Thursday, March 15, 2007

He Just Wanted To Become Baseball Commissioner

The future president takes in a ball game in Arlington, 1994.

In October, 2000, Vanity Fair ran an extensive profile on the man who wanted to be president. Well, first he wanted to be baseball commissioner, and his enthusiasm for becoming president of the United States, as shown in the profile piece, was not exactly overwhelming.

Interviews with friends, uni pals and former business partners reveal young George had virtually no interest in politics, the state of the nation or the world at large for most of his life, up to, and including, during his reign as governor of Texas during the 1990s.

But he sure did love clawing his way back from the brink of utter failure. In fact, a prime source of motivation for Bush during his 20s and 30s was failure itself. A pattern of behaviour was established in his childhood that has continued right through to his years as president.

So why did George W. Bush want to become president anyway?

Did he do it for his Ma?

To prove something to his dad?

Or simply to avenge the family dynasty, after the monumental trouncing his father suffered when the Democrats and Bill Clinton won the 1994 presidential election?

If the Vanity Fair story and Bush's own words are to be believed, a little of all the above.

As I said, it's a long piece, but I've excerpted below what I think prove to be the more interesting elements of the story, considering what we know now about the man, seven years on from his first successful run at the presidency :
Throughout his boyhood and the nomadic years of his 20s, and continuing through the wildcat years of his 30s as an oilman drilling on other people's money and boozing to blot out his failures, nothing engaged his attention for any length of time. He was lectured by his rich uncle, George Herbert Walker, a banker, on the concept that politics was the only occupation worth pursuing. "He didn't have any passion for running for Congress, or for governor," says Bush's personal accountant, Robert McCleskey. "I think it was in his blood, but I don't know if he had it on the brain," suggests Charlie Younger, the boyhood friend who in 1975 climbed onstage with Bush to dance with Willie Nelson. Even as an adult, George was so out of control that his mother, then the president's wife, removed her eldest son to the opposite end of the table at a state dinner for the Queen of England. Although sober by then, the First Son had introduced himself to the Queen as "the black sheep of the family."

* * * * *

...According to George's wife, Laura Bush, that he "always wanted to buy a baseball team, to be an owner like his Uncle Herbie." Hannah remembers another, even clearer dream expressed by his buddy. "He wanted to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis," America's first baseball commissioner, legendary for his power and dictatorial style. "I would have guessed that when George grew up he would be the commissioner of baseball," says Hannah. "I am still convinced that that is his goal."

One assumes that this close pal of the Republican presidential candidate is speaking with tongue in cheek. But no. "Running for president is a résumé-enhancer for being the commissioner of baseball," he insists. "And it's a whole lot better job."

* * * * * *

A close examination of Bush's life uncovers an interesting pattern, one that emerged in his school days and has repeated during his years as an oilman and in his recent political career. He seems motivated to make a real effort only when he is failing, or when he has gone too far in shaming his family, or when he is in a game he is sure he can win. His opponents, judging him by the careless, smart-aleck mode that he usually affects, size him up as a lightweight and are then caught flat-footed when he beats them. But once Bush figures out the game, says Roland Betts, he can lose interest and go on cruise control.

* * * * *

The interest by his mother comes from the fact there was dyslexia in the family," confirmed Lenox Reed, former executive director of the Neuhaus Education Center in Houston, which won a grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation and trains Texas teachers how to teach reading to dyslexics. Although Reed was uncomfortable with looking at her governor through this prism, she said, "I do think you have every right to analyze his speech patterns." She referred me to a Houston speech and language expert who diagnoses dyslexia, Nancy LaFevers.

"The errors you've heard Governor Bush make are consistent with dyslexia," LaFevers says. "Put food on your family" and "claim the low road" indicate language that hasn't been processed. Dyslexics hear adequately but seem unable to process quickly all the sounds in the word. So when they go to retrieve a word they've heard, they will sometimes omit sounds, or transpose or even substitute sounds. They are highly verbal. But a language-disordered person is not particularly organized as a speaker.

Sue Horn, who has been diagnosing dyslexics for 25 years, agrees: "Bush is probably dyslexic, although he has probably never been diagnosed." Tom West says of dyslexics, "You're likely to scramble words, particularly if you're tired or under stress … or asked something cold. But if you're in an environment where you can be an 'actor'—with a script you've memorized—you can focus on connecting with the audience and be a much more powerful speaker than anyone else."

If Bush does indeed carry dyslexic traits, why would this be important?

It shapes one's whole life. According to professionals in the field, the brain structure related to dyslexia is laid down within the first few weeks of gestation. "The wiring is so deep, you can alter it, but you can't change the root structure," says West. A lot of dyslexics develop rigidity, needing the comfort of following a known path. Bush for many years followed his father's path. He is at pains to be punctual. His latter-day embrace of the evangelical Christian men's movement provided him further structure and a spiritual discipline. And now, as he runs for political office, strategists and speechwriters can provide him with almost foolproof verbal structure.

* * * * * *

There is an interpersonal fearlessness about Bush that is utterly disarming. The minute he enters a space, he is situationally hyper-aware. He works a ballroom better than any pol with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, making personal contact with people and reaching out for those too shy to come forward, spending up to twice as much time on being a "people person" as on delivering his short, rote stump speech. He violates the normal social distance and moves right in, four or five inches from the stranger's mouth or eyes, and he drinks in the face. He seems to be memorizing visual cues—modeling the person in his mind's eye the way a sculptor would. If this is his compensation for an unreliable verbal channel, it works, and particularly for a politician it works wonderfully.

If you've got the time, the whole story can be read here. There are plenty more fascinating insights to be found.