Pumping Iron, Digging Gold, Pressing Flesh: The Favorite Son: At a Time of Republican Desperation to Find Someone to Reclaim the Presidency, George W. Bush Received a Procession of Party Elders Who Quickly Rallied to His Candidacy. but the Early Primaries Were Not So Easy
It was April 1998, and George W. Bush was still not sure he was running for president. The old family loyalists and party elders were already talking about a restoration, and they were eager for an audience with the man who could deliver the country from eight years of Clintonism. Bush was reluctant. "Too far ahead of the power curve," he said. But he went anyway, to the home of former secretary of State George Shultz on the Stanford University campus, for a 1 p.m. "policy salon." A half-dozen former officials of the Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations, including President Bush's economic adviser Michael Boskin, Reagan's domestic-policy adviser Martin Anderson and Bush national-security expert Condoleezza Rice, had come to sip iced tea, nibble cookies and take the measure of Bush's stature and intelligence. Bush was nervous and charmingly self-effacing. "You're my professors. I'm the Econ 1 student, and I'm taking it again because I didn't do well in it in college," he began, to laughter.
He was wobbly at first on foreign policy and had to be rescued. "Well, what about Mexico?" Shultz asked, steering the conversation closer to home. But, gradually, Bush took control, asking probing, common-sense questions and sounding surprisingly knowledgeable himself. He was particularly interested in Social Security reform. He wanted to know what the assembled sages thought about allowing younger workers to invest a slice of their Social Security taxes in the stock market. "I'm a little concerned about how much risk is there," said Bush. "What do you do to prevent people from investing in worm farms?"
It was almost evening when he got up to go. Shultz walked to the car with Bush's top aide, Karl Rove. "I hope the good fortune of this place rubs off," Shultz said. Rove asked what he meant. Shultz explained that Ronald Reagan had held the first meeting of his kitchen cabinet in Shultz's living room. Back inside, Shultz enthused to the other old hands, "This guy's incredible. This guy's smart. He had good judgment." They all agreed: George W. Bush could be president. Better than that: he could be another Ronald Reagan! He was engaging and asked good questions. And he had made a group of formerly important people, who had been around presidents, feel like they were important again. In the car Bush turned to Rove and said that he was astonished by how well the meeting had gone. "They didn't seem to think I was slobbering on my shoes."
After the Stanford salon, the worthies started coming to Austin. Shultz himself, 79, flew down about once a month, taking the red-eye if necessary to get there on time. Along with Boskin and Condi Rice and other GOP heavyweight thinkers, he began to tutor the one-term governor in the arts of policymaking and statesmanship. They were just a few in a long line of academics, moneymen, right-wing activists, governors and party hacks of all descriptions who paraded to the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, in 1998 and early 1999. So many came to pay tribute or to be converted--about 600 visitors, all told--that Bush's aides began referring to "the pilgrimage."
They didn't all arrive as true believers, Karl Rove would later insist. The party bosses would tell Rove, "I just want to sniff him out." In Austin, all comers got the treatment, a carefully orchestrated couple of hours of intimacy with the heir apparent. Arriving at 11:30, the visitors would be toured around the governor's mansion by Rove, who would show them Sam Houston's bedroom. At noon, they'd be ushered past a huge painting of the Alamo and into the dining room and be seated by place cards (the biggest donors were always put next to Bush's top fund-raisers, Don Evans and Jack Oliver). Bush would enter, shake hands, slap a few backs and stand behind his chair to hold forth for a half hour while the guests ate their salads. Then he'd sit down and give a blessing. Over lunch (usually salmon), Bush fielded questions, some of them pretty direct, like "Are you going to embarrass us? …