Could George W Bush make it as President?

George W Bush loves talking baseball, taking long lunches, surfing the net and jogging. He hates meetings, State occasions, reading documents and working later than 5pm. Hell, he's not even that interested in politics. Could he really become the next president of the United States?
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The Independent US

If George W Bush became the next president of the United States, a typical day at the White House might look something like this. The chief executive wouldn't get up too early, and certainly would not schedule any appointments before nine o'clock. At 11.40am, he would take two hours of "private time", mainly to go jogging. Back at about 1.30pm, he would not normally arrange any meetings until 3pm; if there was not much to distract him, he would use this time to play video golf or surf the internet.

If George W Bush became the next president of the United States, a typical day at the White House might look something like this. The chief executive wouldn't get up too early, and certainly would not schedule any appointments before nine o'clock. At 11.40am, he would take two hours of "private time", mainly to go jogging. Back at about 1.30pm, he would not normally arrange any meetings until 3pm; if there was not much to distract him, he would use this time to play video golf or surf the internet.

His meetings would be brief, focussing more on chit-chat (especially baseball talk) than the issues at hand, which he would delegate to his senior aides. He would resist meetings with all his might ("They bore me", he has been known to admit). He would be unlikely to pay close attention to briefing papers, preferring to ask his closest advisors a couple of questions before making a snap decision - even on issues of life and death.

At 5pm, he'd be out of his office except in the direst of circumstances. Official receptions and state dinners wouldn't enthuse him much; he'd rather invite some of his non-political friends from Texas to share a meal with him and his wife, Laura. And even they would be kicked out no later than 9pm; anyone who dawdled would simply be told: "OK, you're outta here."

Granted, given the pressures of the most powerful political post on the planet, George W might not be able to keep his schedule quite this relaxed. But it is an accurate portrayal, garnered from his own official schedules and the convergent observations of both friends and detractors, of how he has occupied his time as governor of Texas.

What is most striking about his attitude to public office is not that Bush is lazy (although that is an accusation regularly flung at him), nor that he neglects or skimps on his workload (about which there are few, if any, complaints). Rather, it is that the man who would be leader of the free world does not appear to be remotely interested in politics. He doesn't talk about it if he doesn't have to. He displays no real enthusiasm for the issues and appears to have few strong opinions. Until he entered the Texas governor's office a mere six years ago, the idea of his running for president would have probably struck any right-minded person, Bush included, as absurd.

"He is the most disengaged elected official I ever met," says Garry Mauro, who served under him as Texas land commissioner before making an ill-fated run for governor against Bush in 1998. "Most people pay a huge price to reach power, and what drives them is a passion for holding office and what you can achieve with it. Bush never had a passion for anything, except perhaps the Texas Rangers [his baseball team]. It's not that he's not interested in complex details. He's not interested in anything."

That may sound like sour grapes from a defeated opponent, but it does not vary wildly from the assessments of Bush's friends. Ask anybody with any influence in Austin, the Texas capital, what they think of him and the chances are that they'll tell you he's charming, accessible and easy-going. They might tell you that he likes to take care of his friends - notably the businessmen who bankrolled him through his early careers as a failed oilman and baseball franchise owner, and who have now received the benefit of his political largess. But nobody would accuse him of being overly curious about the world, much less having a vision of where it should all be going.

"He's a big-picture guy. He doesn't bog down in minutiae," says Bill Miller, a corporate lobbyist in Austin who has had his differences with the governor but now supports his presidential run wholeheartedly. "He won't lay out the details. He'll just say he wants the alphabet, and leave it to others to pick out the letters." The subtext of this remark is not hard to detect: if the governor isn't interested in the minutiae, that means everyone else can have a field day taking care of them for him. No wonder Texas lobbyists and politicians love him so. In the absence of a bold agenda from the top, they can pretty much make up their own rules as they go along.

Bush's amiability has served him well in Texas, a state with a small government, in spite of its size, and a constitutionally weak governor. It has enabled him to make friends with powerbrokers on both sides of the political fence and paper over the more gaping cracks of his inexperience. It has enabled him to curry favour with the pliable local media, think up amusing nicknames for his political acquaintances and generally treat the state government like a giant fraternity house. (His habit of grasping legislators in headlocks or bear hugs when they least expect it is legendary.)

How this approach would work in Washington is another matter. Shooting the breeze with Congressmen might be pleasant, but will it secure him his $1.3 trillion tax cut? Letting advisers make decisions is all well and good, but what happens if they disagree among themselves? What happens if the Middle East is falling apart? Or the stock market is crashing? Republicans might answer that they managed just fine when the same objections were raised about Ronald Reagan. This is, after all, a party well used to putting an élite team around its front man, letting him fluff his lines and make outrageous howlers while the real work goes on in the background.

