How George W. Bush went from prodigal to president

Ronald Brownstein is a Times political writer in Washington, D.C.

George W. Bush is an unlikely political colossus. Bush drifted without apparent success well into middle age; he didn't win his first elected office until he was 48, when he defeated Ann Richards for the Texas governorship in 1994. His victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election was as narrow as any in American history. The new president arrived in Washington two years ago with half the country unconvinced of his merits, and much of that half certain he had stolen the election with the help of his brother and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today that picture is almost unrecognizable. Bush's job approval ratings soared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and have remained high since. In last November's election, he defied the historical pattern of midterm losses for the president's party and led the Republicans to gains in both chambers of Congress. Bush begins the new year in a strong position to advance an agenda of war with Iraq and additional tax cuts at home, and as the early favorite to win reelection in 2004. Bush's Texas detractors used to call him "Shrub"; today, in Washington, he looks like an oak.

That story, with its Shakespearean progression from shallow youth to seasoned leader, undeniably captures some essential elements of Bush's political career. Yet it may be overstated on both ends. Bush was never as weak as he initially appeared. Richards was still popular when he beat her; Gore was running with the tailwind of peace and prosperity. But the reverse is also true: Bush is probably not as strong as he looks today.

His steady response to the terrorist attacks changed his relationship with the country, virtually ending debate about the legitimacy of his 2000 election and establishing his credentials as a strong leader for the vast majority of Americans. But the persistent weakness in the economy has steadily eroded his approval rating over the last year, and polls still show that many Americans are uncertain that he has the right answers for restoring economic growth or resolving other domestic problems such as the growing crisis in health care. Almost united in their praise of Bush's handling of terrorism, Americans remain divided about the rest of his agenda (including the prospect of war with Iraq) along many of the same cultural and geographic lines that defined Bush's nearly dead-heat contest with Gore.

Three new books attempt to explain Bush's rise and the broader changes in American politics that have carried him forward. In their own ways, the books follow the divisions in the electorate, presenting portraits that are alternately ambivalent, hostile and admiring. All present some valuable insights. But none succeeds entirely.

"Boy Genius," a biography of Bush political advisor Karl Rove by a team of three journalists, Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon, suffers from too many trees and not enough forest. The book does a serviceable job of tracing Rove's life and his role in the rise of both Bush and the Republican Party in Texas, but, especially in the early chapters, it often gets lost in the underbrush of Texas politics and loses its focus.

Rove is a potentially revealing window on Bush, whose career he has helped to guide from the outset. The authors get carried away when they breathlessly declare that "no political consultant has ever played the high-stakes game of electoral politics like Rove does." But there's no question Rove has shown boldness and tenacity in shaping the political strategy first for Bush and increasingly for the GOP in the last three years. No one could claim more credit for the message and tactics that produced the Republican gains last November.

Rove has kept a low public profile in the White House, so much of the story that the authors tell is likely to be fresh even to political junkies. Rove's father was a geologist who moved the family around the Mountain West. Though his family was apolitical, Rove took a precocious interest in Republican politics; while in high school in Utah he served as a youth coordinator for a Republican senator. Not long thereafter, he dropped out of the University of Utah to work for a Republican Senate candidate in Illinois. He really cut his teeth in the cutthroat world of College Republican politics during the early 1970s, when he was associated with Lee Atwater (later the chief strategist for Bush's father and a man to whom Rove is often compared).

From that exposure, Rove angled a job as special assistant to George H.W. Bush when the latter served as Republican National Committee chairman after Watergate and, in 1977, as the Houston-based director of the political action committee the elder Bush established for his 1980 presidential run. From that point on, Rove became the most important Republican operative in Texas. Over the next 20 years, he contributed to virtually every campaign that carried the Republicans to dominance over Democrats in the state. Along the way, he developed a reputation for both brilliance and ruthlessness; in one strange 1986 episode, Rove was accused of bugging his own office so he could blame the Democratic candidate for the offense. (No charges were ever filed, but the authors report that the FBI concluded that the firm hired by Rove to sweep his office had planted the bug.)

