Screaming for Vengeance

In the lobby of the Canal Street Hotel where the Texas delegation was housed for the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, George W. was courting the Texas press corps. Easy and accessible, he locked on with those blue eyes, first-named reporters, and held forth in the hotel lobby for as long as anyone holding a tape recorder cared to stand and listen.

The only time he showed any sign of anger was when he was asked about then-Governor Ann Richards’ comment about his father being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The blue eyes narrowed as he responded to the reporter who asked the question. “It was mean and uncalled-for,” he said. “It didn’t bother my dad. He’s lived with ‘Doonesbury,’ so he’s used to that. But it hurt my mother.” Governor Bush talks like his father, who was equally prone to malapropisms and non sequiturs, but he thinks like his mother, whom Nixon admired because, he reportedly said, “she knows how to hate.” Which is a way of saying that George W. believes grudges should be transgenerational and involve corruption of blood and children avenging the wrongs visited on their parents.

On that afternoon in New Orleans twelve years ago, Bush was clearly itching to get even. And that was just for a slight aimed at his father. What if W. himself loses the presidency? I think we all know what: If George W. Bush loses the election next month, he will come back to Austin looking to settle some scores–Barbara Bush-style. And anyone who thinks the Texas governorship is a weak office is going to learn a little something about the exercise of power by the master–not George W. Bush, but his chief strategist Karl Rove. They’re keeping lists. Of every insult, no matter how small. Of every criticism, no matter how fair. Of every news clip. Of every joke, no matter how innocent.

This reporter speaks from some experience concerning Rove and lists. In April of last year I was a panelist in Boulder, Colorado–at the Conference on World Affairs, a wonderful liberal gabfest that longtime participant Roger Ebert refers to as “the leisure of the theory class.” Having co-written with Molly Ivins a book on Bush, I was called upon to talk about Bush’s record in Texas.

On one panel of political reporters, Fox News reporter Jonathan Broder lamented for the day when loyalty to party, candidate, and ideology meant something. He referred to Mark McKinnon, who had made the switch from Ann Richards to George Bush without blushing. In his biographical sketch of McKinnon, who had graduated from high school in nearby Denver, Broder erred on one minor detail, to trivial to mention–for most listeners. After the panel discussion ended, we were approached by a small, utterly charming woman who pointed out Broder’s error. “I’m Mark’s mother,” she said.

When it was my turn to speak on a later panel–about Rove– I recalled that he had lived in Utah, which at the moment didn’t seem too far away. “Before I start,” I said, “I would like to know if Karl Rove’s sister or wife is in the audience.” When the scattered laughter ended, I delivered my remarks on Rove. A week later, in my office in Austin, I received a one-sentence handwritten note: Sir, Not a sister or a wife, but my aunt, armed with a tape recorder.

It was from Rove.

“Isn’t that funny,” I thought. And then: “Or is it?” In the Sicilian and Calabrese neighborhood where I grew up in South Philadelphia, an offending party was sent a half-dozen dead fish wrapped in newspaper–a warning that, while edible, wasn’t nearly so easy to file as a brief personal note. In any case, the implication is the same: They’re keeping score.

So who gets the red mullet when Bush comes home a loser?

Elliott Naishtat, for one. The only Jewish New Yorker ever elected to the Texas Legislature, the liberal Austin Democrat was probably already “sleeping with the fishes” at the end of the last legislative session, when Bush legislative aide Terral Smith reportedly lobbied Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka to include Naishtat on the Monthly’s “Ten Worst Legislators” list. Smith desperately wanted Naishtat to help pass a package of draconian welfare reform provisions. According to Representative Glen Maxey, another Austin Democrat, Smith openly said that the governor had to have welfare reform “so that Pat Buchanan wouldn’t be able to beat him up in the Republican primaries.” (At the time, they didn’t have a clue about John McCain.) But as chair of the House committee considering Bush’s 1999 welfare reform measures, Naishtat held the line on the governor’s punitive welfare proposals, and the entire welfare reform package collapsed.

One evening, as Naishtat left the Capitol in the company of friends from New York, Bush slipped up behind him and put him in a playful headlock–as state troopers stood by and laughed and the New Yorkers worried that maybe what they’d heard about Texas was true after all. Come January, when the Legislature convenes, the headlock won’t be playful. To make matters worse, Naishtat has been one of very few Democrats who has talked to the press–including “major-league asshole” Adam Clymer of The New York Times. Next year, Naishtat, who runs one of the most prolific bill-mills in the House, might need a chiropractor for his neck and a surrogate to carry his legislation. He also might suddenly find that he has a well-funded Republican opponent.

So much for Naishtat. Who else gets it?

When the election returns come in and Bush is making his concession speech, Glen Maxey will be filing a pro se appeal for clemency with the Board of Pardons and Paroles. And he’ll get the same ominous response as every death row inmate except Roy Criner and Henry Lee Lucas, who at least had evidence to prove their innocence. Maxey has been one of Bush’s more vocal critics, which is appropriate because the Governor’s Mansion is in his district. Not only was Maxey dissing the governor in the public prints, he also busted Bush during the last session, when (with Speaker Pete Laney’s quiet backing) he forced Bush to accept an expanded version of the federal/state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Bush wanted to offer the low-cost insurance to only 300,000 of the state’s uninsured children. Maxey refused to be moved from the 500,000 number proposed it the House. He won, and late in the session Bush walked out onto the floor to congratulate him.

