"I'm a uniter, not a divider"

George W. Bush talks with David Horowitz about going from patrician to populist -- and from party boy to presidential front-runner.

Published May 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I like George Bush. He has a strong set of core convictions, including a significant religious faith, but he is also genuinely tolerant, open and warm-hearted toward people with whom he disagrees.

He has made, for example, the strongest statements of any Republican candidate about including homosexuals in the American family, and treating them with Christian charity and civic respect. "I was taught," he said in response to Trent Lott's infamous remarks, "that we should look after the beam in our own eye before searching for the mote in someone else's."

Bush has the charisma of a national leader, but a personal style that is both down-home and down-to-earth. He is relaxed and disciplined at the same time, a Republican who seems comfortable in his own skin.

Over the past year, Bush's speaking style has become noticeably more passionate. His war chest is larger than those of his opponents, and his poll numbers are strong, so he appears to be a formidable front-runner for the Republican nomination for president.

I conducted this interview in the governor's Capitol office in Austin, Texas. It went on for about 45 minutes, until it was interrupted by the entrance of his next visitor, former Sen. John Glenn.

I've got two sets of questions -- one that the editors of Salon gave me and another that is my own.

What's Salon?

It's the Internet magazine that ran the wretched article about Henry Hyde and recently had a feature asking whether you used drugs in the '60s.

Should I dignify them by answering their questions?

Despite such lapses, Salon is an interesting and unorthodox magazine, and its audience reflects the libertarian and forward-looking ethos of the Internet. You, in particular, should speak to this audience. It is said you have the potential to reshape the political landscape.

That's what I want to do. In the course of the campaign, it's the first thing I want to do. The second is to elevate the discourse. I'm not going to participate in the old Washington, D.C., game of gossip and slander. The game many people want to play is: "Let's force George W. to answer questions about gossip. Let's force him off his message by making him talk about a rumor, or rumors." I'm not going to participate in that game. I'm not going to try to disprove a negative. I'm going to talk about what I want to do for America.

I have told people that 20 to 30 years ago I made some mistakes. But I have learned from those mistakes. What Americans want to hear is: Will the next president be someone who has matured to the point where he has learned from mistakes and will bring dignity to the office to which he is elected? That was my solemn pledge in Texas when I first took office. I have fulfilled that to the satisfaction of Texas voters. And that is my solemn pledge to America.

Let's start with my list of questions. In a year when Republicans lost ground or had trouble holding on to it, you won reelection with 69 percent of the total, 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, and the endorsement of every major Democratic politician in the state. How did you do it?

First, I did in office what I said I would do. I campaigned on school reform, accountability, charters and choice. And I signed bills to that effect. I campaigned on tort reform, juvenile justice reform and welfare reform, and on all I signed bills. And shared credit. I didn't try to take all the credit, I shared credit with the people, both Republicans and Democrats, who helped achieve these reforms.

Second, I showed the people of Texas that I'm a uniter, not a divider. I refuse to play the politics of putting people into groups and pitting one group against another.

Third, during the course of the campaign, I didn't talk about the past; I talked about the future. I laid out additional plans for tax cuts, for school reforms like ending social promotion, by initiatives that would say to kids that if you carry a gun illegally there will be a consequence, and I think the people of Texas listened, because I had credibility, and had done what I said I would do.

And how did you approach minorities?

First of all my message during the campaign was to make sure that people from all walks of life knew that the Texas dream was available for them -- that when I talked about education, I wasn't just talking about suburban education, I was talking about high standards for kids from all walks of life. I said that leaving children behind as a result of simply shuffling kids through the school system was not the Bush way, nor was it the Texas way. I talked about entrepreneurship.

In terms of Hispanics, I talked a long, long time about making sure that we had what I call a system of "English-plus," not "English-only." English is the gateway to freedom -- plus we respect your heritage. I worked closely with the Mexican government to solve common problems Texas shared with them.

But the main thing is, David, I started my campaign in the minority communities the day I got elected the first time, when I said, "Many of you did not vote for me -- I'm still your governor and will be your governor."

Ronald Reagan had the only successful two-term presidency since Dwight Eisenhower. Part of the secret seems to be that he focused his attention on two important goals -- lowering taxes and winning the Cold War. What are your priorities?

One is prosperity: to make sure that we continue to be prosperous by lowering taxes and by fighting off isolationist and protectionist policies and politics. A second priority is to make sure that we educate children. A third priority is to promote the peace. America must be strong enough and willing to promote peace. One way to do so is to bring certainty into an uncertain world, and I support the development of anti-ballistic missile systems to do so. These are three priorities.

President Clinton has shown Americans that character counts and that moral values are important. But an important part of the electorate is wary of Republicans with strong moral convictions because they fear politicians who want to impose their values on them and on the rest of us. Abortion is a case in point. What is your answer to these fears, or how do you deal with them?

