A Visit to the Texas White House
Our tour guide at the Governor’s Mansion was Megan “Muffy” Applewhite, university coed and daughter of a Houston petrochemical magnate. Muffy was about twenty years old – nice figure, black hair, black eyes, legs like a lioness. Asked how she had gotten the enviable job of guide at the Texas White House, she answered with the honesty of youth. “Money, honey. Daddy is a big contributor to the Governor. My father has been giving money to Bushes since before it was fashionable.”
We climbed the front steps, entered the front door, and began the tour. If you’ve never seen the Governor’s residence in Austin, it has the two-story white facade, white columns, and wide white porch to be found on any of a thousand other wealthy Southern homes of the same period. Inside, it’s a little disappointing — you feel as if you’re in a rather grandiose closet.
Altogether in our group there were about thirty people — more, if you counted the children underfoot, part of an elementary school class from a lost county west of Amarillo. We looked into the various rooms on the first floor, craning our necks over the restraining ropes. Muffy was chatting about the Governor’s notorious moodiness (“Sometimes he really does clench his fists and turn red!”) when a man appeared from one of the back offices. He looked, at first glance, like a Dallas television anchorman — handsome, but in a vapid sort of way. He came down the hallway toward us: chest out, head bobbing, something like a pigeon in heat. He stopped in front of Muffy, just then bent over straightening the hem of her skirt. There was something very familiar in the man’s self-satisfied grin. Perhaps he really was a television personality.
Muffy looked up. “Hey Rick!” she cried. We were looking at Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. The state’s number two official moved forward and embraced Muffy, as if they were classmates meeting at a beer party. “Is that legislation rolled up in your pocket,” Muffy asked as she stepped back and looked him up and down — “or are you just happy to see me?” With a smile, Perry put his arm around Muffy’s waist and pulled her toward him.
“Where do I know you from, darling?”
“We met on inauguration night, Rick. You drove my roommate, Button Hempstead, home. Don’t you remember?”
The blank look on his face made it plain that he didn’t.
“The funny thing is, you two left the party an hour before me, but Button got home two hours after I did.”
“Yeah, well,” Perry laughed, “we must have parked for a little while.”
“No doubt.” Muffy laughed too. “But tell me, stud, doesn’t your wife complain about all the parking I hear you do?”
“She doesn’t say anything, darling — as long as I’m in the garage in the morning when she wakes up.”
Another skirt passed, and the Lieutenant Governor lost interest in Muffy and her questions. Perry followed a pair of black-stockinged legs out onto the front porch of the mansion. Muffy led us in the opposite direction. We passed the base of a staircase and entered a part of the mansion that had been added early in the century, during one of the Legislature’s infrequent attacks of public spending. There was a small dining room, and a kitchen to replace the kitchen that had been, in the last century, located on the back grounds, apart from the main house. Through the rear window we could see the Governor’s gardeners, all Hispanic, and looking through the kitchen window we saw his kitchen help, mostly black. Everything was as it should be in a typical Southern home.
For a few minutes now we had heard the sound of hushed voices, as of two people on the verge of an argument. From the private apartment on the second floor, two pairs of shoes appeared at the top of the stairs. First was a pair of men’s loafers, spit-polished and with little leather tassels where laces would ordinarily be. The others — flat-soled and sensible — belonged to a woman.
My eyes glanced right past the man, who had ordinary patrician good looks, and what novelists call a “weak” — or, better, “spoiled” — mouth. The woman, on the other hand, was exceptional. Grey and handsome, in another life she might have been Miss Smith, the firm-handed fourth-grade teacher you kept in touch with over the years. The couple was, of course, the Governor and his mother. Mrs. Bush must be in her seventies, but she’s not at all frail. That afternoon she carried herself like the dowager she was not born to be, but had become through marriage.
As they descended the stairs, they seemed only half aware of our presence — and completely unaware of how their voices carried.
“I know Dad was president, Mother,” the Governor replied to a comment we had not heard. “I visited you at the White House, remember?” As George W. Bush and his mother hesitated on the last stair, a petulant look set in on the face of the likely-nominee of the Republican Party.
Mrs. Bush was serene — and smooth as steel. “You don’t have to adopt that tone, George. I’m not hectoring you. I’m just trying to remind you of the possibility you’re facing.”
