With his MBA, Bush’s style blossomed. But it took some time to put it to work. After earning his degree, he returned to Midland, Texas, where his father had prospered in the oil business—and where he had lived an earlier life as a partying bachelor. He formed his own oil company and christened it “Arbusto,” the Spanish word for “Bush.” He achieved only moderate success as an oilman. In 1978 he launched a campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bush was a hugely successful fund-raiser but a distinctly unsuccessful candidate. He lost the race by six percentage points.
If his political efforts foundered and his oil business only modestly prospered, Bush did secure one large victory. In 1977 he met and married Laura Welch, a librarian and teacher, who has since been his anchor. She was one of the few people who could look Bush in the eye and tell him he needed to shift his tone or his message. After the September 11 attacks, for example, Bush said he was going to get the terrorists, “dead or alive.” The first lady worried that such harsh words would make him seem too much like a West Texas tough guy, and she told her husband more than once to soften his rhetoric. Laura Bush has long proven a balance to the more exuberant side of his personality, and she has helped provide his internal compass.
Bush’s jump into big-time politics came in 1987, when he moved to Washington to help his father’s successful campaign for the presidency. He had no official title, but he carried enormous weight. His father relied on him for advice, and he worked to ensure that the election team worked closely together. He moved back to Dallas after the election, but still served as a closet adviser—and occasional heavy to resolve internal staff disputes on the White House team. From his unique perch, he gathered strong insights about what did—and didn’t—work in the Oval Office.
In Dallas, he shifted to a completely different line of work. Bush assembled a team of investors to resuscitate the Texas Rangers, a troubled baseball franchise since its days as the Washington Senators. He used his old-boy ties to help revive the team. In the process, he earned a huge profit, turning his initial $600,000 investment into $15 million when the owners sold the team in 1998.
His baseball ties quickly linked him to important political figures. In 1994 he parlayed these connections into a campaign for governor and surprised everyone by defeating the incumbent, Democrat Ann Richards. As governor, he relied heavily on a team of close advisers to push through a massive property tax cut and a major tort reform bill. He won reelection in 1998 by a resounding margin and became the first governor in Texas history to win back-to-back races.
His success made him a front-runner for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. His campaign started lean, with just a small team of his most trusted advisers. Karen Hughes was his longtime press secretary. Joe Allbaugh served as Bush’s chief of staff, and Karl Rove was, in Bush’s own words, his “political guru.” Sometimes the campaign caravan consisted of just the four of them packed into a single vehicle. Hughes later joked that, often, “the motorcade was one car and he [Bush] was sometimes driving it.”
He carefully staged his entry into the campaign, pledging not to announce his candidacy until after the Texas legislative session had been completed. When he did throw his hat into the ring, he did it with a razor-sharp message from which he rarely deviated. He was a “compassionate conservative,” a “reformer with results,” who pledged to restore dignity to the White House and avoid the international “nation-building” forays that, he believed, had proven disastrous in the Clinton administration. Even his critics noted that he managed to hold his own in the presidential debates and in later debates mastered the details of foreign policy that seemed to stump him early on. For a candidate dueling with the intellectual Al Gore, that was no small feat.
For George W. Bush, the 2000 presidential election was the moment that focused his life and skills as nothing else ever had. His personality, his training, and his experience had all built slowly toward that point. When he was elected, the question was, how would the first MBA ever to become president of the United States apply his style to the most difficult management job in the world?