The answer to anybody's anxiety about me is in my deeds and actions. I have a strong faith. I am a religious man. I believe in Christ, and therefore my actions hopefully reflect a heart that cares for others. I understand good people can disagree on issues. I am a pro-life candidate, but there are pro-choice governors who are my friends, and who support me, and for that I am grateful.

My goal is for every unborn child to be protected in law, and welcomed in the world. But I recognize that we don't live in a perfect world, and I also recognize that good people can disagree on this issue. What America should focus on is banning partial-birth abortions and passing parental notification laws. That's where we can find common ground. Americans can find common ground on adoption initiatives as well.

Let me ask it another way ...

You don't like the answer? (laughing)

There's another dimension. There are roles that politicians can play, and roles that they shouldn't get involved in. Pronouncements on what is and what is not a sin might be an example.

Here's my view of government. Government is really about laws and justice. The frustration many people may have with government is that they look toward government to change people's hearts. Hearts aren't changed by law -- hearts aren't changed by man-made law -- hearts are changed in churches, in synagogues, in mosques. Hearts are changed because people who have good hearts persuade others who don't. You don't have to go to church to have a good heart. But the agent of change for a heart is not in a government subcommittee, or in government legislation. It's in civil society -- it's loving people, helping others in need. Only when you change hearts and attitudes will the laws also change.

So you're not going to use the government to force a change in attitude ...

Well, government can't change attitude. Government can lead -- a leader can lead and convince people, but there's no law that makes people love each other.

OK. You've taken a forthright position of tolerance toward discriminated groups, including homosexuals. Would you like to elaborate?

I think that each person ought to be judged by their heart and by their soul and by their contribution to society. Group-thought will balkanize our society, and I have rejected the politics of pitting one group of persons against another.

You said that education is the most important thing that a state does, and you've made that your priority. Foreign policy is the most important thing that a president does. Will you make that a priority?

Absolutely. It is essential that the next president be someone who understands America has an important role to play in promoting peace and to encourage others to understand the value of freedom, of free speech, free religion and the importance of the rule of law.

Now here are the Salon editors' questions. Dan Quayle implied that you did not have any foreign policy experience and therefore he would make a stronger president. Your response?

My response is that every candidate is going to bring a different level of experience to the job. My experiences have been in the private sector, as someone who has run a business, in governing the second-largest state in the United States. I know how to set clear goals and I know how to make decisions. Period.

Are you and your family going to put any of your own money into your campaign?

No. Oh, yes, investing my own money. My mother and dad contributed $1,000 a piece. I'm trying to get more ... (laughter)

Would you appoint Jeb to a Cabinet position like RFK?

That's against the law. These are their questions? They're tough.

Will your parents play a role in your campaign and if so, what?

My parents have played a role in my life, and I'm going to name my mother the vice president. (laughter)

Do you think questions about your possible drug use are unfair?

I think that rumors and gossip about what may or may not have happened 20 to 30 years ago is part of the process. It is a sad part of the process, and I refuse to participate in the game of slander, rumors and gossip.

Should politicians not have to answer questions about whether or not they ever broke the law, and if there are limits, what are they? A statute of limitations of 20 years for anything short of a felony?

That's up to each politician to answer. First off, if laws were broken, there are records, and I'm confident that any journalist worth his salt will find them. Secondly, I believe that it's up to each candidate how they want to deal with their past. But most importantly, the question each candidate must answer is whether you are prepared to bring dignity and honor to the office to which you have been elected.

And as for yourself?

I have brought honor and dignity to my office and I will continue to do so.

How come you've been willing to answer questions about faithfulness to your wife but not whether you've ever used illegal drugs?

That's an interesting question. I'd separate the difference between what I may or may have not done 20 to 30 years ago and when I took a vow with my wife, which I honor, and continue to honor.

I'm sure you've heard the scurrilous rumors that you were once a party animal -- perhaps even the one who danced on a table naked. Can you put these to rest or do you wish to plead the Fifth Amendment? Yuck. I don't even want to ask this question ...

I'll just say those questions are ridiculous, and I'm not going to participate in that kind of gossip. There's no picture of me, but it's trying to disprove a negative. It's just ridiculous.

What can you tell us about your successful battles to overcome alcohol abuse and are you willing to use this personal experience to help fight America's No. 1 drug addiction?

One time I was dancing on a table naked, and got drunk, and fell off -- (laughter). Just kidding. Say that again, now?

What can you tell us about your battle over alcohol and are you willing to use this personal experience to help fight America's No. 1 drug addiction?

The word "battle" is too strong a word. I decided to quit drinking because drinking was beginning to compete with my energy and beginning to deplete my energy levels, and it was becoming too important in my life relative to what really is important, and so I quit. I had my last drink one day, and the next day I was through forever, and I haven't had a drink in 12 years. I think it's important for people who drink too much to seek help.

