The Bush Blueprint for Success
by James Hall
The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush
By Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose.
Hardcover Random House. 179 pp. US $19.95 Paperback (get it on Amazon.com)
"They mis-underestimated me"
--George W. Bush
After President George W. Bush capped his successful first six weeks in office with a nationally televised "State of the Union" speech to Congress this week, a lot of journalists and political pundits are revising their opinion of his abilities and his effectiveness in office, while many Democrats are quietly alarmed by his competence. But if these people had read Molly Ivins' short book on Bush, Shrub, they'd have been perfectly aware of the man's strengths, including his ability to take advantage of low expectations and good fortune (i.e., the Clinton pardon scandals).
Those who appreciate Molly Ivins' nationally syndicated political columns will love this work on the political life and record of George W. Bush. It's a small gem of homespun language and political humor, though the laughter tempers at the occasional thought that "Dubya" really won and now sits in the White House. Ivins, who worked for the Texas Observer, the New York Times, and now for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, uses her seventeen years of experience in Texas politics to establish George W. Bush's contributions to the political landscape and document his failures. Her co-writer, Louis Dubose, is the editor of the Texas Observer.
Ivins and Dubose track Bush's Texas record, from his breathtaking adventures joining the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam conflict (Bush scored the absolute minimum on the admittance test and then vaulted over a waiting list of 150), to his largely failed business ventures in oil, his political success as a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, and his five years as Governor of Texas, a populous state whose weak central government creates an official with less power than the elected lieutenant governor or attorney general.
The book begins with George W. Bush's return to his boyhood town of Midland, Texas, where in rapid-fire succession he marries Laura Welch (met in June, married in November), buys a house in a Midland suburb, sets up a paper oil business, Arbusto Oil, and runs for a vacant US Congress seat in central Texas. Ivins believes that the campaign, while unsuccessful, taught Bush valuable political lessons, particularly about "blending in" as a Texan and an ordinary guy and answering his critics quickly. During the campaign Bush also met Karl Rove who working his father's Houston office, who quickly became Bush's chief political strategist and political guru.
After his failed attempt at Congress, Bush returned to the oil business, where he managed or served on the board of a series of oil companies--Arbusto, Bush Exploration, Spectrum 7, Harken Energy Company--all of which went bankrupt or were swallowed by ventures that themselves later went bankrupt in the Darwinian environment of Texas oil. Here we see a Bush who is at his best as a fund-raiser, schmoozing donors, attracting venture capital from a variety of sources, chiefly friends and family members, connections he developed from his fraternity days at Yale, or individuals seeking favor from Reagan and Bush administrations where his father played key roles. His greatest success is winning a lucrative oil exploration contract from Bahrain for tiny Harken Energy just before the Gulf War, beating out major oil corporations like Exxon and Shell.
Bush sold his Harken stock two months before Iraq invaded Kuwait (when the stock plummeted), getting out of oil altogether by convincing a consortium of wealthy local Texans to buy the Texas Rangers. He attended baseball games, managed public relations, and led the political effort to have the City of Arlington condemn land and build a stadium for the Rangers at public expense, vastly increasing the value of the franchise and his own holdings in it.
Ivins' frequently humorous portrayal of Bush, "...if you think his daddy had trouble with the 'vision thing,' wait until you meet this one..." contrasts with her examination of Bush's considerable political skills--a likable personality, the ability to make quick decisions, and the willingness to take care of his friends. Bush uses these skills to advantage in his five years as Governor of Texas, forging personal relationships with Texas' movers-and-shakers to get things done, a scenario playing out once again these first weeks in Washington.
Another skill Bush demonstrates is the ability to put together a team of managers, mostly from business, to control everything from his political campaign to the legislative calendar. Bush values loyalty and rewards loyalty, as evidenced by his decades long employment of staffers like Rowe and Karen Hughes, his tapping of stalwarts of his father's administration like Dick Cheney, Andy Card, Condolleeza Rice, and Colin Powell, and personal friends like Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
Bush is the first MBA (Master's degree in Business Administration) to be president, and his administration operates on a business model--do only a few things, but do them well. Keep everything else routine, organized, and running smoothly. Ivins points out that Bush's success in Texas was based on this single-minded approach. In Texas Bush set a limited number of goals--tort reform, tax cuts, and education, but pursued them relentlessly, even while settling for less than he originally wanted.
It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration in Washington focuses narrowly on a few things--tax cuts and education--while postponing Social Security reform, Defense spending increases, tort reform, healthcare reform and other campaign issues for later. It steadfastly resists distractions like the Clinton pardon scandals, campaign finance reform, and airstrikes in Iraq in order to focus on these issues and not dissipate its energies, as so often happened with Clinton's administration's goals and priorities.
Nonetheless, Ivins finds flaws in the Bush approach. She criticizes the Governor's lack of attention to details, which she feels will lead to "staff-driven policy." Loyalty will become a problem when staffers inevitably make mistakes and their blood is called for. Even more dangerous is the uncreative, even anti-intellectual tenor of the top members of his administration. The Bush people will make the trains run on time, but will they handle the surprises and problems that inevitably crop up on the world's stage? Their predictability seems like a godsend after the chaos of the Clinton era, but makes them easily understood by their enemies, and slow to respond to change.
Shrub paints a portrait both of George W. Bush's good fortune (if that's the word for it) and of his considerable social and political skills. It warns his opponents not to underestimate him and advises his supporters not to ask for too much from him. Most of all, it gives us Bush's simple blueprint for success in Texas, a blueprint that he will pursue in Washington.
© 2001 James Hall