“I’m well aware of the possibility, Mother. Everybody is telling me, all day long, ‘You could be president.’ But those people Dad brought in from California…”
“Yes, the ‘handlers.’ They keep telling me that I have to act coy, and as if I really don’t want to be president. Sometimes, when I’m talking to you or Dad, I forget that I really want to be president and I say stuff like, ‘I will consider the possibility should it arise,’ or “I’m just devoting my efforts to being the best Governor I can be.’ You and Dad must know by now that what I say doesn’t necessarily mean anything about how I really feel.”
When they became aware of our group at the foot of the stairs, they came down and stood among us for a few minutes, shaking hands and smiling. You could see why George is popular. A nice smile, a deep laugh, what the columnists call boyish charm — something for everyone. Most of my attention, however, focused on Mrs. Bush. To look at her, the last thing you would have called her was a political wife. But in fact she was that, and a political mother as well.
“What do you think,” one of the schoolteachers among us asked her, “of the idea of your son becoming president, ma’am?”
“Any mother would be as proud as I am of young George.”
“But, I mean, did you ever think that he had that kind of potential for leadership?”
“When he was growing up,” the former First Lady answered, “the only potential I saw was for trouble.”
Everyone laughed — except the Governor, who turned a little red.
Although she tried to interest us in her son (“Tell them about your plan for welfare reform, George”), young George didn’t quite seem capable of carrying a crowd’s interest by the force of his own personality.
“What do you think,” someone asked, “of the possibility of running for the White House?”
“I’m just concentrating on being the best Governor I can be.”
At that moment, from somewhere down the hall an aide abruptly appeared, with papers he held out to the Governor.
“It’s the death warrants to sign, Governor. There’re two executions scheduled for tonight.”
Absentmindedly, the Governor took the offered pen. But in mid-signature he lifted his hand. He looked hard at his aide.
“They’re not white, are they?”
The aide flashed a nervous smile. “Governor,” he asked, “would we do that to you?”
“It’s not a woman either, is it? I’m not executing any more damn women. That last one — I was getting telegrams from as far away as Bolivia. What the damn Bolivians, or anyone else in Europe, know about law and order in Texas, I can’t imagine.”
The aide reassured him. “Both prisoners are male, Governor. One’s black, and one’s Hispanic. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Pacified, Bush nodded. “That’s okay then,” he said.
In an instant the aide retrieved the signed warrants and was gone. Mrs. Bush and her son were moving down the hallway, resuming their conversation as if it had never been interrupted.
“You always loved Jeb best. Even now I bet you wish he had the poll numbers I have.”
“Don’t be an ass, Georgie.”
They were almost out of hearing when their conversation turned back to politics. Mrs. Bush — now with the expectant air of a fourth-grade teacher — posed one of those open-ended questions about foreign policy hungry reporters like to ask. She was testing her son’s knowledge of current events.
“Saddam Hussein will learn that he cannot —
“At least be original, George, darling,” his mom interjected. “Everybody’s already bombed Iraq, even the Democrats. Try to think of something else.”
George W. Bush looked like a child being quizzed about homework he hadn’t done. “I’ve been consulting with foreign policy experts,” he said petulantly.
“I have a suggestion.”
“What’s that, Mother?” the Governor huffed.
“France? The country, France? What about it?”
“What do you think I’m suggesting, son? Put your thinking hat on.”
As Muffy was droning on about the interior decoration of the mansion, most of our group visibly leaned down the hallway, in the wake of mother and son. It was hard to breathe, much less hear.
“It just so happens that I read a position paper about France yesterday,” the Governor, adopting a superior tone, informed his mother. “The French are our allies.”
“What difference does that make? The Iraqis were our friends once too. Your father has told you a thousand times: think globally, son.”
They were standing now in an unmarked doorway, below the stairs. It was guarded by a state trooper, and half-shielded by the back of the staircase itself.
The Bushes’ voices dropped, in an intimate exchange. We could no longer hear, but the expression on the Governor’s face was more than eloquent enough to express his feelings. His features became soft and indistinct as his mother expressed some inaudible endearment.
After a moment their voices rose to a normal level, and any hint of disagreement had disappeared.
“But why France, Mom?”
