Bush charm falls flat on primary trail

Texan: Personal magnetism is one of the Texas governor's strengths, but it hasn't been so apparent during his presidential bid.

March 05, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- For weeks, George W. Bush had been shredding gay sensibilities, questioning homosexuals' rights to adopt children and disavowing the notion of gay marriage, when he came nose to nose -- quite literally -- with Glen Maxey, the Texas State Legislature's only openly gay lawmaker.

As Maxey remembered the incident on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, the governor placed his hands on the lawmaker's arms last spring, slid them slowly up to his shoulder, and pulled him close, remarkably close, uncomfortably close. "I value you as a person, and I value you as a human being," Bush told him, "and I want you to know, Glen, that what I say publicly about gay people doesn't pertain to you."

It was a bravura performance by a politician who has built his short but successful career on such encounters, using his personal charm and physical presence to overcome the structural limits on his power as the constitutionally weak governor of Texas. If such personal connections explain his successes in Austin, they might also explain his weaknesses on the presidential campaign trail.

Magnetism just does not attract over the television screen or speaker's lectern.

"Bush is a hands-on guy, a tactile guy who likes to be informal with people, to de-emphasize status and power balance, and it works well," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas. "But it's just not a public strategy. It's not a TV strategy."

Maxey fully concedes he was disarmed, charmed even. He looked back at the governor that day and retorted, "When you say a gay person is not fit to be a parent, you're talking about me, and that makes it real personal."

But the ill will did not get much further than that. There were no news conferences, no feigned outrage or political advertisements. Austin doesn't exude the same kind of venom that Washington does. "It's his M.O," his modus operandi, said Maxey, one of the legislature's most liberal members. "It's so easy for people to say, `He's a nice guy. He's well-meaning,' and he is."

Indeed, if there has been any advantage to the Bush style beyond the Texas State Legislature, it has been the eerie silence of his would-be enemies on the campaign trail. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull actively campaigned against her state's senior senator, John McCain, as have several of McCain's colleagues in the Senate, leading to the pointed question, "Why are the people closest to McCain so likely to oppose him?"

But that question has not dogged Bush. Texans, including Texas Democrats, have not hit the road to bash their governor. Even Bush's tart-tongued Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards, has become a model of decorum.

That is not by accident, explained the governor's legislative director, Terral Smith. Bush has gone into the halls of power in Texas, decided who he needs on his side, and he has made them friends, fast friends. There have been leisurely afternoons behind the dugout at Texas Rangers games, courtside seats at University of Texas basketball games, steaks on the grill behind the governor's mansion, and private meetings in the sumptuous governor's residence.

Off the record, lawmakers in Austin love to swap tales of the governor's back-slapping bonhomie, replete with good-old-boy vulgarisms and roguish charm.

"They just make sure you feel good," cooed Rob Junell, chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee. "I don't know how else to put it."

Last year, when Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira had Bush's tax bill bottled up in his Ways and Means Committee, the governor happened to be flying to Brownsville for the ceremonial opening of a new bridge to Mexico. Oliveira wanted to come along, to step off the governor's plane and shake hands with the president of Mexico with Bush by his side.

Bush did not let the opportunity slip. He jettisoned part of his entourage, added Oliveira and flew down to the border with a key Democrat in tow. The bill slipped out of committee, and Bush got nearly $2 billion in tax cuts to take onto the presidential campaign trail.

"Bringing people in instead of coming to us from the mountaintop is very effective," Oliveira allowed. "Did it change my opinion on the tax bill? No. Did it improve my personal relationship with him? Absolutely."

Such deference is beginning to grate on Austin's more partisan Democrats, who say their colleagues are too scared to speak out against a governor who was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote. Molly Beth Malcolm, the chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party, said flatly that Democrats are at least partly to blame for Bush's popularity. "On the whole, people are afraid to talk," she conceded.

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