Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.... A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner. -- John Steinbeck, 1962
When George W. Bush won his re-election bid last fall, two of his Texas imports to the campaign, ad creator Mark McKinnon and chief strategist Matthew Dowd, hurriedly posted signs at Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters as they returned home to Austin. "G.T.T," the notes said.
Those initials -- shorthand for "Gone to Texas" -- first appeared on doors of abandoned cabins across Southeastern states in the 1800s. In time, "G.T.T." came to mean a run toward a new start -- or sometimes, a hasty flight from the law. But to President Bush's Austin crowd, the message has no dark connotations. It simply means departing Washington to return to a good place, a source of strength.
Bush's campaign cohorts had no trouble locating their return tickets after November 2. Pal Don Evans, the departing Commerce secretary, said four years was plenty, and he was G.T.T. In the first term, a few other Texans decided that Washington was an interlude, not a destination. Education reform expert Sandy Kress came north in 2001 to help Bush pass the No Child Left Behind Act -- and returned to Austin that same year. Karen Hughes, the Texas aide closest to Bush personally, moved her husband and son north to Washington -- and then back to Austin shy of the two-year mark, cutting a deal to advise the president on his communications via phone, fax, and occasional airplane ride, so that her family could live "easier and more normal."
In January of 2009, Bush will be G.T.T. But until that time, he will rely on his adopted Texas roots, his tall-in-the-saddle persona, his loyal Texas lieutenants, and a national twist on the sort of bold-agenda policy performance on which he cut his political teeth as governor to carry him into the history books.
In the two months since he won re-election, a results-hungry president has consolidated power ever more tightly in the hands of the Texans and a small group of other conscripts who enjoy a family-like relationship with the president.
"Naturally, there's a bond we share because we come from Texas," says White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who ran three successful statewide campaigns in Texas for his mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, before he became a spokesman for then-Gov. Bush in 1999. "There are a number of Texans in the White House who've worked for him for a long time, who believe in his agenda and his leadership, and who understand his tone and philosophy," McClellan adds. "They are people he has complete trust in; they are also people he considers to be friends."
What is harder to get White House aides to discuss is what happens when you are not from Texas. A few non-Texans concede privately that they have migrated out -- not because they don't believe in Bush, but because the clannish Texans insist on micromanaging in ways that become stifling.
Texas personalities, once obscure, have become national figures. Texas policy fixes are now touted as the cures for national "crises." And even after four momentous years in Washington, Bush thinks his Midland-to-Austin ideas about governing work just fine. The inside-the-Beltway crowd may doubt that Republicans can saddle the mascot of Democratic orthodoxy -- Social Security -- with personal investment accounts, but to Bush, that's the hand-wringing defeatism of status quo Washington talking. Simplify the tax code in some dramatic way after enacting $2 trillion in tax cuts? Totally doable. Champion a national guest-worker program for immigrants because it makes sense for border-state Texas, even if some Republicans howl? Yep. Crack down on big-payout class-action and medical-malpractice litigation, because business interests in Texas call it a menace? Bush has made it his frequent battle cry.
"Texans are, by their nature, tough, loyal, and think really big. No small ball. Always going for the fences," McKinnon said. "The best way to get a Texan to do something is tell 'em they can't."
Bush set the tone for his leadership in his first inaugural address as governor: "What Texans can dream, Texans can do."
It was gospel in Austin. It produced legislative triumphs in Washington after 2000, and it helped the GOP gain congressional dominance. Is it good enough for an even more challenging second term as president of the United States?
Many presidents have brought their pet issues and faithful aides-de-camp with them to Washington. Jimmy Carter had his "Georgia Mafia," Ronald Reagan his California-toned "Kitchen Cabinet." But what Reagan -- and after him, Bill Clinton and his Little Rock team -- learned is that some of the homeboys (and girls) simply weren't up to the caliber of play in the big leagues; so they had to be reassigned, or let go.
Bush is going the other way -- promoting his home-state brothers and sisters ever higher, and keeping them close.
They include Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget Clay Johnson, a former Bush classmate at Yale who helped Bush staff the administration (with fellow Texans) during the first term and then turned the personnel job over to another Texan, Dina Powell; Education Secretary-designate Margaret Spellings, who coordinated Bush's education reforms from the Austin Statehouse as well as the White House -- and who expects to succeed Secretary Roderick Paige, who once ran the Houston school system; Karl Rove, who helped Bush and the GOP amend Texas politics in their favor and believes he is in the process of doing the same nationally; Dan Bartlett, who worked first for Rove and then for Bush while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Texas and is now Karen Hughes's successor, with the lofty title of "counselor" to the president; Harriet Miers, a Dallas lawyer of the steel-magnolia variety who did legal work for Bush and recommended that he take a good look at another Texas lawyer, Alberto Gonzales.
