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The Texas Way

There once was a Democrat who worked with George W. Bush.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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Bob Bullock

God Bless Texas

by Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson

Texas, 328 pp., $27

There's a side of me that wants to say that George W. Bush never would have become president without Bob Bullock. But that's taking things too far. What is true is that Bob
Bullock put George Bush on the path to becoming president. Before he died in 1999, the Democratic power broker served as a state representative, comptroller of Texas's public accounts, and lieutenant governor. It was in that last position where he became part of American history in a way that neither he nor Bush could have envisioned in 1994.

As veteran Texas reporters Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson tell it in this biography of the mercurial, profane, Machiavellian, compassionate, devoted son of Texas, Bullock and Bush met up in the summer of 1994 when George W. Bush was trying to unseat Ann Richards as the popular Democratic governor of Texas. The pair had a clandestine get-together at Bullock's house in Austin, where the inexperienced Bush made it known he wanted to work with the legendary veteran.

And work they did, once Bush became governor and Bullock won a second four-year term for lieutenant governor, which in Texas is arguably the more powerful post. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, determining which bills survive, making all committee assignments, and sitting on the influential Legislative Budget Board. David Sibley, a former GOP state senator, describes the Bush/Bullock era as a golden period in Texas politics. And it was.

During Bush's first year as governor, the legislature passed all four parts of his agenda: a new education code, revised liability laws, tougher penalties for juveniles, and an overhaul of welfare laws. Lieutenant Governor Bullock was right there with him, as were Democrats such as House Speaker Pete Laney. Bush later wrote to the Dallas Morning News to suggest the newspaper had given him too much credit: The Democratic leaders deserved it, too.

The Bush/Bullock relationship wasn't always pacific. Bullock's moods could turn volcanic--and instantly, as the authors describe in detail. Bush had to learn to let him vent. Sometimes the venting would help. Senator Sibley tells of overhearing a profane Bullock outburst at the governor, then watching Bush go cut the legislative deal that Bullock suggested was the right thing to do. Some Texas Democrats think Bullock was too taken with Bush. Maybe he was. He signed onto a property tax cut that he probably didn't care that much about. And he didn't just sign on; he helped sell it. Former GOP state senator Bill Ratliff tells of senators being called in to see Bush and Bullock in a room off the governor's office, where both men pitched for a big cut in the spring of 1997: "It was extraordinary seeing a Republican and Democrat calling in folks," Ratliff recently remembered, as we talked about that period.

McNeely, who covered politics for the Austin American-Statesman for 26 years, and Henderson, who wrote for the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Chronicle, tell their own stories. The book includes one about Bush getting up and kissing Bullock for shock value after Bullock threatened to--how shall we say?--mess with one of Bush's priorities. And given how rich this period was in Texas's history, and eventually the nation's history, I'm surprised more Bush/Bullock stories weren't included. Readers could have benefited from additional reporting about this unique twosome. After all, it was one reason Bush could point to his experience in Texas as his reason for being considered presidential material.

Before he left office, Bob Bullock came to see the Morning News's editorial board. During the interview, he got tears in his eyes and said George W. Bush could become president. I remember being surprised at how choked up he was getting, and how interesting it was that this prediction was coming from the state's most powerful Democrat. Whether he would have liked the way the Bush presidential years turned out, especially Washington's partisan divisions, is a guessing game in Texas. But Bullock certainly made it possible for Bush to make one of his strongest selling points in 2000: that he knew how to work with both parties.