George W. Bush - Learning about national politics

When George H. W. Bush announced his candidacy for president in the 1988 campaign, George W. set aside his oil business and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for his father. It was his first real taste of national politics, and he both enjoyed and demonstrated a talent for it. He also learned from a master strategist, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, how to woo baby boomers and how to undercut opponents. Yet one paradox stands out: Bush managed to be immersed back then in national politics while remaining largely oblivious to its substance, the policy issues. Some people get into politics because they feel passionately about certain issues; Bush joined the 1988 campaign because he felt passionately about his father. He did not push any particular agenda, and no one seems to recall instances when he of his own volition pressed for one policy or another. Likewise, as revealed by the correspondence between father and son during the elder Bush's presidency, George W. often asked his father to send autographs to Texas friends, and occasionally to consider particular people for federal jobs—but in virtually none of the letters does he suggest that his father take a particular position on an issue.

"He'd come in to a meeting with a cup"—his spittoon—"and stick out his hand with a big smile and say, 'Hi, I'm George Bush, and thanks for what you're doing for my dad,"' Richard Bond told The New York Times. Bond was then the national political director for the campaign. Bush won over doubters on the campaign in part by poking fun at his own role, sometimes calling himself "Maureen," because Maureen Reagan was then notorious in her father's White House for forever telling staff members what to do. He also sometimes mocked those he regarded as the more pretentious associates of his father, like Nicholas Brady, the future Treasury secretary. Bush was also deployed in the field to make speeches and press the flesh, and he impressed campaign officials with his willingness to slog through Iowa and Michigan snow to meet with groups of voters.

Bush gave the impression that he did not much like Washington, D.C. The 1988 election ended in victory for the Bushes, of course, but George almost immediately moved back to Texas. Still, he visited the White House periodically and became a troubleshooter. "He had a good sense of what wasn't going right," Alan Simpson, a longtime family friend who was then a senator from Wyoming, told The New York Times, "and when things weren't going right, George would suddenly be on the front porch." In particular, Bush became disenchanted with the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, and played a role in firing him.

With his father ensconced in the White House, a new opportunity came to George: running a baseball club. An old family friend, Eddie Chiles, was preparing to sell the Texas Rangers and wanted to sell to Bush—if the latter could raise the money. Bush helped put together an investor group, including an old friend from Yale, Roland Betts, and became the general partner responsible for managing the investment. As a baseball owner, Bush proved himself an outstanding manager, still remembered fondly by the players who batted for him, the fans he courted, and even by the executives he fired. Bush helped turn the Rangers into a greatly improved team, and he presided over the complex arrangements for a new ballpark, one of the finest in major-league baseball. He became a multimillionaire in the process, setting himself up financially for his run for the presidency. In one blow, he acquired not only wealth but also the resume he would need to triumph in politics.

Yet the investment was immensely profitable in part because he and his co-owners were shrewd bargainers who charmed and bullied the city of Arlington into giving them a great deal, with the local taxpayers picking up most of the cost—including more than $135 million to help build the Rangers a stadium. Bush and his fellow owners even got the local government to seize the property of landowners for a new stadium and, in effect, hand it over to the Texas Rangers so that they could make a profit on it. In such business dealings Bush displayed both savvy and vision, but critics complain that his actions at the time are hard to reconcile with his later speeches about limited government and private property rights.

Bush's path to becoming a baseball owner was remarkable, because initially he did not put up a cent of his own money. Instead, he borrowed $500,000 from United Bank of Midland, a Texas bank of which he had previously been a director, and used those funds to buy a stake in the Rangers. Bush eventually raised his investment in two stages to an eventual total of $606,000, or 1.8 percent of the team. In 1988 he and his fellow owners sold the Rangers for $250 million. It was a good deal for all the principals, but Bush did particularly well: his cut was $14.9 million.

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