Published on Saturday, May 24, 2003 by the Times/UK
Friend or Foe — The World According to Bush
by Roland Watson in Washington
ON THE campaign trail in 1994, the would-be governor of Texas, George W. Bush, ditched his aircraft in San Antonio and continued to his next venue by road. After more than an hour, a reporter in the car realized that they were heading towards the home of John Connally, a former state governor and a giant among Texas Republicans. Why had Bush not flown to the Connally ranch landing strip?
Bush turned to his companion. “Well, you know, the Connallys and the Bushes don’t exactly get along.”
It was a feud made in Texas that speaks volumes about Bush. Connally had dared to run against George Bush Sr, his fellow Houston businessman, for the party’s presidential nomination in 1980. Both lost to Ronald Reagan and the rest is history, including the fact that, 14 years later, Bush Jr — a committed born-again Christian — had still not forgiven his father’s opponent.
“Once you get on his bad side, once he has labeled you as being against him, there doesn’t seem to be much forgiveness there,” said R. G. Ratcliffe, a veteran political reporter with the Houston Chronicle and Bush’s companion in the car that day in 1994.
Bush’s capacity for nurturing grudges and acting on them is well known in the hardball arena of Texas politics. What is not yet fully clear is how far he will allow his fabled thin skin and long memory to govern international affairs; whether his payback is personal or political.
When he exchanges handshakes with Jacques Chirac on French soil next week, the first time that the pair will have met since the transatlantic bust-up over Iraq, what level of distrust will be concealed behind the President’s smile? According to those who knew the young Bush in Midland, Texas, M Chirac should steel himself before looking too deeply into the President’s eyes. Forgiveness is not a concept that strikes an obvious chord in the rough-and- tumble oilfields of west Texas.
“It’s pretty much a back-stabbing world. They get in your business, they get in your fields,” said David Foster, who knew the young Bush and went to school with Laura, the future First Lady.
Hearing the President carve the world into those who are with him and those who are against him strikes Mr Foster, who runs a car windshield business, as authentic west Texas. “That’s pretty much how everybody is here. You pretty much get along with everybody. But you remember what happened.”
Bush has clearly not forgotten who was with him in Iraq. There is little sign of post-war magnanimity in the White House, which has produced a string of petulant gestures with a playground air.
Mexico, which had harbored high initial hopes of the Bush presidency, learnt just how low its standing had sunk after it had failed to give the US its UN Security Council vote to authorize war.
Mr Bush cancelled the traditional Cinco de Mayo Mexican celebration at the White House.
In his annual statement, he omitted any mention of US-Mexican ties or Vicente Fox, his former friend, the Mexican President, instead praising Mexican-Americans serving in the US Armed Forces “who are working to bring freedom and justice to the oppressed”.
Chile, another Security Council country that withheld support, has been waiting to sign a free trade deal with the US for months, but had to watch while US officials accelerated, then sealed, a similar deal with Singapore, a US ally in the War on Terror.
A casual glance in the White House visitors’ book reveals the extent to which the Iraq war has divided the world in Bush’s eyes. Since the fall of Baghdad, the President has received 21 heads of government, all of whom backed the war. No opponents have been invited. Bush cancelled a visit to Canada, another historic ally-turned-villain, earlier this month.
Jim Henry, who had offices along from the young Bush on the eighth floor of the Shell Building in Midland when he was a struggling independent oilman, offered an explanation, based on the Texan creed that emanates from the Oval Office. “We learn to trust people from their action and their deeds,” he said.
“Most of us learn not to hold a grudge. If you held a grudge in Midland, Texas, pretty soon we would not have any friends at all. I don’t think he holds grudges. At least, he hasn’t been taught that here.”
Mr Henry is wrong and right, according to other Bush-watchers and victims, who blame not Texas, but genes. “I think he’s a grudge-holder. He gets it from his mother,” Molly Ivins, author of an irreverent Bush biography, said.
Whereas the first President Bush is willing to forgive and forget, his wife and eldest son are enforcers of the family code. “He takes things very personally, more so than his father. His mother takes things very personally. Everything is personal to him,” said Tom Pauken, a case study in how Mr Bush pursues revenge. Mr Pauken’s first mistake was to support Bob Dole, not Bush Sr, for the 1988 Republican presidential ticket, despite being an old Bush family friend.
His second was to maneuver himself into the chairmanship of the Texas Republican party against a Bush-backed candidate when Bush became Governor in 1994. Bush had to wait four years for revenge. But when Pauken ran for state Attorney-General, Bush and Karl Rove, his strategist, hit him with an elaborate, ruthless campaign, draining Pauken’s money and support, and sent him back to his lawyer’s office in Dallas.
Bush has, occasionally, shown himself capable of a pragmatic streak when dealing with former foes. He has never forgiven James Baker, his father’s former Secretary of State, for, in his eyes, failing to work hard enough during the 1992 presidential campaign, which Bush Sr lost to Bill Clinton. But when he needed someone of stature to steer his campaign through the mire of the Florida recount in 2000, he turned to Baker.
Bush aides insist that his actions are political, based on pursuing US interests and the War on Terror, and not personal. But the line becomes blurred. “Trust is a very big thing for him,” one official said. “In terms of international relations, it’s loyalty, it’s trust. That’s crucial to a good personal relationship with this President. When he does trust you, he is loyal to you. You are a friend for life.”
He is also immune from, and suspicious of, flattery. M Chirac will be making a mistake if he thinks he can sweet-talk his way back into Bush’s good books.
Even before Iraq, Bush disliked what he regarded as the Frenchman’s aloofness and patronizing tendency to lecture. Actions, and only actions, will work. And even then, only up to a point.
“It’s not just that the French disagree with our policy. The President and Blair don’t agree on everything. But it’s the way they worked against us,” the official said.
Does Bush forgive? The answer, from an aide, is a long sigh and a short silence. What would Chirac have to do for US-French relations to return to happier times? “He’d have to change who he was.” That, though, may go for both men.
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd.