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A Focused, Disciplined, Socially Conservative Republican Politician Named . . . George Bush?

11:00 PM, Feb 9, 1997 • By JULIA REED
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I first met George W. Bush in 1976 at a very extravagant and fairly wild wedding in the Mississippi Delta. He was eight years out of Yale then and working in the oil business in Midland, Texas. His father was serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and so the Bush name was not yet a huge deal -- but when coupled with young George's bad-boy good looks, the total package was enough to send the many eligible twentysomethings into a collective swoon. In addition to his official groomsman getup of cream linen trousers, navy blazer, and flowered cotton tie, I recall that he wore Gucci loafers and was smoking an expensive cigar. He was cocky, charming, and he was clearly enjoying himself.

This was, Bush says now, his rambunctious period, when he was "drinking and carousing and fumbling around." A little more than twenty years later, he has stopped drinking, stopped smoking, married a librarian, had twin girls, and joined the Methodist church. He also has run a majorleague baseball team that wins, become the governor of Texas in a race he was supposed to lose, and delivered one of the few good speeches at last summer's Republican convention, which he co-chaired.

The one-time carouser is now obsessed with the issue of personal responsibility and by the cultural decay he says was brought on in part by the "if it feels good, do it" standard of his generation. And he has sought to translate those concerns into public policy. In his two years as governor, Bush and the Texas legislature have toughened up the juvenile justice system, with punishment the focus instead of rehabilitation. (Four thousand new juvenile beds have been added to the system.) They have given local school districts much more authority to mind their own affairs and have also beefed up the way the state measures results, which should strengthen accountability. And they have imposed new requirements of welfare recipients -- children must be immunized and pregnant women must identify the father for benefits to flow.

Given his patrician background and youthful rowdiness, Bush's priorities could, after all, have been as unambitious as his next drink of whiskey, his next hunting trip, or his next pair of Guccis. When the Yale football team " won the Ivy League championship against Princeton," recalls Donald Ensenat, his roommate in New Haven, "we tore down the goal post, and he was arrested." His father had just been elected to Congress, but that did not prevent George W. (who is not actually George II, but was erroneously known as "Junior" in the Bush White House) from behaving like a preppie scoundrel.

All of which is to say that there is something admirable when someone like George W. Bush actually grows up, if only because so many men like him never really do. And he is now being rewarded for assuming the mantle of responsibility by the Great Mentioner, who keeps placing him in the forefront of those who might battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Sam Donaldson put Bush's name at the top of his list a couple of weeks ago on Larry King Live, site of more than one campaign kickoff, but Donaldson is by no means the only one. Fund-raisers, strategists, party insiders -- all the Republicans who stand to gain either power or employment from a presidential run -- have been watching him since the moment he took the oath of office in Austin in January 1995.

Bush insists that the only business before him is the business of running Texas, and says he is "troubled by people who get too far of ahead of themselves in life." It is true that he was elected to public office for the first time a little more than two years at the age of 48.

He does willingly concede that "I am an obvious choice because I'm the governor of the second biggest state with a great political name." That very name may have something to do with his startlingly high ranking in the Republican preference polls (he routinely comes in fourth behind Jack Kemp, Colin Powell, and Dan Quayle, outdoing Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander, among others). But it is worth remembering that his brother Jeb has the same last name -- and Jeb lost the 1994 governor's race in Florida he was supposed to win.