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Monday, July 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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1988: the making of George W. Bush

Los Angeles Times

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 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 showing the kind of ideological clarity, personal passion and sense of mission that his father often lacked — and that eventually 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 exposed "Junior," as he was then known, 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 beat Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the 2000 Republican primary and has unfurled against his 2004 Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry.

Bush, who was in his early 40s when his father ran for 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.

Lessons put in practice

All 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 coming to 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 re-election. 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 have him 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 political history.

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 displays a moral certainty that "makes it difficult for him to reach out to the other side as he had promised he would."

Aggressive politics

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 adviser-without-portfolio and moved his family from Texas to Washington, D.C.

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 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 Picasso 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.

Ties to Atwater

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 before he died of cancer in 1991.

After Bush's father won the 1988 campaign, "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."

Anti-tax sentiment

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 did not immediately appeal to the vice president.

Convinced that Bush had to go on the attack after finishing a humiliating third behind Dole and Robertson in the Iowa caucuses, 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 adviser, who asked not to be named. 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 Jim Pinkerton, who was Atwater's deputy. For example, he sided with advisers 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 that such an air-tight 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 declared 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 refused to raise taxes even as federal deficits have burgeoned.

Bridge to evangelicals

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.

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 Jerry Falwell. He chatted up small-business owners at the 1988 convention of the Christian Bookseller's Association, where he distributed a book about his father that was written to appeal to evangelicals. He cultivated ties with anti-abortion leaders.

By the time he was done helping guide his father into the White House, Bush had evolved into a far different politician from what 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.

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 Association of Evangelicals. "There was never any question in our minds about what the son thought."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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