ad info
     CNN AllPolitics.com and TIME Top Stories
graphic graphic

latimes.com: Records show Bush's focus on big picture

latimes.com AUSTIN, Texas (Los Angeles Times) --By all accounts, Gov. George W. Bush is not a detail man. He never read the 261-page report resulting from a $1.8-million investigation of the Texas A&M University bonfire collapse that killed 11 students and a recent graduate. Nor did he read the 36-page executive summary.

"I highlighted half a page," said Clay Johnson, Bush's chief of staff. "He read that."

In his fourth month as governor, Bush pared the time generally reserved for final review of each scheduled execution from 30 minutes to 15.

He usually offered pithy replies when his public utilities commissioner, Patrick Henry Wood III, sought guidance on long-term goals or how to handle a particular lawmaker. But whenever Wood raised a technical matter, the boss cut him off.

"Pat, I have you to do that," Wood recalled Bush saying. "Don't ask me to do that."

Over and over, the presumed Republican nominee for president points to his experience governing the second-largest state as his primary training ground for the White House. How Bush spent his time--a chief executive's most valuable and finite commodity--reflects the way he wielded political power from the second floor of the pink granite Texas Capitol.

His admirers describe a classic problem-solver who does not waste a minute, cuts to a matter's core and builds coalitions. His detractors say he misses important nuances, avoids divisive issues and ducks adversaries who differ with his agenda.

Daily appointment calendars offer a fresh view of Bush's only full term in public office. Though such documents are usually kept private until a politician leaves office, The Times obtained the governor's schedules through the Texas Open Records Act. Revealing patterns emerge from 3,125 pages of appointments covering 1995 through 1998--along with interviews with Bush, top aides and others who saw him.

Blessed by a humming economy and a tenure free of major crisis, Bush fashioned both a brisk pace and an amiable, nonconfrontational atmosphere. He focused on a few issues, preferred short meetings and insisted on a two-hour midday break centered on a rejuvenating run.

Topic of focus is education

In many ways, the calendar buttresses the image Bush puts forward on the presidential campaign trail. The governor had many more meetings on education than on any other subject. He courted state legislators of both parties--indeed, he delivered remarks at a fund-raising barbecue for the Democratic House speaker (imagine President Clinton praising Newt Gingrich in a roomful of GOP donors).

The schedules also detail a distinctly corporate flavor: Bush met frequently with representatives of oil, insurance and other industries but seldom with labor, environmental or consumer activists.

As a record-shattering political fund-raiser, Bush provided frequent access to contributors. Nearly half the 469 business leaders, energy executives and lobbyists who came through his doors donated to his political campaigns.

Bush aides maintain that the calendars provide an incomplete picture. They note that the people Bush greets in his office represent a small percentage of Texans the governor sees statewide.

Although Texas vests less constitutional power in the $115,343-a-year governor's job than many other large states--including California--Bush rarely felt the need to exercise all of his limited authority. He is empowered to veto bills but is reluctant to do so. He said he is proud that he never called a special legislative session.

Bush, 54, said in a recent interview that it is important for voters to judge "whether or not I could make the decisions given the degree of pressure that the president is going to have to face. . . . Are you able to maintain a pace and make sound decisions?"

The presidency accommodates a wide spectrum of leadership types, from Harry S. Truman's decisive "buck-stops-here" mentality to Bill Clinton's wee-hour explorations of fine points and exhaustive weighing of options. In many respects, his calendars show, Bush is the antithesis of the man he seeks to replace in the Oval Office: He relies heavily on his staff to master issues, keeps close to normal working hours and usually tenders decisions on the spot.

Bush's campaign aides encourage comparisons to Ronald Reagan, another large-state governor with a big-picture emphasis and a winning personality. Bush's breezy style won approval from Texas voters, who resoundingly reelected him in 1998.

But Austin is not Washington. The collegial traditions of the Texas Legislature stretch back two decades, well before the ascension of Bush, and the two parties here have a much narrower ideological divide.

Yet Bush watchers predict that he would keep his ways as president.

"It'll work up there," said Reggie Bashur, who served as a trouble-shooter during Bush's first eight months as governor. "You're going to be surprised how well it will work in Washington."

