05.01.09

Texas GOP Shuns Bush

George W. Bush's first 100 days back in Texas have provided at least one surprise: The state's GOP shuns him. Forty years after LBJ returned in disgrace, Robert Bryce reveals W.'s rough homecoming.

The Texas GOP provided the gubernatorial platform, much of the money, and more than 10 percent of the electoral votes that George W. Bush needed to get to the White House and stay there for two terms. But the 43rd president's first 100 days back in Texas are proving that the onetime favorite son is about as popular as swine flu. The state’s Republican politicians and candidates, who just a few years ago eagerly latched onto his electoral coattails, are staying away in droves.

"There’s no reason for anyone at this point to embrace the former president,” a top Texas GOP consultant tells me. “People have their own battles to fight. Why would they want to go back and try to defend torture or anything else?" He described the attitude of Republican politicians on the end of the Bush presidency as one of relief. The political environment for the Texas GOP is "toxic," he says, before adding with specificity: “it was toxic because of Bush."

“I don’t think Bush gives a damn what people think about him,” says a Texas Republican operative. “If history says he was a bad president, he doesn’t care.”

Republicans now have to set their targets on Obama and the Democrats, says the consultant, who insists on anonymity because of his ongoing dealings with the state's Republican officeholders and candidates, and their plan to triple the national debt over the next 10 years. “Why would we go back and try to defend the guy who doubled the debt in the last eight years?”

If Lyndon Johnson were alive to see it, he’d surely have a chuckle. Johnson, born dirt-poor in rural Texas, graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College and worked his way to the pinnacle of power in Washington. He would have had little sympathy for Bush and his gilded path from Andover to Yale to Harvard to elected office. But the similarities between the two men are obvious.

Johnson and Bush both fought unpopular, unwinnable wars based on trumped up claims about the military capabilities of a backward developing country. Both declared war on an “ism.” For Johnson: communism. For Bush: terrorism. While in the White House, both frequently escaped to their Texas ranches where they happily donned straw cowboy hats for the photographers. Both were surrounded by a coterie of super-hawks who believed that America's techno-military machinery could prevail over any enemy. Johnson had Robert McNamara as Defense secretary. Bush had McNamara's body double: Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose demeanor, defiance—and even his eyeglasses—were the spitting image of his Pentagon predecessor from four decades earlier. And both Johnson and Bush left the White House as pariahs within their own political parties, returning to Texas to... well, nothing.

When Johnson moved back to Texas in early 1969, the state’s Democrats, wary of the unpopular war in Vietnam, kept their distance. Sissy Farenthold, a former Democratic state legislator who made two unsuccessful bids for governor of Texas, in 1972 and 1974, recalls attending a large dinner event held in Dallas a few months after Johnson arrived back in the state. Johnson was there, she told me, sitting at a table, all by himself. The post-White House parallels between Johnson and Bush are striking, Farenthold acknowledges, before quickly adding: “Johnson had his record on civil rights. Can you say Bush has a record on anything that’s positive?”

The Republican operative offers another insight into the differences between Johnson and Bush: Johnson loved people. He was a true politician who was known for getting his way. Those qualities helped make Johnson, as his biographer, Robert Caro, put it in his most recent volume, Master of the Senate. Johnson, says the consultant, “wanted to be loved…He wanted people to like him.” By contrast, he adds, “I don’t think Bush gives a damn what people think about him. If history says he was a bad president, he doesn’t care.”

While their personal styles are different, the more important difference, as Farenthold noted, is about accomplishment. Johnson was a deeply flawed man whose ego was as big as his home state. His great sin was Vietnam. But his great redemption came with his forceful advocacy for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. By muscling those two pieces of legislation through a balky Congress, Johnson made real the promises set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. On March 15, 1965, a week after violence erupted in Selma, Alabama, over the rights of blacks to vote, Johnson delivered what's known as the "We Shall Overcome" speech, most notably rejecting the segregationists' phraseology of "state's rights." "There is no issue of state's rights or national rights," Johnson said. "There is only the struggle for human rights." In words and actions, Lyndon Baines Johnson paved the way for the 44th president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.

Like Johnson, Bush was a flawed man with an outsize ego. But what will Bush’s legacy be? Waterboarding? Guantánamo? Iraq? The laissez-faire attitude toward regulation that contributed to the meltdown on Wall Street? Or will W. be remembered for spending 490 days—nearly 17% of his time in office—on vacation? A scant 100 days after George Walker Bush returned to Texas as a pariah, it’s clear that he will have to wait a long time for any possible redemption. And none of his fellow Republicans are willing to wait with him.

Robert Bryce is the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, which was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2002 by Publishers Weekly. His latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”, was published in 2008 by PublicAffairs.