The political rewards of life with father

Battles waged by Bush on dad's behalf taught some valuable lessons

January 18, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was the summer of 1987, a year and a half before the presidential election, but already, George Bush's White House bid was in trouble, facing a surprisingly strong challenge for the GOP nomination from Bob Dole and a revolt on the right led by evangelist Pat Robertson.

To shore up his support in the key state of Iowa, the vice president dispatched a political neophyte who happened to be his eldest son. George W. Bush barnstormed the state in a twin-engine propeller plane, making 11 stops in 14 days, landing on lawns, shaking hundreds of hands and busting a few heads.

It was, recalled former Bush aide James Pinkerton, the son's political debut -- the first glimpse at his uncanny capacity to connect with voters and at his fierce sense of family loyalty.

The lessons learned in his father's campaigns -- and to a lesser extent, his father's White House -- have propelled George W. Bush to a position that has surprised even his father's loyal aides: the favorite for the Republican nomination and an early front-runner in the 2000 race for the White House.

From his experiences with his father, especially with his father's defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton, the Texas governor learned to value loyalty above all, to build a campaign around a small group of intensely faithful staff members, to make sure that no one aide becomes too powerful and to keep his campaign as far from the trappings of official Washington as possible, his father's aides say.

George W. Bush built key allies in the conservative wing of the Republican Party, allies that by and large have not abandoned him even as he has moved toward center to appeal to moderates and political independents.

And he developed strangely contradictory reputations: the family's loyalty cop who at the same time served as goodwill ambassador and surrogate candidate; the campaign hatchet man who also served as a key channel to his father for constituents who felt dispossessed; and the antagonist of the press corps who now enjoys exceptionally good relations with reporters.

"They're not really contradictions," said Charles Black, a longtime friend and political adviser. "What you have to understand about George W. Bush is that he's a very direct, open, honest person. If he's performing outreach in a diplomatic role, he'll do it well. He's a real charmer.

"But if he thinks you've done something wrong, he'll tell you."

Briefly on the inside

While George W. Bush relishes his reputation as a Washington outsider, he was for a brief time on the inside. In 1986, he moved to Washington and took a full-time position in his father's 1988 campaign. In 1992, he remained in Texas but was in constant contact with the Bush re-election campaign, said Mary Matalin, the elder Bush's former political director.

His role was threefold, said Fred Malek, who organized the 1992 Republican National Convention: He was an adviser to his father, a surrogate candidate on the stump and a conduit to the vice president.

"He was the traffic cop for people who felt frustrated, left out," recalled Ron Kaufman, a Bush campaign adviser in 1988. "He was the glue that every campaign needs to hold it together."

If key constituent groups felt stiffed by the vice president, they met with the son, believing that was the surest route to the candidate's ear. In that way, George W. Bush built up personal relations with evangelicals, gun groups and other organizations that distrusted the conservative credentials of his father.

Through those meetings, he made friends with Ralph Reed, who would go on to lead the Christian Coalition and is now the governor's ambassador to the Christian right.

Even social conservatives who maintain a distrust for the Bush family and who have backed his campaign rivals this year have done so quietly, leaving his right flank well-protected. James Dobson, the influential president of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, says he has never forgotten a 1988 meeting in which George W. Bush told him that "the Bush family hates the abortion issue and will not discuss it unless absolutely forced."

But Dobson refused to disparage Bush personally and has done little so far to sway the hundreds of thousands of followers who listen to his radio show or read his publications.

Indeed, with most Christian conservative leaders, anxiety over Bush has not translated into outright hostility, in part because of Bush's personal style and well-cultivated connections.

"I like the man. I've always liked him," said social conservative Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, who worked with Bush in 1988 but has endorsed Steve Forbes this year.

Unspoken role

George W. Bush also played an unspoken role, as loyalty cop, Pinkerton said. He was brought onto the campaign, in part, to keep an eye on Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist who Bush aides feared was insufficiently committed to the cause.

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