'Two hard half days'

The governor's typical work schedule during his first term consisted of "two hard half days," in chief of staff Clay Johnson's words. Bush usually arrived at the Capitol about 7:30 a.m.

He entered a spacious office lined with burnished wooden shelves jammed with about 200 autographed baseballs and about half that many books. On one wall was a painting of a horseman charging up a steep trail ("This is us," the governor once wrote to his staff). On another, he displayed a portrait of his hero, Sam Houston, during a period between his governorships of Tennessee and Texas when he reportedly drank heavily.

Bush, who swore off alcohol 14 years ago, told Johnson that he took this message from the picture: "The only difference between being a good governor and a fool is a bottle of liquor."

His scheduled appointments began about 8:30 a.m. and usually continued in 15- or 30-minute increments.

"I hope the calendar will prove it to you," Bush said. "I don't like long meetings."

Not that he was brusque. He and Public Utilities Commissioner Wood usually started off by ragging each other about their boots. Wood's were plain East Texas style. Bush's were pure West Texas: chiseled, ornamented and prominently on display because the gubernatorial feet tended to rest on the gubernatorial desk, which was handed down by his father, the former president.

Appointees and staff learned quickly to compress presentations. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political consultant, said he knew that he had lost Bush whenever the governor beckoned him to his computer to check out a deck of cards teed up for video solitaire.

"He wants you to tell him a story and present alternatives," said Margaret D. La Montagne, Bush's education advisor.

He also wanted answers--preferably short ones--to basic, blunt questions. "It only took once" being caught unprepared, said policy director T. Vance McMahan, half-wincing at a memory he did not care to share.

In return, hardly anyone had to wait for a decision.

Of 2,500 staff recommendations for appointees to state boards, only 10 made Bush "uncomfortable agreeing then and there," said Johnson, who coordinated the selections.

Under Bush, the death penalty has been carried out at a record-setting pace (136 executions during his 5 1/2-year tenure). The first-term calendar describes 76 meetings as "Re: execution," some for more than one case. Bush faced three choices: proceed, grant a 30-day reprieve or provide clemency if recommended by an appointed panel.

Bush, who has expressed confidence that no innocent person has been put to death on his watch, awarded his first stay in June and reduced one sentence to life in prison in 1998. For each condemned felon, aides said, Bush weighed any new evidence and whether the courts had reviewed all relevant issues.

Final review meetings with the governor's legal counsel followed hours of staff analysis, in consultation with Bush. The governor cut the standard slot in half because, "over time, I became more efficient in giving him that information," said Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's first-term legal counsel. "And he became more comfortable in making his decision based on the information I gave him."

A two-hour midday break for exercise

Bush's daily schedule often allows for a two-hour break around noon. "Gov time" or "private time" on the calendar usually meant a three-mile jog at a 7 1/2-minute pace. He often ran along a dammed-up section of the Colorado River.

Or Bush ventured to a University of Texas stadium, where world-class sprinters, distance runners and pole vaulters train for the upcoming Olympic Games.

The governor was always welcome there. "He writes the checks," joked Dan Pfaff, a track coach.

Afterward, Bush sometimes hit the football weight room--he once made the mistake of getting caught at Earl Campbell's usual machine when the legendary Longhorn running back wanted to use it. And he liked to hop on the physical therapy table for soft tissue massage.

The workouts provide time for reflection and a chance to renew his energy, Bush said.

"I've given some of the greatest speeches I've ever given when I was running." Then he grinned: "I forgot every word during the stretching afterwards."

In his first four years as governor, Bush usually arrived home by 6:30 p.m. and sometimes made a few quick work calls before retiring by 10 p.m.

Every other year, when lawmakers met for their 140-day session, he faced later hours. As deadlines approached, he read summaries prepared by his legislative counsel and convened after-hours gatherings around the dining room table or on the veranda at the Greek Revival Governor's Mansion.

From his inaugural day onward, Bush lavished more attention on lawmakers--Republicans and Democrats alike--than any Texas governor in recent memory.

He invited them, grouped by seniority, for meals--no agenda, say what you like. He took up an unconventional habit that began as a lark: promenading through the Capitol corridors to pop in unannounced on startled legislators.

