Molly Ivins

Poor George Bush, Poor Texas

Strange peaches in the media world. As one who rarely identifies with Governor George W. Bush, I find myself in odd sympathy with the Shrub these days just because media people keep turning up in Austin to ask me about him. I seem to be on the list because I’m one of the few people who will say anything negative about the man on the record. What chaps me is the kind of questions I’m asked.

I offer to explain how Bush flubbed the tax-reform proposals last session – couldn’t even get his own party to go along – and the visiting journalists want to know if he ever used drugs.

I describe his one legislative triumph – a tort reform bill that has so completely reversed the state’s old reputation as a trial lawyer’s paradise that we have now become an insurance company’s paradise – and the visitors want to know if I’ve heard any gossip about his love life.

Give us a break!

I reluctantly agreed to do one more TV interview the other day because this crew said it had come to cover the issues. They said they were particularly concerned that Bush was so vague on so many important questions, and they were here to pin him down. Great, says I – this is public service.

It’s one thing to try to straddle the abortion issue when you’re governor of Texas and have no power to do anything about it; it’s another matter when you’re running for president and will be naming people to the Supreme Court. It becomes necessary to clarify what has been a singularly muddled bunch of mush, on this and other topics.

So in comes the happy TV crew to report that Bush has just addressed a group of young people and told them not to make the mistakes he made when he was young. But what mistakes did he make, specifically and in great detail, the television reporter wants to know. This is what he means by clarification of the issues.

Next, a print journalist asks in all seriousness: “But why does Bush keep bringing up this supposed misbehavior when he was young? Why does he dwell on it?” I was completely boggled; you could have knocked me over with Drew Nixon’s brain. Why does Bush bring it up? Why does he dwell on it?

This is a national press corps that has obsessed about the president’s sex life for fourteen months; while much of the world’s economy collapsed, our political press corps was completely caught up in a tawdry soap opera. Now, they come to Texas and bombard Bush and everybody else with questions about his private life, and they want to know why Bush is dwelling on it? Now that’s chutzpah.

If the media want to address Bush’s character, then they should address his character, not his sex life. The main thing about Bush is that there’s not much there there.

This is not a person of great depth or complexity or intelligence; he does not have many ideas. (Actually, aside from tort reform, I’ve never spotted one.) I don’t think he knows or cares a great deal about governance. Nevertheless, he is a perfectly adequate governor of Texas, where we so famously have the weak-governor system. Bush was smart enough to do what Bob Bullock told him to for four years, and it worked fine.

Bush is also a pretty nice guy. I really think you would have to work at it to dislike the man. His best trait is self-deprecating humor.

He’s above average; he’s more than mediocre. He has real political skills. If you separate the political part of public life (i.e., running for office) from the governing part (i.e., what you do after you get there), Bush is much better at the politics. This is true of many people in public life – in fact, a genuine interest in governance is relatively rare among politicians.

As proof of his political shrewdness, I submit two pieces of evidence: first, his careful wooing of the Hispanic community in Texas (such a refreshing contrast to that fool Wilson in California); and second, an extremely difficult balancing act keeping the Christian right, which controls the Texas Republican Party, from being perceived as the face of the party. (Most of Bush’s money comes from precisely the kind of rich Republicans who are horrified by the Christian right; anyone who has covered Texas Republican conventions during the past ten years knows how deep that split is.)

The single worst thing I can say about George W. Bush after five years of watching him is that if you think his daddy had trouble with “the vision thing,” wait’ll you meet this one. I don’t think he has any idea why he’s running for the presidency, except that he’s competitive and he can. On the other hand, most Republicans don’t want government to do much anyway, so Bush is perfect for them.

Anyone who thinks Bush’s sound-bite slogan “compassionate conservatism” actually means something programmatic should study the latest reports on poverty in Texas. Hint to national media people (courtesy of the Center for Public Policy Priorities):

Texas has a much higher percentage of poor working families with small children than other states.More poor Texas families have a full-time, year-round worker than similar families in other states.Texas’ poor families are more likely to rely on earnings for a majority of their income, and less likely to rely on welfare, than similar families in the nation.Poor working families in Texas are much less likely to be covered by health insurance. They are less likely to receive unemployment benefits. More than half the poor families are headed by a married couple. One out of six Texans is below the poverty level. The child poverty rate is 24.2 percent, compared to 20.4 percent nationally.

In other words, poor Texans are doing everything Bush thinks they should – they work, they marry, they rely on themselves, they don’t get help from the government – and the upshot is that the state has more poor people, and those poor people are much poorer and less healthy than poor people elsewhere. Now that’s an issue.

And another good issue is Bush’s business record, where he very clearly did not take his own advice that we shouldn’t look to the government for help.

As for the rather silly argument that if George W.’s last name were Smith, no one ever would have heard of him – that’s quite true, but so what? His last name isn’t Smith. Get over it. Yes, he is ahead now on name recognition, and no, most people don’t know a single thing about where he stands. And whose fault is that?

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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