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Records Show Bush's Focus on Big Picture

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

The governor's typical work schedule during his first term consisted of "two hard half days," in chief of staff Clay Johnson's words. Bush usually arrived at the Capitol about 7:30 a.m.

He entered a spacious office lined with burnished wooden shelves jammed with about 200 autographed baseballs and about half that many books. On one wall was a painting of a horseman charging up a steep trail ("This is us," the governor once wrote to his staff). On another, he displayed a portrait of his hero, Sam Houston, during a period between his governorships of Tennessee and Texas when he reportedly drank heavily.

Bush, who swore off alcohol 14 years ago, told Johnson that he took this message from the picture: "The only difference between being a good governor and a fool is a bottle of liquor."

His scheduled appointments began about 8:30 a.m. and usually continued in 15- or 30-minute increments.

"I hope the calendar will prove it to you," Bush said. "I don't like long meetings."

Not that he was brusque. He and Public Utilities Commissioner Wood usually started off by ragging each other about their boots. Wood's were plain East Texas style. Bush's were pure West Texas: chiseled, ornamented and prominently on display because the gubernatorial feet tended to rest on the gubernatorial desk, which was handed down by his father, the former president.

Appointees and staff learned quickly to compress presentations. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political consultant, said he knew that he had lost Bush whenever the governor beckoned him to his computer to check out a deck of cards teed up for video solitaire.

"He wants you to tell him a story and present alternatives," said Margaret D. La Montagne, Bush's education advisor.

He also wanted answers--preferably short ones--to basic, blunt questions. "It only took once" being caught unprepared, said policy director T. Vance McMahan, half-wincing at a memory he did not care to share.

In return, hardly anyone had to wait for a decision.

Of 2,500 staff recommendations for appointees to state boards, only 10 made Bush "uncomfortable agreeing then and there," said Johnson, who coordinated the selections.

Under Bush, the death penalty has been carried out at a record-setting pace (136 executions during his 5 1/2-year tenure). The first-term calendar describes 76 meetings as "Re: execution," some for more than one case. Bush faced three choices: proceed, grant a 30-day reprieve or provide clemency if recommended by an appointed panel.

Bush, who has expressed confidence that no innocent person has been put to death on his watch, awarded his first stay in June and reduced one sentence to life in prison in 1998. For each condemned felon, aides said, Bush weighed any new evidence and whether the courts had reviewed all relevant issues.

Final review meetings with the governor's legal counsel followed hours of staff analysis, in consultation with Bush. The governor cut the standard slot in half because, "over time, I became more efficient in giving him that information," said Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's first-term legal counsel. "And he became more comfortable in making his decision based on the information I gave him."

A Two-Hour Midday Break for Exercise

Bush's daily schedule often allows for a two-hour break around noon. "Gov time" or "private time" on the calendar usually meant a three-mile jog at a 7 1/2-minute pace. He often ran along a dammed-up section of the Colorado River.

Or Bush ventured to a University of Texas stadium, where world-class sprinters, distance runners and pole vaulters train for the upcoming Olympic Games.

The governor was always welcome there. "He writes the checks," joked Dan Pfaff, a track coach.

Afterward, Bush sometimes hit the football weight room--he once made the mistake of getting caught at Earl Campbell's usual machine when the legendary Longhorn running back wanted to use it. And he liked to hop on the physical therapy table for soft tissue massage.

The workouts provide time for reflection and a chance to renew his energy, Bush said.

"I've given some of the greatest speeches I've ever given when I was running." Then he grinned: "I forgot every word during the stretching afterwards."

In his first four years as governor, Bush usually arrived home by 6:30 p.m. and sometimes made a few quick work calls before retiring by 10 p.m.

Every other year, when lawmakers met for their 140-day session, he faced later hours. As deadlines approached, he read summaries prepared by his legislative counsel and convened after-hours gatherings around the dining room table or on the veranda at the Greek Revival Governor's Mansion.

From his inaugural day onward, Bush lavished more attention on lawmakers--Republicans and Democrats alike--than any Texas governor in recent memory.

He invited them, grouped by seniority, for meals--no agenda, say what you like. He took up an unconventional habit that began as a lark: promenading through the Capitol corridors to pop in unannounced on startled legislators.

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