He mugged, winked, bestowed nicknames. While mediating negotiations, he paced, chewed a cigar or grabbed one of the three shillelaghs in his office to mock-threateningly pound the desk or floor.

"You just can't help but, if not like, then at least enjoy the guy," said Teel Bivens, a GOP senator and Education Committee chairman. "He is great on giving you the big picture, prodding and nudging you towards his position."

Bush ate breakfast each week with two important Democrats: Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney. He even moved the sessions after Bullock complained about the mansion food: It just wasn't greasy enough.

He went even further for Laney.

In 1995, Bush traveled to Laney's hometown of Hale Center in West Texas to join the Democratic speaker at a high school football game. The following year, Bush addressed donors at a Laney fund-raiser in the Hill Country town of Kyle.

That appearance drew an unfavorable review from Bush's own state GOP vice chairwoman. Susan Weddington told the Houston Chronicle at the time: "This is like an illegal punch below the belt of the grass-roots activists."

As good as relations were, Bush avoided Bullock and Laney after his snap decision in 1997 to push for spending the state's entire $1-billion surplus on a tax cut.

"I generally would have talked it through with them, given them a heads-up," Bush said. "I decided not to do it this time. I knew what their reaction was going to be. They were adamantly opposed to it."

Instead, he dispatched an aide to give them the unwelcome news.

Bush had pledged during the 1994 election to deliver legislation on four policy fronts: legal, juvenile justice, welfare and education reform. Although he succeeded on each, Bush stayed out of the fray on other matters whenever possible.

On important legislation in 1995 to permit home equity loans, for example, Bush did not lift a finger, even though he supported the bill, which failed that session.

"It wasn't one of his four" priorities, said Dan Shelley, the governor's first legislative director.

Donors had extensive access

Like many big-state governors, Bush scheduled hundreds of meetings with business executives and lobbyists. Overall, 46% were donors, according to an analysis by the Campaign Study Group of Springfield, Va. Together with their families and companies, these contributors accounted for about one-tenth of the record-setting $41 million that Bush raised for his two gubernatorial bids.

Bush said that his contributors--some of whom he appointed to state boards--get no special access. "I believe what I believe because it's the right thing to believe, not because somebody's given me money."

The governor rarely spent face-time with labor officials who objected when Bush wanted to move some state employees onto private payrolls, environmentalists who faulted his air pollution record and consumer activists who opposed tort reform.

"I don't think I excluded them intentionally," Bush said.

The governor "operates in a very closed loop," said Jim Hightower, a radio commentator, former Texas agriculture commissioner and frequent Bush critic. "I think he actually means well, but he's sealed off from the real world."

Bush disagrees: "I see citizens all the time." He traveled throughout Texas for about 60 community receptions, most during his 1998 reelection year.

Among those he saw frequently were representatives of Latino organizations.

Early on, he met with the National Council of La Raza and was responsive on immigration and charter schools, said Charles Kamasaki, the group's senior vice president. "We never had a similar meeting with Gov. [Ann] Richards," Bush's predecessor.

By contrast, some black leaders received less access.

In the first term, Bush saw officials from the state's African American Chambers of Commerce who had economic development on their mind. But local Urban League officials complain that they could not get an appointment to talk about the death penalty, and Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe said that he tried in vain many times to speak directly with Bush about capital punishment, hate crimes and other contentious issues. Bush also turned down at least two invitations to address state conventions of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett said that scheduling conflicts kept Bush from the events.

The governor salted his schedule with alumni of his father's White House: former assistant Education secretaries, a personnel director, a secretary of State, an attorney general.

Rove, Bush's political maestro, was also a ubiquitous presence. His name appears on the calendar 112 times, meeting with Bush, arranging to have others meet him or acting as staff, though he was never on the state payroll.

Bush cleared time too for taking his twin daughters to the gym and having his measurements taken for a $300 custom cowboy hat.

Joella Gammage-Torres still giggles at the way the governor clowned around during his three fittings at the Capitol in 1996.

He has "an average head," she said. His choice too was middle-of-the-road: a neutral silver-belly color with a brim that, at 3 1/4 inches, was not too wide and not too slim.

Bush selected a model called "The Statesman."


© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.