|OF COURSE, IN TEXAS, being a champion of the environment has never been a guarantee of political success. In his gubernatorial reelection bid in 1998, Bush won 69 percent of the vote, trouncing his Democratic rival, land commissioner Garry Mauro—a man who, like Al Gore, touted his own environmental credentials. Texans clearly won't vote for the John Muir style of outdoorsman; they prefer the Jim Bowie type. Last year, in fact, Bush used a hunting knife to cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a giant sporting-goods store that sits within the roar of planes landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "It is a big deal to be the governor of a state and say we understand conservation to the point where our wildlife runs aplenty and where our fishing is the best in America," Bush boasted at the opening. Then Outdoor World founder John Morris took the podium to praise the guest of honor's hook-and-bullet bona fides: "Wouldn't it be great," Morris boomed, "if our next president was to hunt and fish and was a real conservationist?" The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Bush's finely tuned sense of Texas politics, however, may come across as a tin ear for American environmental sensibilities come fall. In his first race for governor, in 1994, Bush went on a staged-for-the-media mourning dove hunt—one of those hallowed rites of political passage that almost everyone lusting for high office in Texas has to undergo. An aide handed Dubya a 20-gauge shotgun, he took careful aim, and then he accidentally shot a killdeer—a protected species in Texas. "I have a confession to make; I am a killdee killer," Bush writes in his autobiography. But a reader expecting mournful reflection encountered the following: "I think it showed a side of me that voters had not seen. I was able to laugh at myself, to make a mistake, admit it, and poke fun at it.... It gave me great joke material."
Bush's risible nature inadvertently exposes his own chief liability on the environment: He has a reputation for not taking it seriously. In 1998, Bush had to oversee a conference about the epidemic of drought and forest fires in Texas. He amused the audience by making rubbery faces, doing tricks with his reading glasses, and throwing broad winks at someone he knew. When the time came to summon the director of the state forest service to the podium, the governor showed his lifelong fondness for nicknames. "Tree Man!" he shouted. "Get up here!"
It's not certain, however, that Gore can score points off Bush's short environmental attention span; in fact, the reigning fin de siècle American isolationism may actually serve Bush as one of his strongest political assets. This April, when the Gallup organization asked voters to rank the issues that will most influence their choice for president, they ranked "protection of the environment" eighth. Besides, while Gore can rightly claim the title of climatologist-in-chief and straight-arrow defender of the earth, Bush gets to play the dashing avatar of can-do Western know-how. And voters rarely elect climatologists.