WASHINGTON — Dozens of skeptical conservative activists flocked to a conference room on Capitol Hill to hear from George W. Bush, eldest son of the Republican nominee for president. It was 1988, and many of these activists — abortion opponents, evangelical Christians and the like — showed up with low expectations because his father, Vice President George H.W. Bush, was known for his occasional departures from conservative orthodoxy.
Could the son be any different? As it turned out, the conservatives were in for a surprise, recalled Paul M. Weyrich, the activist who organized the meeting. The young Bush won the room over with crisp reassurances that his father was with them on abortion, judicial nominees and other divisive social issues. Then he offered a personal revelation.
“Jesus Christ is my personal savior,” Bush said when asked about his faith. By the end, the message was clear to the conservatives: George W. Bush was one of them.
With that encounter, Bush was already showing the kind of ideological clarity, personal passion and sense of mission that his father often lacked — and that would become the hallmark of his own presidency 12 years later.
The episode was one small part of a rich political education that Bush gained from working on his father’s 1988 presidential campaign. That experience gave “Junior,” as he was then known, exposure to two forces that would prove enormously important to his own political rise: the evangelical movement, which has become a core part of his political base; and an emerging style of hardball campaigning, which he used to defeat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 Republican primaries and has unfurled against his presumed 2004 Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Bush, who was just over 40 when his father ran for president after two terms as vice president, served as the campaign’s liaison to the GOP’s conservative wing, especially the evangelicals who were emerging as a powerful force in Republican politics. And he worked closely with campaign chief Lee Atwater, who was honing a new brand of polarizing politics that did not come naturally to Bush’s father.
All of that put Bush on the front lines of a generational change in GOP politics: the shift from a business-oriented, nonideological form of Republicanism that shaped his father’s era, to the more confrontational conservative agenda of low taxes, small government and traditional values that Ronald Reagan embodied.
“He recognized, more than his father and others around him, how much the business of public policy and politics has changed dramatically — how much tougher it had gotten,” said Victoria Clarke, a senior aide to both Bush administrations.
Now, with Bush’s own first term in the White House nearly at an end, it is clear how those years helped shape his approach to his presidency.
Having seen the political potential of a growing evangelical movement, Bush is working hard to mobilize that constituency for his 2004 reelection. Having seen disloyal aides weaken his father’s political position, Bush’s administration has been harsh in its treatment of internal dissenters. Having seen the price his father paid for breaking his pledge not to raise taxes, Bush has kept cutting taxes when even some fellow Republicans would call it quits.
The 1988 experience also laid bare a tough, combative side to Bush’s personality — a side that was largely obscured when he campaigned in 2000 as a “uniter, not a divider” and pointed to his Texas record as a governor who reached across the aisle to build bipartisan coalitions. Instead, Bush’s years in the White House have been one of the most polarized periods of recent American politics.
That is not all Bush’s doing, because Democrats have in recent years turned into an especially uncompromising opposition party. But some analysts say the polarization is no surprise, given that Bush combines a willingness to employ Atwater-style tactics with the moral certitude of Christian evangelism.
“His born-again Christianity does not admit of too many areas of gray,” said Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “It is part of the worldview: If you’re not with me, you’re against me.” Uslaner said Bush displayed a moral certainty that “makes it difficult for him to reach out to the other side as he had promised he would.”
The 1988 presidential campaign occurred at a pivotal time in George W. Bush’s personal and professional life. Before he turned 40, Bush was professionally rootless, wandering from work in the oil industry to an unsuccessful run for Congress and back to oil. By his own admission, he was drinking too much, and that was creating tension in his family.
But all that changed around the time he turned 40, in 1986. Bush quit drinking, renewed his Christian faith and returned to politics by plunging into his father’s presidential bid.
Although Bush had dabbled in his father’s 1980 and 1984 races, 1988 was the first time he joined a national campaign full time. He became an advisor-without-portfolio and moved his family from Texas to Washington for a campaign that was no slam-dunk for his father.
Vice President Bush had spent eight years as a loyal No. 2 to Reagan, yet he faced stiff competition for the Republican nomination from Sen. Bob Dole, evangelist Pat Robertson and others. Although Bush eventually beat his Republican rivals and went on to trounce Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, the Democrat enjoyed a hefty lead in the polls for months. Bush turned the tables with an aggressively negative campaign to discredit Dukakis as a liberal out of step with mainstream American values.
