|IT WOULD BE PLEASANT to think that George W. Bush's quiet time on Rainbo Lake was the beginning of something, an evolution from the peripatetic, wildcatting jock into a thoughtful man of the earth. But he apparently has a ways to go. Critics like to condemn the candidate with his own words, or lack of them: In his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, the governor mentions the environment in only two sentences, while he devotes 12 pages to baseball. To be sure, it would be a cruel exercise to try to assemble the collected environmental wisdom of George W. Bush, especially in contrast to his opponent's untiring jeremiads. Unlike Gore, whose youth was colored by the moist green farms and parks of Tennessee and Washington, D.C., Bush's childhood landscape in west Texas was a hostile and featureless blank slate. Midland, where Dubya and Chief McCleskey grew up, is a place defined by dust, sand, tumbleweeds, and the whirring hum, like a million insects, of oil-field equipment. And also by the acrid smell of fossil fuels—the smell, folks in Midland liked to say, of money. People weren't there to preserve the environment. They were there to conquer it. If there was a single common enemy universally hated in the tight-knit oil circles of west Texas, it was government interference and control.
And so it's understandable that Bush would begin his presidential campaign bereft of a coherent environmental blueprint, and that, when he felt the need to bone up on the issue that most divides him from Al Gore, he recruited from the ranks of antiregulation think tanks (see "Big Man on Campus," opposite). During much of 1999, the candidate undertook a policy cram course that observers called "George W. University." A conga line of buttoned-down visitors flowed into the elegant old governor's mansion in Austin—tweedy wonks imported to tutor and mentor Bush on a rainbow of domestic and international policy issues. The first GWU environmental briefing session took place in May 1999 under the broad aegis of Stephen Goldsmith, then mayor of Indianapolis, who was orchestrating Bush's domestic-policy curriculum. For three hours, at least ten advisers met with the governor, dividing themselves into two smaller groups—one nicknamed Resources, the other jokingly named Sludge. The Resources team briefed Bush on wildlife, public lands, and coastal zones; the Sludge team offered remedial guidance through the tangle of federal laws and regulations that have sprung up in the years since Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Countering the critics' charge that Bush was starting his education from scratch, some of the attendees at GWU say they were impressed with the governor's mastery of environmental issues—including ones that dated back to his days as a fledgling oilman in the seventies. "He was familiar with quite a few individual cases in Texas," says James Seif, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a former regional administrator for the federal EPA, who adds that Bush knew "a lot of water issues based on his oilfield experience, and was familiar with a lot of international issues," such as the pall of coal smoke that drifts across the Texas border from Mexican energy plants.
Bush's knowledge encompasses more than last-minute cribbing, insists Mary Gade, the Republican former head of the Illinois state EPA, and a former regional director of the federal EPA. "I wouldn't be spending so much time and so much energy backing somebody who I didn't believe had a strong environmental commitment," she says. "He is an outdoorsman; he understands this on a very real, personal level."