Mrs. Bush squeezed her son’s arm affectionately. “Nancy took me shopping there a few years ago. The salesmen were so rude. I promised her I’d mention it to you.”
The Governor was smiling again. He looked — how best to describe him? — like a Boy Scout in a business suit. He leaned forward and kissed his mother’s cheek.
“All right. We’ll bomb Paris. We’ll take out the whole shopping district. But I will not commit American ground forces to a conflict in which there are ill-defined goals.”
Mrs. Bush looked up into her son’s eyes. For the first time, a proud, motherly glow surrounded her.
Her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh Georgie. You’re so —” For a moment she couldn’t find the words. “So —”
Teary-eyed, Mrs. Bush began to shake with emotion. “You are so —”
“So presidential,” Muffy said, in a respectful whisper.
But the compliment was lost on the Bushes. The Governor had already taken his mother’s hand, and Mrs. Bush and her son disappeared, arm in arm, into the room behind them.
A couple of the tourists inquired about that mysterious room beneath the stairs, but Muffy quickly changed the subject. We moved on, admiring the antique furniture and the polished hardwood floors. The rest of the official tour was unremarkable. But as we were ushered out onto the grounds and in the direction of Colorado Street, I pulled Muffy aside and asked her if there wasn’t something else to see. She hesitated, looking me over, much as she had done the Lieutenant Governor. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked finally. I raised my hand in witness. Muffy looked at me and shrugged. “What the hell,” she said, and took me back inside the mansion, to the room at the back of the stairs.
No window hinted at what lay beyond.
“The Counting Room,” Muffy announced.
The trooper stepped aside, and Muffy opened the door. The room was long and narrow, and deceptively larger than it appeared from outside. There were two long rows of desks, and at each desk was seated a young woman or man, about Muffy’s age. On each desk itself were stacks of money. Clearly, there were millions of dollars in the room — and all in cash. The floor was crowded with black briefcases, and on the far wall was a large chart. It had three columns, headed “DONOR,” “AMOUNT,” and “FAVOR.” Muffy was preparing to explain the purpose of the room, when all explanation became unnecessary.
A man in a business suit pushed his way past us and entered. He was carrying a briefcase exactly like those on the floor.
“May I help you?” Muffy asked.
The visitor, who had the rough self-assurance of what was once known as a “self-made man,” raised the briefcase in one hand and patted it with the other. “Got a little something here for the Governor,” he said.
“May I see?”
The newcomer cradled the briefcase on his knee and popped open the locks. Inside were neat bundles of twenty-dollar bills, each gathered with a rubber band. I guessed there were twenty thousand dollars in the case. Maybe more.
“Thirty-two thousand eight hundred dollars,” he said.
Muffy was unimpressed. “And what,” she sniffed, “did you hope to buy with that?”
The man’s mouth dropped open, and he reflexively gulped air. Clearly this was not the welcome he had expected.
“May I explain something to you, Mr.—”
“Trueblo-o-o—o-od,” he stammered. “Wylie T. T-T-T-Trueblood.” He fumbled in his pocket and gave Muffy a business card.
“Mr. Trueblood, do you see those stacks on the desks in front of you?” she asked. “They are fifty- and one-hundred dollar bills. There are no twenties in this room.”
“Twenties were good enough for the Governor four years ago!”
“That was four years ago. Governor Bush is now running for president. That costs a lot more. Consequently, influence costs more.”
Muffy looked up at the disappointed visitor. He stood there, slightly pathetic, his mouth open and no one to take his money.
“What exactly did you want from the Governor — not a federal appointment,
“Oh no, ma’am. This is state business. Just like the last time.”
“Do you need a law changed? You should know, Mr. Trueblood, that legislation costs a great deal more than thirty.”
“Oh no, ma’am. Not even that. Just some regulatory relief. I just need a call made to a state agency.” Mr. Trueblood’s color improved. He looked, in fact, like someone who had just been saved from drowning. “It doesn’t even have to be the Governor who makes the call this time.”
Muffy took the briefcase from his hands and gave it to one of the faceless clerks. She pushed the visitor out the door, and then she led all three of us back into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
“Just leave the money here,” Muffy said. “I’ll see what we can do.”
Austin writer Lucius Lomax has on occasion visited the Governor’s Mansion, but says he is sworn to secrecy.