With his reception for members of the baseball hall of fame on March 30, the nation may have finally seen George W. Bush's only real interest in the presidency.
As an elementary school student he would carry a small baseball bat around with him during the school day, and is remembered by his teachers primarily for trying to put together pick-up baseball games. The family maid recalls that he never had much time to do homework because he was too busy playing baseball, although he struck out frequently. According to a childhood friend, the only thing he read avidly was baseball statistics. Another is convinced that Bush's life goal is still to be baseball commissioner. Doug Hannah, one of Bush's childhood buddies, told Gail Sheehy last year "Running for president is a résumé-enhancer for being the commissioner of baseball. And it's a whole lot better job."
Dubya's earliest years were spent in the segregated Texas oil town, Midland, Texas. He moved to Houston with his family at age 13. In Houston, the family maid and childhood chum Hannah recall Dubya spending up to three hours at a time on Saturdays drilling vocabulary words on flashcards with his mother. It is unclear that he ever read on his own. Bush was denied admission to the most prestigious prep school in Houston, and had to settle for somewhere less academically demanding. When he transferred to Phillips Academy the following year, he joined other Texans at the bottom of the academic pile, recalling years later to a friend how embarrassed he was at receiving a grade of 0 on his first English paper.
Sheehy suggests that Bush's early difficulties with language, as well as his familiar malapropisms (and possibly those of his father) may result from undiagnosed dyslexia. The director of the Newhaus Education Center in Bellaire, Texas, which trains teachers to teach dyslexics to read confirms that Barbara Bush's interest in dyslexia stems from dyslexia in the family.
Dyslexia does not indicate lack of intelligence - in fact many dyslexics are extremely bright. It can, however, influence the behavior of the person who lives with it, including, for example, a tendency toward rigid routines. Moreover, dyslexia and attention-deficit-disorder are found together approximately 30% of the time.
Shortly after the 1988 presidential election, which Bush's father won, the opportunity materialized for Dubya to become at least part owner of a baseball team. The Texas Rangers were up for sale, and the then current owner, Eddie Chiles approached Dubya. Drawing on his Yale connections, Bush quickly pulled together a group of financiers from Cincinnati and New York. Despite their not being Texans commissioner Peter Ueberroth, also a Yalie, apparently favored the Bush group, even matching them up with Texas money man Richard Rainwater. Bush borrowed his $600,000 investment from a local bank, while the remaining 98.2% stake, or $86 million was put up by his cronies.
Texas sports journalists were skeptical of Bush as a baseball owner, perhaps rightly viewing it as a kind of fringe benefit of being the President's son. Nonetheless, in a preview of his behavior as a President who lost the popular vote, Bush acted the part of team owner to the hilt. He attended spring training and every home game, sitting next to the Rangers dugout, and spitting like a player.
And in what may have presaged his conduct in government, Bush and his partners successfully promoted a scheme whereby the city of Arlington Texas agreed to pay for a new Rangers baseball stadium with taxpayers' money.
Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent was forced to resign at about the time Texas Republicans were trying to convince Dubya to run against Ann Richards for the office of Governor of Texas. Bush reportedly called Vincent to lobby for the position of commissioner for himself. Vincent tried to discourage Bush, who apparently had little support among other owners. According to Vincent, Bush told him "I think I'd rather be commissioner than governor." After waiting another year in the vain hope that he might become baseball commissioner, in 1993 Bush finally agreed to run against Ann Richards.
Bush confided to sports writer Randy Galloway that he was not so much running against Ann Richards, as against Bill Clinton who had defeated Poppy Bush in the Presidential election. Others have suggested that having failed to be chosen baseball commissioner, he had to run to prove that he could win at something. This is consistent with Gail Sheehy's analysis of Bush's life, published in the October 2000 issue of Vanity Fair, which reveals someone who is only motivated when he is failing, has shamed his family, or "is in a game he is sure he can win."
One of Dubya's recurring boasts during the presidential campaign was that he was a successful businessman. The reality is that he was able to borrow money on his father's name, and convince others to put up money. A former partner has admitted that what Bush refers to as an oil company was in reality "a dry hole company." Investors in Bush's deals routinely lost money, although Bush himself and the banks involved were repaid. For instance, a crony of his father's gave Bush $1 million in 1982, for 10% of a company that was worth only $400,000 at the time. By 1991 the investor reported having "lost a lot of money." When, not surprisingly, investors began to shy away from similar dubious schemes, Bush merely changed the way the deals were structured, and sold a series of partnerships through brokers. Through these and other techniques, Bush was able to raise nearly $5 million, while returning less than $2 million. The losses were significantly reduced by tax write-offs.
In 1986 Bush's bank had folded, and he had $3 million in debt. A friend of Laura Bush's reports that she presented him with an ultimatum around this time - the bottle or her. Whether the story is true or not, Bush determined to quit drinking shortly after his 40th birthday. Later that year Harken Energy purchased the company that had merged with Bush's "dry hole" operation. Bush was hired as a consultant at a salary of $120,00, and received over $500,000 in stock. In 1990 Bush sold his stock at a profit of over $300,000. Two months later Harken Energy reported a $20 million loss. The chairman of the S.E.C. at the time was Richard Breeden, a former aide to Poppy Bush (then President). Accusations of insider trading were not pursued.
Out of this environment of business failure and family crisis came Dubya's decision to run for governor. His political speeches began to take on their now familiar evangelical flavor. "Faith based" organizations were promoted as the solution to social ills that were not the proper domain of government in this brand of conservatism. The Christian right saw the dollar signs, and mobilized in his support. In 1994 Bush told a reporter that only those who accept Christ would go to heaven.
