good form, Dubya claims to have had a "born again" experience--at the instigation of Billy Graham, which is, in itself, somewhat Establishment. He also became a teetotaler at age forty.
The Christian Right has never considered him, as was also true of his father, sufficiently militant against abortion. Dubya's position is that he is completely opposed to it--except for rape, incest, and life of the mother--but that a constitutional amendment outlawing it is not feasible. That straddle works if you're governor of Texas and can't do dog about abortion; if you're running for President and will be naming people to the U.S. Supreme Court, it doesn't work.
Dubya's daddy, bless his heart, was and is more culturally an upper-class, Eastern WASP than he ever was or will be a Texan. But Shrub is culturally a Texan, or at least more a hybrid than his father. He speaks fluent good ol' boy, and his preferred method of getting along with men, in all-male company, is the classic whee-ha, hey-boy, which is fine with me.
Of first-generation culturally hybrid Texans--Jim Baker, for example--it has been possible to observe that they're just like all the other elite Eastern WASPs, except with more street smarts. It's hard to tell with Dubya because the fact is he's never had to really work or fight for anything in his whole life. Asked what was the most difficult decision he ever had to make, he replied: getting married.
It's silly to say that if his name were George Dubya Smith, no one ever would have heard of him. It isn't; get over it. On the other hand, the alarmingly large majority of his entire life has been shaped by the one simple fact--the name. His political philosophy, such as it is, is robbed, vitiated, and made ironic by that one fact. He likes to tell people they have to take responsibility for their own lives, stand on their own two feet, not depend on the government. But he's never done it himself. His bidness career was a couple of cushy berths, courtesy of his name. At Harken Energy Corp., there are some serious ethical improprieties, in my opinion more grave than anything Bill Clinton was ever accused of in Whitewater.
Cut to the Texas Rangers baseball team. Dubya used government--to wit, a sales tax increase on the citizens of Arlington, Texas--to pay for a new baseball stadium. He bought into the Rangers for a reported $606,000 and sold last year for $14.9 million. Nice piece of change. Then he ran for governor on his daddy's name. There it is.
But he never would have won without real political skill, and Ann Richards, even running the worst campaign of her life, was no pushover. It was a completely depressing election: The issues were God, gays, and guns. Richards had vetoed the concealed weapons law and appointed a few (two, as I recall, out of hundreds of appointments) openly gay people to state boards. Her campaign workers made up a game that year: You had to put a bumpersticker on your car, drive through East Texas, and anyone who made it back to Waco alive was a winner. The bumpersticker had to say: I'm the Queer/Ann Sent Here/To Take Yur Gun Away.