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Records Show Bush's Focus on Big Picture

August 02, 2000|ALAN C. MILLER and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AUSTIN, Texas — By all accounts, Gov. George W. Bush is not a detail man.

He never read the 261-page report resulting from a $1.8-million investigation of the Texas A&M University bonfire collapse that killed 11 students and a recent graduate. Nor did he read the 36-page executive summary.

"I highlighted half a page," said Clay Johnson, Bush's chief of staff. "He read that."

In his fourth month as governor, Bush pared the time generally reserved for final review of each scheduled execution from 30 minutes to 15.

He usually offered pithy replies when his public utilities commissioner, Patrick Henry Wood III, sought guidance on long-term goals or how to handle a particular lawmaker. But whenever Wood raised a technical matter, the boss cut him off.

"Pat, I have you to do that," Wood recalled Bush saying. "Don't ask me to do that."

Over and over, the presumed Republican nominee for president points to his experience governing the second-largest state as his primary training ground for the White House. How Bush spent his time--a chief executive's most valuable and finite commodity--reflects the way he wielded political power from the second floor of the pink granite Texas Capitol.

His admirers describe a classic problem-solver who does not waste a minute, cuts to a matter's core and builds coalitions. His detractors say he misses important nuances, avoids divisive issues and ducks adversaries who differ with his agenda.

Daily appointment calendars offer a fresh view of Bush's only full term in public office. Though such documents are usually kept private until a politician leaves office, The Times obtained the governor's schedules through the Texas Open Records Act. Revealing patterns emerge from 3,125 pages of appointments covering 1995 through 1998--along with interviews with Bush, top aides and others who saw him.

Blessed by a humming economy and a tenure free of major crisis, Bush fashioned both a brisk pace and an amiable, nonconfrontational atmosphere. He focused on a few issues, preferred short meetings and insisted on a two-hour midday break centered on a rejuvenating run.

Topic of Focus Is Education

In many ways, the calendar buttresses the image Bush puts forward on the presidential campaign trail. The governor had many more meetings on education than on any other subject. He courted state legislators of both parties--indeed, he delivered remarks at a fund-raising barbecue for the Democratic House speaker (imagine President Clinton praising Newt Gingrich in a roomful of GOP donors).

The schedules also detail a distinctly corporate flavor: Bush met frequently with representatives of oil, insurance and other industries but seldom with labor, environmental or consumer activists.

As a record-shattering political fund-raiser, Bush provided frequent access to contributors. Nearly half the 469 business leaders, energy executives and lobbyists who came through his doors donated to his political campaigns.

Bush aides maintain that the calendars provide an incomplete picture. They note that the people Bush greets in his office represent a small percentage of Texans the governor sees statewide.

Although Texas vests less constitutional power in the $115,343-a-year governor's job than many other large states--including California--Bush rarely felt the need to exercise all of his limited authority. He is empowered to veto bills but is reluctant to do so. He said he is proud that he never called a special legislative session.

Bush, 54, said in a recent interview that it is important for voters to judge "whether or not I could make the decisions given the degree of pressure that the president is going to have to face. . . . Are you able to maintain a pace and make sound decisions?"

The presidency accommodates a wide spectrum of leadership types, from Harry S. Truman's decisive "buck-stops-here" mentality to Bill Clinton's wee-hour explorations of fine points and exhaustive weighing of options. In many respects, his calendars show, Bush is the antithesis of the man he seeks to replace in the Oval Office: He relies heavily on his staff to master issues, keeps close to normal working hours and usually tenders decisions on the spot.

Bush's campaign aides encourage comparisons to Ronald Reagan, another large-state governor with a big-picture emphasis and a winning personality. Bush's breezy style won approval from Texas voters, who resoundingly reelected him in 1998.

But Austin is not Washington. The collegial traditions of the Texas Legislature stretch back two decades, well before the ascension of Bush, and the two parties here have a much narrower ideological divide.

Yet Bush watchers predict that he would keep his ways as president.

"It'll work up there," said Reggie Bashur, who served as a trouble-shooter during Bush's first eight months as governor. "You're going to be surprised how well it will work in Washington."

'Two Hard Half Days'

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