So the Bush campaign adopted an overtly evangelical tone; Bush called for "spiritual renewal in the United States." Yet those who worked closely with him in the 80's, when he supposedly underwent his own conversion experience describe no real change. And far from recounting a radical new beginning himself, Bush repeatedly tells interviewers there's nothing in his life he'd do differently.
As Governor, Bush stuck to a routine with a rigidity that was arguably comforting to his dyslexic and A.D.D tendencies. Clay Johnson, his chief of staff described Bush's work day as broken up into a series of 10 or 15 minute meetings, with a two-hour break in the middle of the day during which he exercises and plays video games. Bush declines to read written reports, demanding oral summaries, instead. According to Johnson, Bush expects his staff to recommend a course of action. This, it would seem, relieves Bush of the responsibility for performing any analysis himself.
Molly Ivins reports that Texas Republicans knew Bush planned to run for president before he began his second gubernatorial campaign. The Texas media jumped on the bandwagon as well, with visions of Sunday morning talk shows and Washington galas dancing in their heads.
On the presidential campaign trail, as well, Bush's stump speech paralleled the evangelical homilies presented at meetings of the Promise Keepers Christian men's movement. Both promote "an idealized leader, discipline, spiritual catharsis, and restoration of male authority." The Bush campaign claimed he ran on "character" rather than issues. Yet, as Sheehy suggests, the manifestation of character of a political leader is the policies he shapes.
Under Bush, Texas was the number one state in ozone precursor emissions, and Houston surpassed Los Angeles in 1999 as having the worst smog in the nation. When the EPA warned that Houston's smog levels were a health threat, Bush responded by writing the EPA requesting an exemption. When President ("Poppy") Bush signed the law in 1990 allowing each state to set its own clean air strategy, the strategy set in Texas was simply not to enforce clean-air laws. The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission's three members, all Bush appointees, are all oil-industry professionals, or lobbyists. The policy that they developed in conjunction with members of the oil and chemical industry, is a voluntary program for monitoring atmospheric emissions.
One of the dangers, it would seem, of a chief executive who relies on others for issue analysis, is that those around him can more easily influence policies. Thus the recent string of decisions to remove environmental protections - withdrawal of the arsenic limit in drinking water, reversal of the campaign position on limiting carbon dioxide emissions, the outright rejection of the Kyoto accord on global warming, lifting the ban on roads in national forests, should be no surprise, as they reflect the interests of oil and chemical industries with which many of Bush's closest advisors are affiliated. During the campaign, Gail Sheehy asked chairman Don Evans how Bush would balance his loyalty to these business interests the with public concern for environmental policy. After commenting that "it's being worked on," Sheehy was told that Bush would not be available for her interview.
Some have suggested that Bush's pro-education rhetoric may have originated with his own difficulties. Ironically his policies have not matched the rhetoric. Clay Johnson espoused the philosophy that there was a reverse correlation between pay for teachers and quality of education. The working out of that philosophy in Texas was that at the start of the 2000 school year, 40,000 classrooms did not have permanent teachers. Bush's childhood experience may have also influenced the policy of "no social promotion." During the presidential campaign, chairman Don Evans told Gail Sheehy, "We are going to say that Johnny is falling behind, and there needs to be a program where someone holds flash cards up to Johnny." Yet the program is not envisioned as a government program. Educators have criticized the Bush proposals, suggesting that "branding children failures" in elementary school could discourage them for life.
Bush reportedly does not read much, and dislikes reading about policy. So the few books that apparently have influenced his thinking deserve some attention. Molly Ivins has identified the work of Marvin Olasky and Myron Magnet as particularly influential. Olasky's Renewing American Compassion has been described as "a guide to compassionate conservatism," full of pietistic suggestions like "Teach rich and poor what the Bible has to say about wealth and poverty . House a homeless person." Ivins points out that experiments in privatizing welfare functions were made in Texas in the 70's with considerable ill effect. "Wayward" children were kept in cages, sprayed with ice water, made to scrub themselves with wire brushes, and in one case fed lye. The Reverend Lester Roloff, a radio evangelist, ran more than one of the homes in which these "educational" methods were employed. Another Protestant minister who was investigated in connection with these homespun reformatories was the Reverend W.N. Ottwell of Fort Worth. Ottwell attained subsequent notoriety when he sent followers to the 1988 Republican convention to protest participation by a gay group. Otwell's group carried signs that read "God hates fags."
Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare, the Sixties Legacy to the Underclass is a favorite of Bush political operative Karl Rove. Magnet's principal thesis seems to be that liberals are responsible for poverty because anti-poverty programs create a victim mentality among beneficiaries. He also suggests that the permissiveness of the sixties particularly affected the poor, leading to the destruction of families, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. Magnet apparently regards Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground, as a brilliant scholar. Ivins characterizes Murray as a "pseudo-scientific racist."
Baseball has been idealized as the "great American pastime," evoking visions of earlier simpler times, green fields - it is called a ball park, after all - and small town values. The little boy who carried his baseball bat around his elementary school is now the President. And while it's believable that some corner of his psyche longs for that idealized America, his actions have been to exploit that vision for his own benefit and the benefit of those around him. Because he is not really interested in issues, others around him who stand to benefit from particular policies can simply frame executive summaries for the attention-disabled chief. Rather than helping preserve (one might say "conserve") values and resources of that vision, the values are merely deployed in rhetoric designed to influence public opinion so that the resources can be exploited for the financial gain of White House insiders and their supporters.
Sheehy, Gail, "The Accidental Candidate" G. Merritt Corporation, 2000.
Orginally published in Vanity Fair, October 2000.
Ivins, Molly and Lou Dubose, Shrub Vintage. 2000