Well, it looks like the honeymoon is over.
In mid-August, just as the Governor’s freight train was gathering more steam at the Iowa straw poll, he was blindsided by the bad luck that can dog a too-early frontrunner. First, there was the reminder that despite Bush’s imposing cash-and-poll lead, Steve (“I Am the Money”) Forbes was just not going to go away. Back home in Austin, the Eliza May whistleblower’s lawsuit – variously christened “Funeralgate” or “Formaldegate” – defied all the campaign attempts to dismiss it as “frivolous,” because the Bush allies involved in the original SCI investigation and subsequent depositions hadn’t bothered to get their stories straight (see the update by Robert Bryce on page 19). Then an otherwise innocuous candidate’s questionnaire from the New York Daily News began the did-you-snort-cocaine crescendo, as Dubya first refused to answer the question, then began a week-long sliding series of comic denials that eventually pushed his “clean-living” date back to 1974 – just that far and no further, he insists. And finally, the high-profile almost-execution of paranoid schizophrenic Larry Robison caused a few people to notice that the Governor has presided over 100 or so lethal injections, and to begin asking the question: can there be too much of a bad thing?
What a relief. Just when it seemed that the only campaign comedy would be too-briefly provided by the ever-dopey duo of Forbes and Dan Quayle, along comes Mr. Texas Respectability to step on his own momentum. When Jay Leno starts doing coke jokes about you, your clear-sailing days are over.
To which we can only say, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Although he remains the dynastic standard-bearer of mainline Republicans and their extremely deep corporate pockets, Bush the Second is still not trusted (with good reason) by the GOP’s hard right, and Forbes, Bauer, et al. have just enough money and moxie among them to make the next few months amusing if not truly interesting. Predictably, the primary race is being handicapped in terms of whether or not Bush will have to spend more of his enormous bank account than he anticipated – other than that, it’s a yawner. The money primary is over, and what remains is ritual and window-dressing.
The SCI lawsuit, on the other hand, shows real possibilities of developing into an entertaining revelation of the way big-money influence works in Texas – and will work in D.C. should Bush be elected president. There are all sorts of diverting touches here: the bully-boy swagger of SCI C.E.O. Robert Waltrip, who apparently believes his funeral bidness is above such proletarian annoyances as state regulation; the inside operation of the Bush gubernatorial style, in which his staff eagerly intervenes in any official matter (e.g., air pollution, utility deregulation, or embalming) that might impinge on the perquisites of his corporate allies; the nice just-us-girls touch of the Governor interrupting a staff meeting to let everybody know he’s keeping a sharp eye on their attention to his friends: “Bobby, are these people still messing with you?” As Robert Bryce points out, the instinctive stonewalling – Bush’s initial false insistence that he had “no conversations” about the SCI investigation – is an early sign of what Bush and his advisors have learned from the public trials and embarrassments of Bill Clinton: exactly nothing. Perhaps we can look forward next spring to a Bush video deposition on the intriguing connections between campaign finance and professional undertaking.
Bush insists he has learned from his most regrettable mistake – growing up in the sixties – and has absolutely, definitely, almost certainly, not partaken of any illegal drugs at least (as we went to press) since he was twenty-eight. If that sounds to the rest of us like a confession, well, we can all just vote for Dan (“Hide the Weed!”) Quayle or Al (“Don’t You Wish I Used Drugs?”) Gore. The spectacle of Bush’s Nixonian (or Clintonian) non-denial denials would be entirely ludicrous if it were not (as several reporters pointed out) for Bush’s noisy advocacy of harsh penalties for even minor drug crimes. On the stump, the Governor never tires of lecturing his audiences, especially youngsters, on morality and responsibility (“If you use drugs, you won’t go to college”). This unreflective hypocrisy is bad enough, but coupled with his determination to “reform” juvenile justice by prosecuting youthful offenders as adult criminals, it amounts to the class-biased blindness of a man who grew up secure in the knowledge that whatever trouble he might get into, Daddy would get him out of it. The scandal is not Bush’s personal drug use. The scandal is a bi-partisan national drug policy which is harshly punitive, race- and class-determined, and idiotically counterproductive – and candidate Bush wants more of the same.
Bush has now pushed his “post-drug” years back to 1974. From 1968 to 1973 he was flying jets in the Texas Air National Guard. Can he or his handlers truly believe the drug questions are likely to stop?
Finally, Bush temporarily dodged a p.r. bullet August 17 when the execution of mentally ill Fort Worth murderer Larry Robison was surprisingly stayed by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Robison’s escape from the needle is likely temporary, and the following day another hapless inmate, Joe Trevino (with a grim family history of abuse, neglect, and state institutional brutalization) went almost unnoticed to his death, leaving Bush’s personal executions at ninety-nine and holding. Trevino’s attorney Ken Driggs, who has seen many such cases, told the Observer that his client’s family background provides a dark, brutal mirror-image of the generations of privilege which brought George W. Bush to his current prominence and prospects. “I can say without hesitation,” Driggs wrote to the merciless Board of Pardons and Paroles, “that Mr. Trevino’s early family experience, his childhood, and his experiences in the Texas child protection system are the most tragic I have ever encountered. This is a guy who literally never had a chance in life.”
The Governor was recently described (by a reporter writing in Talk magazine) as having cynically mocked the clemency pleas of Karla Faye Tucker, generating outrage even among conservatives. Bush responded that he takes clemency and reprieve decisions seriously and solemnly. He took Trevino’s life and death so seriously that he continued campaigning out of state that day, leaving the clemency review and decision to his compassionate Lieutenant Governor, Rick Perry. Perhaps Joe Trevino could take some final comfort in having provided law-and-order campaign fodder for the next Governor of Texas.