In one sentence, Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose capture the spirit of George “Dubya” Bush—the man and the politician. About two-thirds of the way through Shrub, they note that Bush lacks a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.”
This is not a casual observation. Together, Ivins and Dubose have decades of experience covering the Bush family, and an intimate knowledge of George W.’s policies as governor. A syndicated columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Ivins earned her reputation as being among the best of the nation’s journalists by applying a wicked populist sense of humor to the bizarre doings of Lone Star politicians. In Shrub, Texas Observer editor Lou Dubose contributes a depth of research material, the result being perhaps the finest piece of campaign writing since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972.
There is much more to Dubya, it turns out, than a history of “youthful indiscretions” and subsequent conversion to the straight-and-narrow path of public service. Born and raised wealthy, Bush is a class warrior perhaps without even realizing it. But time and again, Bush’s conscious policy decisions have devastated the regular people of Texas in favor of making money for his buddies in the upper class.
On the campaign trail, Bush has styled himself as the Education Governor, tough on crime, a compassionate welfare reformer with solid Hispanic credentials, and a man who has done surprisingly well on environmental issues for a Texas Republican. Ivins and Dubose’s investigation brings to mind something a Libby man recently told me (though he was talking about Gov. Marc Racicot): “Better stay in your seat or he’ll blow sunshine up your you-know-what.”
As he was preparing to announce his candidacy for the White House, for instance, Bush needed a tax reform package to woo national conservatives. So in 1999, the “education governor” attempted “to pull $250 million out of kindergarten funding to cover the tax breaks for business.” This, the authors note, “in a state that is yet to fund kindergarten in all of its public schools.”
Bush campaigned on private property rights, and during his first legislative session signed into law a “takings” bill, a stricter version of the provision in the U.S. Constitution which requires the government to pay property owners when it takes private land for public purposes. So much stricter, in fact, that the new law made it near impossible for local governments to deal with sprawl, water pollution or dwindling wildlife habitat. But when he was at the other end of the deal, as a managing partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bush saw things a little differently. At that time, the Rangers got a bill passed giving it power of eminent domain, which the team’s management used to condemn 13 suburban acres for a new stadium, paying the owners a fraction of the land’s actual worth.
Ivins has always been a master at finding the connection between big picture politics and the real people who are hurt, or who profit from that pain. In Shrub, she and Dubose write along that fine line from beginning to end, with a series of heart-wrenching stories that reveal Bush to be, at best, a thoughtless, selfish, and cold man. When supporters of a hate-crimes initiative made arrangements for Bush to speak with the daughter of James Byrd, Jr., the black man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, the governor reluctantly agreed to the meeting, then made the woman cry. “He was cold, icy to her,” reported one observer.
Bush promotes his toughness with criminals, and indeed he has allowed 100 people to be executed by the state during his tenure at the governor’s mansion. This figure includes a number of mentally retarded people: “One retardate thought he had been sentenced to death because he didn’t know how to read and kept trying desperately to learn while he was in prison. Another kept asking his legal-aid lawyer what he should wear to his funeral, under the impression that he would be there for it.” Bush’s was not a passive role in these deaths: The Texas Senate passed a bill which would have banned capital punishment for retarded people. Bush let out that he would veto the measure, saying, “I like the law the way it is right now.” It died in the House.
Time and again, Bush puts his personal considerations above those he was elected to serve. On welfare reform: “In straightforward, nonbureaucratic English, because he is running for president, George Bush attempted to (1) bar 2000,000 children from a low-cost federal-state health-insurance program, and (2) discourage poor children from receiving free health care to which they are entitled under the law.”
Bush is a likable man, Ivins and Dubose readily admit. But as Clinton proved, not every friendly guy belongs in the White House. Read on.