Atwater was hardly the sole practitioner of negative campaign tactics, but he was considered the master of that political art form. The Bush campaign’s attacks on Dukakis — for a prisoner-furlough system in Massachusetts and his veto of a bill requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in schools — were a far cry from Reagan’s upbeat “Morning in America” campaign in 1984.
Atwater and the young Bush came to be close friends working together on the 1988 campaign, not least because they were similar in many ways. Bush came from a far more privileged background than did the campaign manager. But both men identified more with their Southern roots — Bush’s in Texas and Atwater’s in South Carolina — than with the Northeastern lineage of the candidate they served. Both jogged. Both swore off alcohol. Both were restless, gregarious, decisive. Atwater once described Bush as his alter ego.
“W is a visceral, instinctive politician; so was Lee,” said a Republican who was close to Atwater, who died of cancer in 1991.
But their relationship did not begin in harmony. Bush initially regarded Atwater with suspicion when his father proposed bringing him onto the campaign. He worried that Atwater would not live up to the high standards of loyalty expected by the clannish Bush family. Because Atwater’s business partners worked for some of the other candidates in the GOP nomination fight, Bush pointedly questioned the strategist when he met with the family at Camp David in 1985.
“How do we know we can trust you?” Bush asked, according to his 2000 campaign autobiography, “A Charge to Keep.” His brother Jeb followed up: “What he means is, if someone throws a grenade at our dad, we expect you to jump on it.”
Atwater responded by inviting the boss’ eldest son to come to Washington, join the campaign staff and keep an eye on him. Bush parked himself in an office next to Atwater’s and became an integral part of the campaign. He brought his trademark Texas swagger, putting his boots up on his desk, chewing on cigars and dispensing nicknames to the campaign aides whose daily activities he monitored.
“Bond-age, what do you have going today?” he would ask Richard N. Bond, a senior campaign official.
He served as his father’s eyes and ears, trying to enforce the kind of discipline that he would eventually demand in his own White House.
“I had no formal role or title; I didn’t need one,” Bush wrote in his autobiography. “I was a loyalty enforcer and a listening ear.” When Atwater appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine in jogging shorts, with his sweat pants around his ankles, young Bush dressed him down for mischievous behavior that he and his mother believed reflected badly on the vice president.
After his father won the 1988 election, “the most terrifying words in the White House were ‘W is looking for you,’ ” said Christopher Buckley, a former speechwriter for the vice president. But Bush also made sure that loyalists were rewarded with senior administration positions.
During the campaign, the son also was a foil for his father, a combative lieutenant for a reluctant campaigner. Vice President Bush often seemed to regard politics as a necessary evil, separate from the responsibilities of governing. His son was far more pugilistic, relishing the hand-to-hand combat of politics.
“He was a fearless guy,” said Mary Matalin, a strategist in both the 1988 and 1992 Bush campaigns. “His father had a lighter touch.”
Matalin was struck by the blunt way the young Bush shot down persistent and potentially damaging rumors during the 1988 campaign that his father had once had an affair with an aide. After the campaign tried for some time to dodge the issue, the son confronted it brashly. He called a reporter and pronounced, “The answer to the Big A question is n-o.”
“His father would never have said something like that,” Matalin said. “That was not the way he was raised in politics. Politics had gotten much more aggressive.”
Young Bush shared Atwater’s view of the importance of drawing sharp distinctions to distinguish candidates and define issues. He encouraged his father to go along with aggressive strategies that, to Atwater’s dismay, did not immediately appeal to the vice president.
“It drove Lee up the wall,” said a veteran of the 1988 campaign. “He and W would sit around and conspire about how to draw more sharp positions.” The vice president was especially reluctant to “go negative” during the Republican primary contest that pitted him against Dole and Robertson. But pressure for a more aggressive approach built after Bush came in a humiliating third place behind them in the Iowa caucuses.
Convinced that their candidate had to go on the attack to recover in the New Hampshire primary, his campaign staff prepared a tough television ad portraying Dole as a straddler who had changed his position on taxes and other major issues.
Bush was reluctant to air the ad, but his son called at a crucial point to nudge him, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s chronicle of the 1988 campaign, “What It Takes.”
“He had been weighing in for a while on the need to be more aggressive and to really take the gloves off and show the comparison between the candidates,” said one former campaign advisor. The vice president finally agreed to air the ad and went on to win in New Hampshire.
The young Bush also showed a Reaganesque preference for campaigning in “bold colors, not pastels,” said James P. Pinkerton, Atwater’s deputy. For example, he sided with advisors who wanted the vice president to make an uncompromising stand against tax increases a big focus of the campaign — by, for example, signing the anti-tax pledge circulated by conservative activist Grover Norquist. Some Bush aides were more cautious and feared such an airtight promise would be difficult to keep.