Under Bush's magic wand, Gonzales, the son of uneducated Mexican parents who became a hard-working Harvard Law School success story, ascended to the Texas Supreme Court bench and rode the wave to the White House counsel's office. Bush wants his friend Gonzales to replace the conservative lightning rod John Ashcroft as attorney general, and the new duo share a personal bond between White House and Justice Department not seen since President Kennedy made his brother Bobby the nation's top law enforcement officer.
There is a discernible pattern in Bush's reliance on home-grown advisers: They eagerly loaned him their expertise in Texas when he needed it; they dug in on some assignment -- often involving sensitive personal information -- that tested their level of competence and discretion, and in return, Bush rewarded them with loyalty.
For example, when Bartlett was still in his 20s, he was tasked with tracking down Bush's personnel records from his time in the Texas Air National Guard, to eyeball them for any controversy. Gonzales, as Gov. Bush's in-house attorney, filed a last-minute legal challenge so the governor wouldn't have to serve on a jury -- after Bush had boasted that he'd do so -- and thus wouldn't have to disclose his then-hidden drunk-driving conviction. Hughes kept that secret, too, at Bush's urging, until the evidence leaked a few days before the 2000 election. Hughes was so essential to the public Bush precisely because she was so attuned to the private Bush: She hurriedly rescued Bush's campaign-season autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," when the candidate frowned on the work of the book's first ghostwriter. Miers's early accomplishment wasn't so sensitive, but it mattered to Bush -- she deftly managed a title challenge to a fishing cabin he owned in East Texas.
Miers first came to Bush's attention as the president of the State Bar of Texas in 1992 and 1993, and he appointed her to run the troubled Texas Lottery Commission. She performed well enough that her boss introduced her publicly the following year as "a pit bull in size 6 shoes." Since that time, the president made Miers his White House staff secretary -- a sensitive position for a lover of procedure and detail -- then later, his deputy chief of staff for policy, a job for which she was less well suited. Now, she is Bush's choice to follow Gonzales as the president's White House counsel.
True Texans Can Be Made
All of this begs the question of what it means to be a Texan. Just what, for instance, did Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, mean when he introduced Gonzales at last week's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings as, "a dutiful public servant, and a good man ... a great Texan"?
Is George W. Bush a "great Texan"? Is he a Texan at all?
The president was born in white-shoe Connecticut, a fact that he and Texas choose to overlook. By the time he said his thank-you's to the voters last November, his hand-tooled Western boots were peeking out of his French-tailored suit.
"Let me close with a word to the people of the state of Texas," Bush said that day. "We have known each other the longest, and you started me on this journey. On the open plains of Texas, I first learned the character of our country: sturdy and honest, and as hopeful as the break of day. I will always be grateful to the good people of my state. And whatever the road that lies ahead, that road will take me home."
In the 1980s, a popular bumper sticker in Texas read, "I'm not from Texas, but I got here as fast as I could." This describes Bush, who arrived in West Texas when he was 2 years old and moved to Midland as soon as he finished his education. That travel itinerary was good enough for most Texans -- especially when he up and married a Texan, a local schoolteacher and librarian, Laura Welch.
"There has always been a broad and tolerant view of who constitutes a Texan," says Rice University historian Gilbert Cuthbertson. "You have Texans by birth, by tradition, by adoption -- even those who've been declared honorary Texans from as far away as California, like John Wayne."
Dick Cheney, who moved to Dallas to run Halliburton, was well on his way to becoming an honorary Texan when Bush tapped him as his vice presidential running mate. When Cheney finessed a potential constitutional glitch by switching his voting registration to Wyoming for the 2000 race, Texas Democrats marched into court to unsuccessfully claim Cheney as a bona fide Texan, regardless of where he was born or raised.
In 1845, Massachusetts author Edward Everett Hale -- later the Senate chaplain -- wrote a manifesto called "How to Conquer Texas Before Texas Conquers Us." It was a call, mostly, for Northern emigration to the land he termed "an unprincipled population of adventurers." The southward march took another hundred years, but in the years after World War II, the migration that has ballooned the population in Texas to 22.5 million people has not entirely worked the way Hale envisioned. Texas writer Lee Cullum has noted that Texans' underlying character has proved resistant to alteration. If anything, it's the newcomers who are changed.
