He's Coming Back

What Happens When George W. Bush Comes Home a Loser?

He's Coming Back
Photo By Jana Birchum

Gore Vidal doesn't think much of the Bushes, which is no surprise. And according to Vidal, neither did Richard Nixon, who once observed that Bush the Elder was the "sort of person you appoint to office" rather than the sort of person you could envision in the White House. But Nixon admired Barbara Bush -- because "she knows how to hate."

In the lobby of the Canal Street Hotel where the Texas delegation was housed for the 1988 Republican National Convention, 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-Gov. 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." Gov. Bush talks like his father, who was as prone to malapropisms and non sequiturs, but he thinks like his mother -- which is a way of saying that he believes grudges should be transgenerational and involve corruption of blood and children avenging the wrongs visited on their parents.

In 1988 in New Orleans, Bush wanted to get even. And that was just for a slight aimed at his father but felt most keenly by his mother. What if he 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 -- Big Time. 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 talked about the role of political consultants in the electoral process. He referred to Mark McKinnon, who had made the switch from Ann Richards to George Bush without blushing. Broder lamented for the day when loyalty to party, candidate, and ideology meant something. He spoke with real insight on the role of politician consultants in today's elections. But in his biographical sketch of McKinnon, Broder got one minor detail wrong. 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.

McKinnon had graduated from high school in nearby Denver, so 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. To engage the crowd, I related what had happened at the previous panel, introduced a gracious Mrs. McKinnon, and said that I was going to speak about Rove. "Before I start," I said, "I would like to know if Karl Rove's sister or wife is in the audience." It wasn't rip-roaringly funny, but it was at least amusing, and when the scattered laughter ended, I talked about Rove.

A week later, in my office in Austin, I received a one-sentence handwritten note.


Not a sister or a wife, but my aunt, armed with a tape recorder.

It was from Rove.

"Isn't that funny," I thought. "Or is it?" I reconsidered. 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.

My point: 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, Naishtat was probably already "sleeping with the fishes" at the end of the last legislative session, when Bush legislative aide Terral Smith reportedly was lobbying Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka to include Naishtat on the Monthly's "Ten Worst" list. Smith desperately wanted Naishtat to help pass a package of draconian welfare reform provisions. According to Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin, 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 hearing 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, while 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 this really was Texas. 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, 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.

Who else?

When the election returns come in and Bush is making his concession speech, Maxey will be filing a pro se appeal for clemency with the Board of Pardons and Paroles. And he'll get the same 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 he is Bush's state rep.

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 off the 500,000 number. 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 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.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, also gets close scrutiny next session. Bush 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.

While it reads like a 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, D-Galena Park, 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, D-Houston, 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 Gov. Bush, could be in trouble. "I'm supporting a true conservative," Pauken said. 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 has his law practice and his integrity intact, and 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 "voluntary compliance" bill, which allows grandfathered polluters to decide how they will clean up one-third of the state's toxic air emissions. But Chisum is a stand-up guy. He has said in public (in these pages) 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 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 reportedly will soon receive 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 Chronicle's Robert Bryce broke the story of Bush's dirty dealing with the Texas Rangers, which was recently a Page One New York Times story and this week appears 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 tempranillo.

Watch out. This is going to get ugly. end story

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