“To get that [anti-tax focus] woven into the culture of the Bush campaign was extremely difficult,” Pinkerton said. “But Junior got it. He understood the Republican Party is not the Republican Party of Greenwich, Conn., and Eisenhower. It was the Republican Party of Dallas and Grover Norquist.”
In the end, the vice president famously did declare in his 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” And, just as famously, he broke that pledge by supporting a tax increase two years later. The reversal drew so much Republican fury that it contributed to his defeat in 1992 — a lesson clearly not lost on his son, who has steadfastly refused to raise taxes even as federal deficits have burgeoned.
“That lesson seems to have stuck in pretty deep,” said Pinkerton.
Bush served as his father’s liaison to a wide array of outside groups, but he proved particularly useful as a bridge to evangelical activists. Most of the establishment Republicans on the campaign staff did not know quite what to make of this emerging political phenomenon. After evangelist Robertson came in second to Dole in the Iowa caucuses, the Bush campaign began to focus more intently on building bridges to that constituency.
“No member of the Bush family would have missed the point: This is a crowd we better get to know,” said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant who was an advisor to both Bushes.
The vice president had been getting advice on how to appeal to evangelical voters from Doug Wead, an Assemblies of God minister who had written a biography of Reagan. The son took an interest in Wead’s work, and in early 1987 brought him onto his own staff for the campaign.
Wead recalls the young Bush’s initial disbelief about the political potential of the evangelical movement, questioning a Gallup poll that showed 39% of those surveyed considered themselves born-again Christians. He asked how the poll defined “born-again Christian,” and Wead said it was based on “personal faith in Christ, Bible as the word of God, accepting Christ as savior being a turning point in their life.”
“Well, by that definition I’m born-again,” responded Bush, who in 1985 had turned to the Bible with new intensity after lengthy conversations with the Rev. Billy Graham, a family friend.
Bush also came to see evangelicals’ potential to help his own career, after Wead gave him an analysis of the evangelical vote in his home state. “This would work in Texas,” said Bush, who was already thinking of running for governor.
Even to conservatives who did not know Bush’s religious convictions, his plain-spoken manner and clear dislike for the Washington elite appealed to activists put off by the establishment strategists who dominated his father’s campaign staff.
To build relationships with conservatives, the younger Bush met with religious leaders such as James Dobson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. He chatted up small-businessmen at the 1988 convention of the Christian Booksellers Assn., where he distributed a book about his father that was written to appeal to evangelicals. He cultivated ties with antiabortion leaders such as Darla St. Martin of the National Right to Life Committee.
At the 1988 Republican convention, Bush made a beeline across a crowded hotel lobby just to tell St. Martin that his father’s acceptance speech was going to include a strong antiabortion statement.
By the time he was done helping guide his father into the White House, Bush had evolved into a far different politician than he had been in his younger years.
In 1978, during his unsuccessful run for Congress, Bush had displayed little of the taste for aggressive, negative campaigning that he later refined in his father’s 1988 race. “The toughest thing he ever did was to say, ‘My opponent is a good man, a good state senator, but he will be beholden to [liberal Democratic House Speaker] Tip O’Neill,’ ” recalled Kent Hance, the Democrat who beat Bush in 1978.
Bush did not even push back when Hance sent letters to Church of Christ members, making an issue of a beer party that Bush’s campaign had promoted on a college campus.
A decade later, Bush had come to understand the role evangelical churches could play in politics.
In his Capitol Hill meeting in 1988 with skeptical conservative activists, Bush answered questions for an hour, and received a standing ovation.
“He was always straightforward — never any hesitation,” said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. “There was never any question in our minds about what the son thought. There were always questions about what Senior’s stand on some of these issues was.”
Writing in his autobiography about the lessons he had learned from his father’s campaigns and years in the White House, Bush commented on the importance of politicians defining themselves in clear terms. “If you don’t define and promote yourself, someone else will,” he wrote.
He also traced his father’s defeat in 1992 in part to the “self-inflicted” wound suffered by reneging on his no-tax-hike pledge. “Breaking his pledge cost him credibility and weakened his base,” he wrote.
Not long after his father beat Dukakis, Bush met with Weyrich and thanked him for what he and other conservative activists had done in the campaign.
“Boy, you guys really produce,” Bush told Weyrich.
“We promised you we would,” Weyrich replied.
“Yeah, I know, but a lot of people make promises,” said Bush.