Then the governor tossed off what Maxey interpreted as an anti-gay line: “I value you as a person, and I value you as a human being, and I want you to know, Glen, that what I say publicly about gay people doesn’t pertain to you.” The governor’s press office later denied that he ever said such a thing, but Maxey turned immediately to a group of reporters standing by and offered up the governor’s quote–asking them not to print it until after the veto deadline had passed. Bush and his man Smith will pay careful attention to the veto deadline next session–at least as it relates to Maxey’s bills. And if Bush has to return to Texas and live in the 51st District, look for Rove to do everything he can to see to it that the governor has straight representation next time around.

Representative Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat, also gets close scrutiny next session. The Governor probably knows it was Coleman who was talking with the White House in 1997, when Bush was trying to cut a $2-3 billion deal with Lockheed Martin, EDS, or IBM to administer the state’s welfare system. Coleman was the Legislature’s point person at the White House, explaining to the Clinton administration that this was both bad public policy and bad politics, which would hurt the poor in Texas while allowing Bush to run for president saying, “I privatized welfare in Texas.” Despite talking Texas tough to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (“You promised an answer last Monday. In my state, we take people for their word”), Bush was unable to get the federal waiver he needed for his privatization scheme. Coleman has also been one of two or three House Democrats who have talked to the national press about Bush’s shortcomings, both to the Times’ major-league asshole and to minor-league assholes at The Austin Chronicle and The Houston Chronicle. In January, the brainy Houstonian who is a star in the House Black Caucus gets his–Big Time.

These three Dems–Naishtat, Maxey, and Coleman–also had the audacity to fly to St. Louis to brief Gore personally on Bush’s Texas record before debate number three (while alleged Democrats like Hays County Senator Ken Armbrister and former Beaumont State Representative Mark Stiles traveled in the Governor’s caravan.) While it reads like an outdated Don Rickles’ joke– “a Jew, a gay guy, and a black guy walk into the governor’s office down in Texas”–what happens to these Democratic state reps when Bush comes home a loser might make Rickles’ humor seem genteel.

It’s hard to find anyone in the Texas Senate with enough courage to incur Bush’s wrath. Only Mario Gallegos, Jr., the Houston-area Democrat, has dared take Bush on, by questioning the size of his projected surplus on the eve of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. As a senator who has spoken to the national press at a critical moment, Gallegos might have a problem. El Paso Democrat Eliot Shapleigh is an occasional critic, who seems to retreat and advance–or, as they say on the border, un paso adelante, dos atras. By failing to be a persistent critic of Bush, he might have saved himself from the retribution that genuinely courageous legislators are certain to suffer. And Rodney Ellis, another Houston Democrat, has been AWOL, too, though his inner-city constituents haven’t exactly fared well under the Bush administration.

Republicans won’t be immune, either. Tom Pauken, the Dallas lawyer and fundamentalist Christian who led the Christian takeover of the party in 1994, and last year flirted with a Dan Quayle candidacy before refusing to endorse Governor Bush, could be in trouble. “I’m supporting a true conservative,” Pauken told reporters. In the 1997 session, as state chair of the Republican Party, he attacked Bush, warning Republican legislators “not to vote for the George Bush tax increase.” In response, Rove seized the Republican Party’s money and left Pauken with much less power. When Pauken filed in the 1999 GOP primary as a candidate for attorney general, Rove recruited John Cornyn–who defeated Pauken and Democrat Jim Mattox. Pauken still has his law practice and his integrity intact, but it remains to be seen what Bush and Rove will go after when they come home.

Warren Chisum is toast. The Democrat-turned-Republican from Pampa is the chair of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, where he did a fair job of advancing the governor’s notorious “voluntary compliance” bill, which allows grandfathered polluters (exempt from the Clean Air Act) to decide when and if they will clean up their share of toxic air emissions. But Chisum is a stand-up guy. He has said on the record that “the governor was wrong” when he killed a tailpipe emission testing program in 1995. Chisum will keep his seat as long as he wants it, because he’s gritty, honest, and drafts enough anti-gay legislation to keep his conservative Panhandle constituents happy. But that won’t be good enough for Bush and Rove.

Tommy Merritt, the Jack Nicholson look-alike from Longview, might have to keep his head down for a while. He crossed the line in the House Republican Caucus when he told the governor he ought to be supporting hate crimes legislation.

Who else gets it?

If Karl Rove has any of his legendary stroke left (as a political consultant Rove once announced an indictment of Texas officials at a Washington press conference weeks before the indictments were unsealed), Democratic consultant George Shipley would be wise to retain legal counsel and shred his files. Rove probably knows the name of every reporter who ever called Shipley’s office asking for the story on Bush. Shipley denies talking to the press, but a source close to his office said if the reporters all had shown up on one day, there would have been a “double line around the block.” And who knows? Poor Mark McKinnon, who has already received a federal subpoena related to the mailing of Bush’s debate prep materials to the Gore camp, might also get it in the end. The political buzz in Austin has had Rove asking for McKinnon’s head at least once a month while Bush was leading. When Bush loses, who are you going to blame but the former Democrat who saw his future in GWB campaign media?

There are others: The Austin Chronicle’s Robert Bryce broke the story (in the Observer) of Bush’s dirty dealing with the Texas Rangers, which was recently a Page One New York Times story and a feature item in Talk. Bryce also wrote about Bush’s work on behalf of funeral industry giant SCI. Both stories have dogged Bush. Austin writer and radio talk show host Jim Hightower has been one of Bush’s most vocal and constant critics, has been the subject of a political persecution in the past, and lives only three miles from the Governor’s Mansion. There’s even Will, the bartender at Mezzaluna, who loudly proclaimed Bush a big loser in his first debate with Gore. A lot of Republicans drink pinot noir.

Watch out. This is going to get ugly.

Former Observer editor Louis Dubose is the politics editor at The Austin Chronicle, where a version of this story first appeared.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST