On the eve of his inauguration for a second term as governor of Texas -- which few people believe he will complete -- George W. Bush spent an hour with me expounding on things one might expect from someone about to run for president.
"We live in a cynical time," he said. "Underneath the polls and focus groups, people have a sense of embarrassment over the behavior of the president, regardless of their political party."
Still, he would "advise whoever the Republican candidate for president is to talk about the future and not remind Americans about how embarrassed they have been. I think one ought to say, 'I'm going to conduct myself in office in a way that will make you proud' and then go on and talk about what you intend to do."
He talked about the things he would do:
Social issues: "I think the major social issue facing America is to change the culture from one that has said 'if it feels good, do it,' to one I call the 'responsibility era.' This means each person has to be responsible for loving your family, for your own decisions and actions, and for loving your neighbor as yourself."
Abortion? "Part of our responsibility era understands the value of life. I hope the next leader would lead America to respect life at all levels, including life of the unborn." Bush said that for the Supreme Court, he would pick "people who interpret the law as opposed to writing the law. Those are the types I've named to the bench in Texas. They are not judicial activists but judicial scholars."
On his personal life: "While 20 to 30 years ago I was young and irresponsible on occasion, the question that must be asked of anybody who is going to be in a position of responsibility is, 'Have you learned your lesson?' -- not whether you made mistakes. Have you grown up? Are you prepared to assume the responsibilities of whatever it may be -- fatherhood, husband, governor of Texas? And the answer to that is, yes, in my case."
On taxes: Bush, who has cut taxes here, said he's learned a lesson from his father not to make categorical promises (the famous "read my lips, no new taxes" speech). "One's credibility is paramount to being a leader." He stated government doesn't need more money in times of peace. "A tax cut makes sense," Bush said, "to keep the economy going." He fears an economic slowdown because of the Federal Reserve's "stretching fiscal policy by lowering (interest) rates to the point where there may not be enough incentive for consumption."
On the presidency: In a clear contrast to Clinton, Bush said, "I didn't grow up wanting to be president. When I was 14 or 15 years old, I wasn't trying to position myself to be president. I wasn't that way when I was 21, or 31, or 41. I am struggling with this decision because I understand duty, but I also understand what it means to family. I don't wake up in the morning just dying to be president. I'm as surprised as anybody about the polls and the speculation. I never ran for governor to be president, but to be the best governor of Texas I could be."
Bush told me he will decide something -- at minimum an exploratory committee -- when the Texas legislature adjourns in June. Meanwhile, people like former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State George Shultz have paid visits to help him get ready. He used the word "crusade" to describe what he thinks is needed to transform the country. And he said if he does run, he will do so in every primary state.
He also mentioned "vision," a word disparaged by his father. Bush said he has one, and it's about bringing people together (he got 49 percent of the Hispanic vote and a respectable number of black votes) because "I went after them and showed them I care about them and their issues."
If he runs, he said he won't decide based on polls: "I've taken only one poll as governor on my re-election. I've never taken a poll on what I believe or to figure out how to position myself on issues. I just know. How do you know to get married? You just know. I'll know. I've never done this before, but I'll know."
Los Angeles Times Syndicate