But Reagan at least had a driving ideology, a conviction about where he was going, however frightening that sometimes seemed to the rest of the world. He had also wielded real power as a two-term governor who had turned the establishment in California upside-down. Bush, by contrast, has barely nibbled at the edges of power, and is effectively starting from scratch. "His natural appetite for policy at the federal level is nil, so it's obviously going to be a steeper learning curve in his case," remarked Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas. "One can hope that his temperament would rise to the moment, but he's underprepared - there's no two ways about it."

Candidate Bush has certainly been doing his homework, memorising large chunks of his team's policy platform for the campaign trail and responding to intensive training in preparation for the three presidential debates against Vice-President Al Gore earlier this month. Pundits gave him credit in those encounters for "holding his own" - notably in foreign policy, where he is arguably at his weakest. But to read the transcript of his remarks is to wonder seriously whether he had the first idea what he was talking about.

Here he is on the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, admittedly a tough nut for any rookie to crack: "It's also important to keep a strong ties in the Middle East with credible ties because of the energy crisis we're now in. After all, all the energy is produced from - the Middle East. And so I - I appreciate what the administration is doing. I - I hope to get a sense of, should I be fortunate enough to be the president, how my administration will react to the Middle East."

It doesn't help that Bush regularly makes car wrecks of the English language, as his own father and Reagan did before him. It doesn't help, either, that he has next to no experience of the world outside the United States. He has been abroad just three times in his life.

So what does America see in him? The Republicans put their money on Bush because of his name, which guaranteed instant recognition, and because in an ideologically riven party they thought he could be sold as a moderate, someone willing and able to work in the political centre - the ground where all elections are won these days.

If they were looking at his record in Texas, however, and thought he was some great cross-party leader, they were kidding themselves. It is certainly true that Bush has worked with Democrats as well as Republicans, but that's not difficult in a state where Republicans control the upper house and are just a few votes off domination of the lower house. Moreover, most Texas Democrats walk and talk an awful lot like Republicans - cheerleading for big business and the gun lobby, taking a string-'em-up approach to law and order, and ignoring social programmes and the poor.

If there has been bipartisanship, it has been neither hard nor easily avoidable. When Bush was first elected as governor of Texas, the powerful head of the state Senate was a tough-as-nails Democrat called Bob Bullock. Essentially, Bush had the choice of working with Bullock or being eaten alive. So he worked with him, developing such a strong dependency on his nominal rival that they became like father and son.

Much has been made during the presidential campaign of Bush's policy record, notably on the environment, children's health care and poverty near the Mexican border. All are indeed in diabolical shape. It has been one of the hallmarks of Bush's tenure that his failures have been significant while his successes - like his much-trumpeted tax cut of 1997 or his equally trumpeted rhetorical push to improve education - have been modest in the extreme.

To understand what he might be like as president, it might be more instructive to examine the powers that belong to the governor and the governor alone. One of those is approving judicial executions, something at which Bush has proved adept. An unprecedented 145 prisoners have been put to death on his watch, turning Texas into the leading judicial killing machine in the Western world, despite growing concerns about the safety of the state's capital convictions.

Another is the power to make state appointments, and here Bush has shown his proclivity for dancing, as the Texas phrase has it, with those what brung him. To the state environmental commission (whose acronym TNRCC is charmingly pronounced "Trainwreck"), he appointed an apologist for pesticides; a former Monsanto executive who argued before Congress that ozone was "benign"; and an evangelical Christian nicknamed "the skinny Hitler", who badgers his staff into praying with him. The industrial polluters are thrilled.

For his health commissioner, he picked another born-again Christian, Reyn Archer, who promptly withdrew funding for health clinics in state schools and instead hired several pricey consultants to advise on "love and alienation" in society. "Dr Love", as he became known, was recently accused of sexual and racial harassment by a former employee and has just resigned.

And so the list goes: lots of corporate apologists in economic posts (hence the epithet "corporate wet dream" for Bush), lots of opponents of abortion and gay rights in social positions. The governor's closest adviser and campaign strategist, Karl Rove, believes that Sixties liberals are responsible for perpetuating poverty and thinks that the answer to social problems is Christian charity rather than government programmes.

These are not compassionate, moderate people by any stretch. When it comes to elections, they are not to be underestimated, however. Back in 1994, Governor Ann Richards of Texas was riding high in the polls, enjoying a booming economy with lower crime rates and higher school scores. In a few short weeks, the Bush campaign made her look like a haughty, dangerous liberal - a line they have also adapted for Al Gore - and snatched the election out from under her.

You may think Bush a rich little daddy's boy, a frat-house drop-out trading off his name and connections, an accidental politician with no business being in politics. He is arguably the least distinguished presidential candidate in memory. The cold reality, however, is that in less than two weeks he could be catapulted into the highest political office in the world. We'd all better start getting used to the idea.