Jack Valenti, a fierce Texan and a former aide to President Johnson, explained the state in the Union this way: "In the third grade, you learn Texas history. You don't learn American history until the fifth grade."
It is a place that applauds serial self-invention. "Being a Texan is more than just individuality, more than a can-do attitude," said Bill Schute, the (Kansas-born) past president of the Texas State Society, the largest outfit of its kind in Washington. "In Texas, you can make -- and remake -- yourself as many times as possible."
Perhaps this is one reason that even the president's Texas critics concede that Bush is one of them. "That [Bush] was an authentic cultural Texan, there could be no doubt," wrote Michael Lind, author of "Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics." "George W. Bush grew up in West Texas and absorbed the folk culture of Texas along with the worldview of the native white Protestant Texan elite."
Texas is both a Southern state and a Western one. Bush blended the West Texas sensibilities of Big Oil (as distinct, say, from Johnson's roots in the hardscrabble hill country) with the faith-and-family traditions of the South. It has proved to be a potent political identity, and one his father -- a man who actually added to the family fortune in the Texas oil business -- could never quite pull off.
Molly Ivins, journalist and grande dame defender of Texas liberalism, put it more succinctly. She lampooned Bush's father as an inauthentic Texan on the grounds that "real Texans do not use the word 'summer' as a verb ... and do not wear blue slacks with little green whales all over them." But asked if the son was a genuine Texan, Ivins sighed, and responded, "Yes -- dammit!"
McClellan, also a Texas native, grants the same dispensation to some of Bush's non-Texas-born aides -- specifically one Karl Christian Rove (born in Denver; famed in Austin): "Is Rove a Texan? Absolutely!"
The Well-Educated Mind
Years before Bush entered Texas politics, longtime Lt. Gov. William Hobby made a crusade of telling Texans that their true resource wasn't the state's cattle ranches or oil fields, it was its people. One of Hobby's proteges, Gov. Mark White, put it this way: "The rest of the world is sweeping past us. The oil and gas of the Texas future is the well-educated mind. But we are still worried about whether Midland can beat Odessa at football."
As governor, Bush criticized social promotions (while still rooting for Midland High to beat Odessa). But the more significant philosophical fault line over educating Texas's children pitted the tradition of fierce local autonomy versus the state's aspirations of greatness, a goal that necessitated stronger central control over school curriculum, spending, standards, and testing. By the time Bush joined the fray, Texas pride was trumping Texas individualism.
"Bush saw all that -- and embraced it," recalled Sandy Kress, a Democratic member of the Dallas school board. "He took these reforms that were current and added his own entrepreneurial emphasis to them."
What emerged was the predecessor of the No Child Left Behind Act. Nationally, this approach has met resistance from the largest teachers' union, so it's easy to forget how far it strays from archetypal Republican doctrine. "At the state level, it was consolidating power, and at the federal level, it's consolidating power," says Democrat Andrew Rotherham, who worked on education in the Clinton administration. "That's not really a conservative idea. It's a very liberal idea."
Bush's flair for hybridization is part of his appeal to even the most dyed-in-the-wool populist Democrats, some of whom see the amiable Texan as a free-market heir to Lyndon Johnson, not as a GOP nemesis wielding his "ownership society" policies in order to dismantle the Democrats' "Great Society" achievements of the 1960s.
"He's certainly isn't going to repeal any civil-rights bills," Valenti told National Journal. "He certainly is not going to repeal Medicare; he's certainly not going to repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and he's certainly not going to try to get rid of the National [Endowments for] the Arts and the Humanities, and public broadcasting -- which are all coming out of the Johnson administration."
Johnson, too, embraced personal opportunity -- aggressively accompanied by the government's protection, particularly for minorities, the old, and the sick. "I don't know, inside Bush's soul, that he believes differently," Valenti said, adding that he feels "quite affectionate" toward Bush. "But I think he places more emphasis on the marketplace than he does on any substantive intrusion into people's lives."
Rotherham believes that Bush's reforms in elementary school education have helped children in Texas, particularly minority students, and that they gave Bush the confidence to take his plan nationwide. But, significantly, outcomes are not yet known for the high school phase of Bush's education efforts, which passed in his last legislative session as governor.
"Bush ... has not talked with any specificity about how he plans to apply No Child Left Behind to high schools," said Drew Scheberle of the Texas Business and Education Coalition. "Is that a limitation -- if it didn't happen in Texas, we don't know what to do? It could be. We'll see."
