Earth, Meet Dubya! Dubya, Earth!

Would you buy an environmental policy from this man?

   
 
   

 
 
CHIEF STILL TALKS ABOUT IT: In the early 1990s, at the hidden, private-membership Rainbo Club, a 1,207-acre lakeside retreat protected by an electronic security gate, Dubya—George W. Bush, the hyperactive governor of Texas—had silently slipped a fishing line into the water. And he was by himself. Right afterward, Dubya called his good-old-boy running buddy Robert "Chief" McCleskey to tell him he'd been fishing. Chief was startled to think of a calm George W. Bush in the cavernous quiet of Rainbo Lake, surrendering himself to the act of finding the dark bass. "It surprised me," says McCleskey, laughing during a break at his office in Midland, where the two men grew up and where he works as Bush's personal accountant. "It required...patience."

It certainly wasn't that Dubya was having a nature moment—he doesn't allow himself to have many "moments" because that kind of thinking veers perilously close to what Dubya's old man derides as touchy-feely "psychobabble," and because dreamy contemplation might lead to the thing he loathes almost more than anything else: ambiguity. But something happened. Chief knows it. In solitude, Dubya was learning, almost, to sit still and absorb it all. His usual encounters with the Big Outdoors had consisted of hanging out on his father's throaty powerboat and trolling for blues in the Atlantic off the family compound in Maine; charging the back nine just the way his grandfather, the old Connecticut senator, used to do it with President Ike at the Burning Tree Club outside Washington; or knocking off seven-and-a-half-minute miles during his daily three-mile run along the Colorado River back in Austin, the capital. "He never slows down," says Elton Bomer, another of Bush's Texas pals (and the Texas secretary of state). "He's usually fishing full-speed. The only time he relaxes is when he jogs."


   
 
 
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."


 
   
 
BUT NOT ON ANY HIGHER LEVEL, his critics insist. "In my opinion, he is virtually clueless on environmental issues," declares Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Kramer spoke on a wilting afternoon in Austin, two months before the national GOP convention, when the smoggy skies over the governor's mansion looked like the inside of a juke joint's ashtray. "And by being clueless, Bush opens himself to being influenced heavily by his advisers." Kramer and his allies are hell-bent on drawing an unflattering picture of the candidate and his crew. The national Sierra Club has launched an $8 million ad campaign that will hit Bush and other environmentally incorrect politicians until the election, and earlier this year the League of Conservation Voters issued a damning candidate profile that reads like a droning indictment from a war crimes trial: "Bush has overseen efforts to enact a major anti-regulatory agenda....His appointments to state commissions that oversee environmental programs have sparked criticism because of their strong ties to chemical, oil and real estate interests....Texas ranks first in the nation in toxic air emissions from industrial facilities....[Last] summer, Houston, for the first time, surpassed Los Angeles as the U.S. city with the highest levels of smog."

While the air pollution dig is a bit unfair—Texas is saddled with the nation's largest concentration of oil refineries, and even the most committed environmentalist governor would have trouble cleaning them up—Bush's critics have a point. But Team Bush considers the environmentalists' assault to be a mere opening barrage: His advisers are bracing for a full-scale D-day assault. "Basically, by the time Al Gore finishes, Texas is going to be a place where no one will want to live," quips Karen Hughes, Bush's alter ego, speechwriter, ghostwriter, and a senior member (along with political strategist Karl Rove and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh) of the so-called Iron Triangle that commands his run for the Oval Office. Fearing the inevitable Gore photo op on an especially dirty day in Houston, early this summer Bush's people began talking up the state's progress on pollution. "We have just adopted the most aggressive air-quality plan ever contemplated by any administration in the state of Texas," says Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission—the state environmental regulatory agency known as TNRCC by loyal proponents and as TRAINWRECK by its hardened opponents (who point out that Bush's appointments to the body have included a former executive of the agribusiness giant Monsanto and a consultant to the utility industry). Saitas is referring to a plan, approved by TNRCC in May, to bring the Dallas-Forth Worth and Beaumont-Port Arthur areas into compliance with federal ozone standards by 2007. In 1999, Bush signed legislation cracking down on power plants and establishing voluntary guidelines for the oldest industrial factories in Texas. Earlier in the year, he had blocked a proposal to force a cleanup of the aging smokestacks, which were exempted by the legislature when it passed an environmental law in 1971.


 
   
 
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.


 
   
ON THE OTHER HAND, Gore bests Bush in the outdoor-adventure category. Ask Bush's pals for an anecdote that describes his feeling for nature, and they may have to stretch their memory a bit. Tony Garza, for example, thinks back to July 1995, recalling a scene that was the polar opposite of that seductive moment at Rainbo Lake.

Garza, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, had joined the governor for a meeting with Mexican officials. Garza and the rest of the entourage—Dubya; his wife, Laura; their 13-year-old twin daughters (they're now 18); Bush's personal assistant, Israel Hernandez; and a handful of security men—spent the weekend in a Mexican government guest house tucked away in the pristine coastal jungle in Huatulco. At the end of a frenetic day of jet skiing and trail running, the group was sitting around the table after dinner and contemplating dessert. It was the kind of mellow, soigné moment when the mood meter was set at a nicely reflective level. Abruptly—because that's how Dubya does things—Bush was yelling for everyone, including Garza, to jump up and form a queue behind him.

Bolting out the door, Bush zipped onto a two-mile trail snaking to the ocean's edge and back, and without questioning, everyone fell in step behind him. They all jogged down toward the water and then, with barely a glance at the waves, panted back up the slope to collapse once more into their chairs a half-hour after they'd left. As tough as this jaunt was for the victims, it happened to be exactly the kind of thing his Iron Triangle will be promoting all summer and fall in heroic photo ops and campaign spots: the image of George W. Bush as a Texas Teddy Roosevelt who likes to take his nature in big, fast gulps as he's bolting off the main trail. And of course, look for the Bush for President task force to paint Al Gore as an environmental misanthrope, a nagging Malthusian Chicken Little who can't stand to enjoy himself among the regular folks.

"It was," remembers Tony Garza, summoning up that anaerobic image of George Walker Bush barreling down toward the Pacific Ocean on his big-time, buzz-sawing power walk, "one of those moments where you take a deep breath and say that this is someone who doesn't sit idly in the outdoors."  

Bill Minutaglio is a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty


 
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