The authors offer plenty of such juicy details but never quite manage a three-dimensional portrait of Rove (or Bush). The Texas chapters of the book, written by Dubose and Reid, lack structure and precision; these sections often expend far too much energy on Texas political personalities peripheral to the main story while skimming over Bush's tenure as governor, much less Rove's role in shaping it. The pace and focus improve in the last section on the 2000 election and the Bush presidency. But even here, Rove remains opaque and distant. And Cannon's evident sympathy for Bush gives the book a somewhat schizophrenic quality after the gently condescending tone of the Reid and Dubose sections.

"Made in Texas," by political theorist Michael Lind, has the opposite problem of "Boy Genius": It's all forest and no trees. Once a conservative, Lind has become an eclectic left-leaning thinker. But here he surveys Bush from such a high altitude of theory, and with such an indiscriminate ferocity, that the actual man and his presidency are almost unrecognizable.

Like the authors of "Boy Genius," Lind has chosen a potentially revealing vantage point from which to assess Bush. In its subtitle, the book promises to explore "George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics." Over the last generation, the GOP has conquered the South and the South has conquered the GOP. While the South and border states provided only about 5% of Republican seats in the House and Senate in 1948, today the region accounts for about 40% of the GOP strength in Congress -- the largest bloc for Republicans in both chambers. For that matter, Bush owed his election to his sweep of the South; Gore carried 71% of the electoral votes outside the region.

Not that you would know any of this from reading Lind. He reduces the actual history of the Republican advance in the South to a few bland phrases. And while he convincingly argues that the agenda of Southern conservatism -- minimalist government, low taxes, strong national defense and social conservatism -- has become the agenda of the national GOP, that's hardly a new insight. Lind is smart and well-read. But his book lacks focus and is glaringly short on nuance. Bush, in his eyes, isn't just too conservative, he is an "aberrant president -- one of the worst in American history"; whites in the Waco countryside where Bush has sited his presidential ranch aren't just racially prejudiced or violent, they engage in a "sadism ... [that] has few parallels in the chronicles of human depravity." I'd hate to be around when Lind doesn't like a movie.

Lind seems much more enthusiastic about developing theoretical distinctions between different definitions of the bourgeoisie and in advancing his own agenda for resettling the Great Plains (don't ask) than in exploring Bush's actual record or thought. Reading this book is like watching a machine gun spraying bullets without any hands controlling it. Occasionally it perforates its target. Most of the time it just fires wildly.

David Frum, a conservative journalist and author who served as a speechwriter for Bush (his claim to fame was coining the phrase "the axis of evil") has, somewhat surprisingly, produced the most fully rounded of the three new books on the president. Surprising because Frum's work falls into an unusual genre: a polemical kiss-and-tell. His book, "The Right Man," has a split personality. It typically whitewashes criticism from outside the administration (except occasionally from conservatives). But it offers an acute analysis of what goes on inside the administration.

The book is especially arresting because the press and the public know so little about how decisions are made in this White House. Before Frum, the best peek behind the veil was the memo that John J. DiIulio Jr., a neoconservative academic who directed Bush's faith-based initiative during the administration's first months, wrote about his experiences last fall to journalist Ron Suskind. In the memo (later posted on the Esquire magazine Web site), DiIulio portrayed the White House staff as a group of pleasant but insular and secretive people without any particular interest or expertise in domestic policy. The result, DiIulio concluded, was that Rove dominated what domestic initiatives the administration produced.

Frum reaches much the same conclusion (though he's more enthusiastic than DiIulio about Rove's influence). Frum describes a White House culture shaped more by religious faith (literally the first words he hears at the White House are "missed you at Bible study") than intellectual friction. To Frum, a rare Jew in the inner circle, that religious faith isn't intolerant or hectoring, but it is somewhat neutering. In his telling, the White House seems pleasant and punctual, but lacking in curiosity, imagination and sheer candlepower. Apart from Mike Gerson, Bush's eloquent chief speechwriter, Frum barely mentions any of the domestic or economic policy advisors; other than Donald H. Rumsfeld and Colin L. Powell, the Cabinet secretaries might as well have been operating on different planets for all the effect they appear to have had on Bush.