A Good Student
Bush may be on surer ground when he promotes a Texas-tested agenda. Education standards, lower taxes, and tort reform are examples of how his grassroots familiarity with the problems he wants to fix makes him especially passionate and persuasive. But Bush had no Texas dress rehearsal for his pledge to cure Social Security's long-term solvency problems. What he does have is the practiced legislative strategy that might produce a law that he can hail as a bold victory.
"He is a good student of how to get the job done," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's first White House press secretary who worked on tax and budget issues in both the House and Senate. "He reads the Congress and asks, 'What does it take to be successful?' "
Fleischer -- who lived in Austin in 1999 and 2000 when he was a spokesman for Bush's first presidential bid -- said those same instincts will be visible as the president calibrates his strategy for enacting legislation in his second term. "I think he'll be flexible on both Social Security and tax reform," Fleischer predicted. "What I saw was very pragmatic. It will be bipartisan if he thinks Democrats will work with him."
What Bush knew about legislating, he brought with him from Texas, a state that prefers its governor to be less powerful than its Legislature. He had to rely on Democrats, particularly Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, to help him accomplish his goals. He made some effort to woo Democrats in Washington when he forged a fleeting alliance in 2001 with Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to enact his education bill, and he found a few Democrats willing to vote for his tax cuts. But even with the GOP in control of the White House and Congress, Bush simply cannot enact many of his big-ticket priorities without help from across the aisle. So, either he becomes more persuasive and politically relevant in his second term (challenging historical expectations, not to mention critics), or he adjusts his ambitions.
"He will play his usual hand until it stops working," predicted Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas (Austin). "You can see that in how inflexible he sounded" immediately after his re-election victory. "He's going to start that way, and when it's clear that's the road to ruin, he'll be compromising and declaring victory."
To vault the hurdles erected by both parties when it comes to Social Security, Bush may have to give. He has said he wants younger workers to be able to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes to personal accounts invested in stocks and bonds. And he says he will not raise taxes. But it is easy to imagine how Bush could marry the grand rhetoric of reform with more-modest and politically palatable adjustments to Social Security in order to proclaim himself the rescuer of the 70-year-old program that currently benefits more than 43 million elderly and disabled people.
That's how Bush played the game when he set out to add expensive prescription drug coverage to Medicare (and co-opt a Democratic idea). The GOP initially insisted on curbing Medicare costs by compelling beneficiaries to shift into HMOs in order to get the drug benefit. Bush reconsidered his party's approach, and to corral enough GOP votes at the end, he relied on arm-twisting by House Majority Leader, and fellow Texan, Tom DeLay.
The president and DeLay enjoy a mutually beneficial working relationship, but they are not personally close. (Bush associates say that the president prefers to spend his off-hours with longtime friends, rather than schmoozing with lawmakers under the guise of socializing. Bush thinks of members of Congress as business associates.) "They have different styles," spokesman McClellan explained, tiptoeing to avoid even a hint of a critique, since DeLay's pressure to favor Republicans in the state's redistricting plan may have placed some of the congressman's associates in legal jeopardy back home.
"Tom DeLay comes from a much more hard-nosed, partisan political environment in the House," Fleischer added from the safety of ex-aide status in Pound Ridge, N.Y. "George Bush comes from the Lt.-Gov.-Bullock-bipartisan-work-together-Texas-Legislature model. They are from totally different schools, and I think the president understands that Congress in Washington is a far cry from the Legislature in Austin, and if Congress didn't have a Tom DeLay, it would need to invent one."
Indeed. DeLay's redistricting efforts were directly responsible for the election of Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland last fall. Texas now has the largest state delegation of Republicans in Congress, which gives it some extra clout, and Conaway, a certified public accountant, nabbed seats on the Agriculture, Armed Services, and Budget committees.
Not bad for a rookie -- albeit a rookie who was a Bush partner in Arbusto Energy, the short-lived oil company that the president started as a young man.
In an interview, Conaway said he is grateful to DeLay and believes the president is, too. "When the delegation met recently, the majority leader talked about how he had been in conversations that day with the president, and the conversations seemed to be very cordial, so they are obviously working together," Conaway said. "I think he's a great guy."
A Charge to Keep
Whatever happens with Social Security, taxes, DeLay, or the rest of Congress, Bush and those around him realize that the success of their Texas-centric administration depends -- as did the legacy of the last true Texan to serve as president -- on the outcome of a far-off war.
It is a stretch to pin the decision to invade Iraq on Bush's Texas attitudes or his Texas aides, but the president has framed the war as a struggle between good and evil -- a worldview he developed while growing up Texan.
"You know how it works, Jake. You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. I'm sorry you crossed the line."