Well, that's the end of Salon's questions. Here's another one of mine: A lot of Republicans talk "care," they talk the talk of compassion, but you seem to have been able to walk the walk ...

I think what's important is how much a person actually cares about other people. I got into politics because I do care about other people. I also understand the false promise of having government solve everybody's problems. Government just can't do that. Would that it could. I'm fully aware of the promises of the last 30 years that said, "Don't worry, government will solve your problems. You don't have to. You don't have to work out your own problems." I believe in self-reliance and independence, but I also believe we ought to help those in need, people who can't help themselves. I also clearly see what many of the problems are in society. Many of those problems are because of people not being responsible for their behavior. And one example is the number of men who father children and walk away, saying, "They're not my problem, they're somebody else's problem." That's a clear sign of an irresponsible culture, and that's unacceptable to me.

The hardest job in America is to be a single woman trying to raise children, and the person responsible for that is the absent father. The fathers of those children need to be responsible to help those mothers and to help those children. So I believe in tough love, and I emphasize the tough side as well as the love side.

I also think people in America should listen carefully to politicians, to political figures, to determine if they have a heart. That's a key sign. Do they care about people? I do.

I also reject the liberal orthodoxy that says big government and love go hand in hand.

One interesting common thread in the Bush family is baseball. Your grandfather and father were first basemen and you ran the Texas Rangers. Baseball is the American game. It's not an aristocratic sport. Was it your Midland upbringing that gave you your common touch?

Well, I think I am what I am because I've got a lot of my mother in me. She is a very relaxed person around people. She cares. She is also a great communicator. I'm not suggesting I am, myself. But I'm suggesting that I've watched her very carefully.

Hopefully I have my dad's values. He is a man of enormous inner strength and values. I am a product of my parents, and I also am a product of my growing up in a world out in Midland, Texas. It was a land of dreamers and entrepreneurs. It didn't matter who you were or where you came from, what mattered was if you struck oil, you realized your dream.

I was educated on the East Coast, but my heart never left Texas. I'm proud of my education. I learned to read and write. Actually, that's not true. I learned to think on the East Coast. I learned to respect rigorous standards. Phillips Academy in Andover was a place that had rigorous academic standards, and I worked really hard to keep up, because many of the kids were brighter than I.

Why did you work hard?

I'm sure part of it had to do with expectations from people I loved and respected. I think that's part of what a parent does, is to set high standards and work with their children to achieve those standards. That's the role of a mother or father -- to set standards for children and help children set goals, and Phillips Academy at Andover was hard, really hard, for me.

People might think of you as a patrician just because the family image is one of growing up in wealth.

That's exactly right. There's no question -- it can be to my advantage or my disadvantage. There are some who will refuse to listen to me basically because they think I am of the manor raised, when in fact I was Midland, Texas-raised, where there were no manors when I was raised. My parents, I guess Mother and Dad could have stayed on the East Coast. My dad could have settled into a Wall Street career, but he was entrepreneurial. They packed me up when I was 2 years old, and moved out to Odessa, Texas. It was a modern-day frontier in a way. It certainly was a business frontier. The oil business was going through its second boom. It was a great place to grow up. The misperception has an unexpected plus side, too. People approach me thinking I have some kind of haughtiness as a result of a patrician upbringing. I hope they find my personality different and refreshing. I'm told it will break the mold.

I think you already have. You come from an aristocratic lineage, but there is a democratic element in the history of your family.

It is interesting you mention history. It is either meant to be or not meant to be, that's how I view it. I feel pretty free. I'm a competitive person, but I feel free about it, because I'm a person who never grew up thinking, "Gosh, if only I'm my eighth-grade class president, I can parlay this into becoming the president of the United States."

I never had the notion of trying to plot my course. I decided to get into the baseball business because I saw a business opportunity and seized it. Baseball was a great life, but I had a reason, a specific reason, to go into it. It was the same when I decided to run for governor. My decision was based upon specific issues and ideas. And it's the same with the presidency. I see a problem; I want to seize the moment. Part of the problem is the spirit of America and part of the problem is making sure it really does combine with "Can we be prosperous and make sure people have got the tools necessary to access the dream?" I believe that if I am able to articulate the "why" -- "Why change from governor? Why leave the state?" -- people will hear it. I hope so. The key then is not to focus on the sideshows of Washington politics, not to focus on the rumors and gossip, not to focus on the negative attacks, but to elevate the discourse and the debate so people can realize there is a better tomorrow.

I think it's important for me to stay focused on why I am running. What's the vision? The vision is a prosperous America where everybody is prepared to access the dream. I don't believe we can guarantee results, but I do believe that we can have equal access to the dream. I'd like to set a new standard as we enter the 21st century, and that is a campaign that is positive and based on an optimistic message, and then just let the voters choose who they want to lead.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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