In this vacuum, decision-making on domestic issues is driven by the conflict between Rove and Karen Hughes, the former Texas newswoman who had served as Bush's communications director since his days as governor. (Hughes left the White House last summer.) In Frum's version, Rove isn't a political hack; he's the intellectual with ideas and a sense of history. Hughes, on the other hand, is the calculating operative trying to boil everything into mush. "Rove was a risk taker and an intellectual," Frum writes. "Hughes loathed risk and abhorred ideas. Rove was a reader and a questioner -- a curious man, always eager to learn. Hughes rarely read books and distrusted people who did -- anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing."

All this fits into the broader way Frum views the world. Like Bush, he divides it into friends and enemies without much gray in between. Karl is good; Karen bad. The Defense Department is good; the State Department a menace. And don't even get him started on Tom Daschle. (Hughes, Powell and Daschle seem to comprise Frum's own personal axis of evil inside Washington.)

That attitude makes Frum an unreliable tour guide for describing the Bush administration's interaction with the outside world. Except for some neo-conservative critiques of Bush's foreign policy (particularly his affinity for Saudi Arabia), Frum casually, and often misleadingly, dismisses virtually all criticism of Bush. Frum minimizes Bush's ties to Enron Corp., sees anti-Americanism (rather than concerns such as a fear of greater instability) behind all resistance to a possible war with Iraq and utterly ignores such downsides of Bush's first two years as the return of the federal budget deficit.

Frum returns to more solid ground in his descriptions of Bush himself. At times, Frum's adulation gets the best of him: When he compares Bush to John F. Kennedy, one wishes for an intervention from Lloyd Bentsen. But Frum hasn't totally surrendered his journalist's eye, and he's given us a look at Bush different from any we've ever seen. To Frum, Bush was the exception to the general culture of mildness in the White House: He was taut, demanding and sharp, "tart, not sweet," as Frum pointedly concludes. In the great White House fault line that separated Rove from Hughes, Frum places Bush much closer to Hughes' side. Bush, he notes, valued "steady, sensible, solid people and distrusted abstract thinkers." It's revealing that Frum finds Bush's relationship with Rove more strained and complex than his dealings with Hughes; the fact that one of Bush's nicknames for Rove is "turd blossom" suggests an edgy undercurrent of competition between the president and his advisor, an autodidact with a voracious appetite for American history.

In a remarkably candid summary of Bush's strengths and weaknesses, Frum describes the president as "impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill-informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be." (So much for the next White House Christmas party.) Frum may prefer very different results than would liberals who view Bush much the same way, but he sees those traits producing the same outcome: not much accomplishment on the domestic ledger. Frum predicts the tax cut Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 is likely to stand not only as "the greatest domestic achievement of Bush's presidency, but also the last."

That may be premature. But Frum is surely right that Bush has found a purpose and confidence in conducting the war against terrorism absent from his engagement with domestic issues. And he is right again that the effectiveness of Bush's response to Sept. 11 is rooted more in basic aspects of his personality than his ideology or experience. While Bush might be glib and uncurious, Frum also sees a list of offsetting virtues: "decency, honesty, rectitude, courage and tenacity." Those personal qualities, Frum argues, are much better suited to the demands of wartime than peacetime. That seems to me exactly right. The simplicity and resolve, the tendency to identify a single goal and then pursue it without compromise, that have served Bush so well in his hunt for Al Qaeda have often been counterproductive in trying to reach consensus on domestic issues at a time when the country is divided almost exactly in half in its allegiance to the two parties. In war, Bush has often appeared indomitable. On domestic debates, like taxes or energy, that same resolve has translated into rigidity. The qualities that have made Bush a unifying figure in the war against terrorism are precisely those that have made him so polarizing on domestic issues.

What none of these books adequately explain is why Bush has been so confrontational and ideological in shaping his domestic agenda. As governor of Texas, he was a consensus-builder who routinely reached out to Democrats: He made substantive compromises on all of his major priorities in the state. His pattern as president has been very different. He has consistently aimed his proposals (from tax cuts to energy) at the interests of the Republican base, and he has usually resisted compromise unless absolutely necessary. With a restored Republican majority in Congress, Bush is now advancing an agenda that envisions another round of massive tax cuts, large increases in defense spending and sustained federal deficits that choke off domestic spending. It's a vision that fully justifies the dual meaning in Frum's admiring description of Bush as "The Right Man." As president, Bush has indeed proved more "right" for the international challenges facing the country than appeared possible in 2000 -- but also far more to the "right" at home than he ever suggested during that campaign.

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