So says Larry McMurtry's ex-Texas Ranger, Augustus McCrae. Lonesome Dove is fiction, but the hard-line Texas attitude toward criminal justice is real, persistent, and was personified in Austin by Gov. Bush.
"Part of the entire Texas culture is tied to the concept of swift justice -- and the criminal-justice system is quite central to the Texas mystique," said George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley. "Judge Roy Bean, the Texas Rangers, posses -- Texans view all this very favorably, but outside the state, it's often referred to, quite pejoratively, as 'cowboy justice.' "
Turley says it can be jarring for an East Coast lawyer to try a case in Texas because of the importance the system attaches to speed, the almost palpable impatience with the constitutional rights of defendants, and the reflexive bent toward prosecution without much consideration of mitigating circumstances. "Those kinds of views are now stated in Washington with a strong Texas accent," Turley said. "The 'War on Terror' is basically the Texas approach to homeland security."
Turley's perception may be colored by the recent conviction in Texas of one of his clients, Dr. Thomas Butler, a Texas Tech professor convicted of mishandling bubonic plague samples, but he is not alone. When a federal judge in Lubbock sentenced Butler to two years in prison, the worldwide scientific community denounced the harsh punishment.
On the international stage, these kinds of questions began before Bush assumed the presidency, because of Texas's dubious distinction of leading the Western world in death sentences. In Bush's six years as governor, he presided over more executions, 152, than any other modern American governor.
"That's a Texas thing," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, "not a Bush thing or a governor thing." Dieter says that many capital cases were already in the pipeline before Bush arrived -- Gov. Ann Richards allowed 49 executions in four years -- and that the pace has continued under Bush's successor, Gov. Rick Perry. But Bush certainly brought Texas sensibilities on this issue with him to Washington, appointing as attorney general John Ashcroft, whose record in Missouri and Washington was even more vigorously supportive of capital punishment than Bush's.
"George W. Bush comes from a place that has this philosophy that you feel compassionate for those less fortunate, but once you've crossed the line into evil, not much can be done for you," Dieter said. "The Texas mind-set is one of right and wrong, and what should happen once somebody crosses that line: You put compassion aside and the toughness comes out."
In the days after 9/11, Americans were all-too-pleased when Sheriff Bush stood tall and sent his posse -- the CIA and the U.S. Air Force -- to roust the Taliban. The public supported his "with us or against us" ultimatum to other nations. But when Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," elites (and his own wife) wondered if this was the proper rhetorical tone.
Eventually, the images of the smoking Pentagon and the collapsing World Trade Towers gave way to those of blindfolded detainees at Guantanamo, naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and smoldering corpses in Falluja -- and Americans tempered their tolerance for quick frontier justice.
"I wish that the White House had studied the Vietnam War a lot more than they did" before entering Iraq, mused former LBJ aide Valenti. "Because we made a lot of mistakes, and it's not good for the people to make the same mistakes twice."
There are differences between Iraq and Vietnam, and between Johnson and Bush, but the two presidents' stated rationales for sending American troops into wars halfway around the world sound remarkably similar. Both Texans asserted that a great principle was at stake: the right of men and women to be free. Both also said it was imperative to draw a line that tyrants dare not cross. Both insisted this was America's duty -- hard as it was -- and that Americans would rise to the challenge. Both felt obligated to journey to the Vatican and attempt to reassure a troubled pope. Both confidently predicted victory as others saw quagmires.
"We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny," LBJ said at Johns Hopkins University in 1965. "And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure."
Bush echoed his predecessor this week.
"I believe [that] deep in everybody's soul is the deep desire to live in a free society," he told The Wall Street Journal. "I know that free societies are peaceful societies. And I believe a country that has got influence, like the United States, has an obligation to lead."
That is the culture that Bush brought with him from Texas, and he keeps several paintings in the Oval Office as reminders. One is of the Alamo; another is a West Texas tableau by El Paso artist Tom Lee. The third, the one Bush discusses most evocatively, is based on a John Wesley hymn, "A Charge to Keep, I Have."
"It's a horseman charging up what appears to be a very difficult trail," Bush told senior members of the executive agencies a year ago at a Constitution Hall session that was closed to the press. "You know that at least two horsemen are coming with him. There may be three or four, or a thousand -- you just don't know. But you know it's a tough hill to climb."
Those Texas touchstones, Bush said, keep him mindful of who he is, where he came from, and where he's going.
"The Texas paintings are important," he said. "Let me put it to you this way: When you're the president ...you don't have time to figure out who you are. So you'd better know who you are when you get to the Oval Office....You need to have the right values and instincts. I came from Texas, and I'm going back to Texas."