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A lifetime of risk-taking shapes Bush's leadership

WASHINGTON -- When George W. Bush accepted the presidential nomination four years ago, he laced his speech with extraordinary clues about his governing style. ''I do not need to take your pulse before I know my own mind," Bush told Americans. Mocking criticism that his platform was filled with ''risky schemes," Bush told the story of a patriot who ignored warnings that he would lose his property if he signed the Declaration of Independence, saying, ''Damn the consequences, give me the pen."

In retrospect, the Texan left no doubt: He intended his presidency to be built on a foundation of bold and broad risks.

Now, as Bush again prepares to accept his party's presidential nomination, his candidacy is based on at least two major ventures fraught with risk -- the war in Iraq and massive tax cuts -- as well as on his reliance on risk as a style of governing. A former oilman who bet and sometimes lost tens of thousands of dollars on dreams of gushers, Bush has taken that wildcatting style into the White House, determined to show that, unlike his father, George H.W. Bush, he has the ''vision thing" and is unafraid of the consequences.

''He is a big risk taker," Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said. ''If you look at the way he ran his oil business, this is a guy who was skating on the edge. I think it goes to a deep personality characteristic."

Conrad, who opposed the Iraq war resolution, is no fan of Bush's approach and laments being one of many Democrats who feel shut out by the White House. But Bush's admirers see it another way: A president must be sure of himself and take risks in order to be a leader, and must trust those he is advising in order to lead well. Caution in a time of terrorism would be a weak way to run the White House, his defenders say.

Indeed, one of Bush's campaign refrains is that his policies don't create wealth but create an environment for risk-takers to be rewarded -- and he has followed that philosophy himself in pursuing the war, tax cuts, and a governing style that has alienated many Democrats and some foreign leaders.

''He is not afraid of risk and he is confident obviously in what he believes, and it has kind of shaped his political career," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. ''It is that whole mentality that was very much shaped by his West Texas upbringing and in business; being in the oil business you have this frontier attitude about taking risk and entrepreneurship."

So, to the surprise of some observers, Bush has become the country's ultimate entrepreneur, gambling his political future and that of millions of Americans on the biggest stage of all. It is not the way some imagined Bush's presidency. During his 2000 campaign, Bush often sounded as if his plan was to play it safe, to be a centrist Republican as his predecessor, Bill Clinton, was a centrist Democrat.

Things were going so well economically in the summer of 2000 that he talked during the campaign about promoting ''prosperity with a purpose." He was a ''compassionate conservative" who hoped to unite with Democrats -- or, some say, co-opt them -- on issues ranging from taxes to education to Medicare. Terrorism was a nonissue, foreign policy an afterthought.

The Sept. 11 attacks transformed Bush from being a peace president who had time to leisurely examine stem cell research, to being a war president whose top concern is to defend America.

''Whatever you may think of the wisdom of his policies, you cannot deny that he has been bold and aggressive in pursuing them," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has long followed Bush's career. ''Bush the elder was cautious, pragmatic, not a real risk taker. Bush the younger seems willing to take the bit in his teeth.

''In his [2000] acceptance speech, he said, 'They have not led, we will.' By God, he has," Buchanan said. The question, he said, is whether voters will endorse the direction of that leadership, which seems to have polarized the nation.

A born leader''People try to figure me out," Bush said in an interview with The Boston Globe during his first run for the presidency. ''Part of what I am is the Midland, Texas, experience, and, obviously part of what I am is Andover, Yale, and Harvard."

At Phillips Andover Academy, north of Boston, Bush gave himself a telling nickname: Bush Tweed, after the political operative, Boss Tweed. He was a ''mediocre student," he recalled, but he was determined even at this early age to be a leader, even if that only meant being Andover's High Commissioner of Stickball or head cheerleader. He followed the same path at Yale University, where he was president of a fraternity. Despite his average grades, he got into Harvard Business School on the strength of what one professor called a good written application -- which has never been released -- and his potential as a future leader.

Strolling around Harvard in a Texas Air National Guard jacket, Bush reveled in the image of a self-assured Texan who looked piercingly through what he viewed as the pretenses of the Cambridge elite. He determined that he would return to Texas and, like his father, stake his claims in oil and politics.

But risk can bring failure as well as success. His bid for the US House in 1978 ended in a bitter loss after he was tagged by his opponent as -- of all things -- an Eastern elitist liberal. ''He failed but learned from the experience," said Bartlett, the Bush aide. ''It was a very good lesson in how politics works: Don't let someone define you before you define yourself."

Bush threw himself into one of the riskiest business ventures available -- the oil and gas business, forming a company called Arbusta. But that company, as well as two firms that followed, were mostly unsuccessful. Bush was bailed out when Harken Energy bought the firm.

Phil Kendrick, a founder of Harken Energy, believes that Bush's philosophy as president can be traced directly to the days when he was a West Texas ''wildcat," the slang term for oil speculators. Kendrick followed Bush's progress because he held stock options in Harken at the time Bush was on the company's board.

''When you go out and spend $100,000 and you know that 1-in-10 chance wildcats are successful, that is a pretty good gamble," said Kendrick, ''It is the same thing the president of the United States does. He has all the latest scientific evidence, he has to be the one that decides what is most likely to be right and make a call. There are some people, they could listen to all the science in the world, all the information in the world, and they just freeze and can't make a decision, they are scared they are going to be wrong. They can't be in the oil business and they can't be president of the United States."

But Alex Knott of the Center for Public Integrity, who has researched Bush's oil business, said it is not clear that Bush learned the downside of risks. ''It doesn't appear he was that good of a businessman," Knott said. ''Most of his oil industry actions turned up empty. He has learned mostly that it pays to have an important father."

Bush became a partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team by purchasing a 1.8 percent ownership stake -- which his partners turned into a bonanza by upping his stake to 12 percent. Those partners included financial backers of his father, who by then was president. It is one of the great ironies of his story that Bush, who campaigns on the idea that entrepreneurs will benefit from lower taxes, himself benefited by pushing for a tax increase to help build a ballpark for the Rangers.

Independently wealthy and by then a major public figure in Texas, Bush ran for governor in 1994, defeating incumbent Ann Richards, who famously said he was ''born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." Easygoing and popular with both Republicans and Democrats in the state, Bush handily won reelection in 1998 and then, after six years as governor, decided to risk it all on a run for the presidency.

Bush, who believes in making a handful of major promises rather than a catalog of proposals, had five major goals when he challenged Al Gore for the White House: reform education, cut taxes, overhaul Medicare, reorganize the Defense Department, and partially privatize Social Security. Since his election in the closest race in modern US history, he has acted on all those goals except for Social Security, which is so politically risky to tinker with that it is known as the ''third rail" of politics -- touch it and die.

His biggest domestic risk was promoting a round of tax cuts. Bush's father had been so consumed with concern about deficits that he broke his ''no new taxes" pledge to balance the budget, a move that helped lead to his reelection defeat. So the younger Bush knew that his father had risked one principle, no new taxes, in favor of another, eliminating the deficit -- and that the risk had not paid off politically.

The younger Bush instead proposed a series of tax cuts in the 2000 campaign. At the time, with the economy strong and no war on the horizon, it seemed low risk for a big political return. But the economy stalled, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to large expenditures. The tax cuts were no longer coming out of a budget surplus. The deficit, which hit a high of $341 billion in 1992 under the senior Bush, climbed to $353 billion in 2003, adjusted for inflation. The White House said that the deficit will gradually decrease as the economic benefit of tax cuts kick in and the costs of war decrease.

It may be years before the impact of the tax cut plan is fully known. Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush's Democratic opponent in the presidential race, wants to rescind the cuts for those making more than $200,000 annually in order to finance health care and education programs. Last week, Kerry said Bush's policies failed, noting that the poverty rate rose to 12.5 percent last year, up from 12.1 percent in 2002, and the number of uninsured rose by 1.4 million to 45 million.

Going it aloneWhen Bush first became president, many Democrats were eager to work with him. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, helped ensure passage of Bush's education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act. Kennedy was so pleased that he appeared with Bush at events to promote the legislation. Bush won other victories following the Sept. 11 attacks, with passage of the Patriot Act and the Iraq war resolution.

Kerry was one of many Democrats who voted for all three measures. Kerry, like Kennedy, now says that Bush has not fully funded No Child Left Behind. Kerry also says Bush has imposed tougher restrictions on civil liberties than necessary with the Patriot Act, and did not keep his pledge to go to war in Iraq only as a last resort.

But White House officials see Kerry's views as flip-flops. Voting for the measures ''undercuts a lot of his arguments," Bartlett said about Kerry.

Kennedy, asked why he worked closely with Bush at first and now believes the president is not keeping his pledges, said, ''There is a difference between what happened in the beginning of the administration and what has happened later on."

That difference was highlighted when Bush sought the resolution approving the use of force against Iraq. While Kennedy opposed the measure, Kerry supported it, perhaps with an eye to a race against Bush.

Unlike the discussions over education and the patients' bill of rights, Kennedy said he did not talk with Bush about Iraq. ''It was a . . . closed process, my way or the highway," Kennedy said.

Most tellingly, Bush rejected the advice of his father's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. who wrote an August 2002 Wall Street Journal article headlined ''Don't Attack Saddam" in order to get the president's attention. The opinion piece warned that an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein's regime would put ''at risk our campaign against terrorism as well as stability and security in a vital region of the world."

Bush's advisers -- a group of hawkish ''neoconservatives" who wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East -- scoffed at Scowcroft's warnings, and the president went to war in Iraq, which some viewed as an effort to finish a job that his father failed to complete.

Former senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who interviewed Bush in his role as a member of the 9/11 Commission, said he was struck by the way Bush disregarded advice from those who disagreed with his view about Iraq. He said the analogy of Bush as a wildcatter is apt in this case; that the president was willing to hear only what he wanted to hear.

''From what I see in Iraq, he threw all those guys out the window, anybody who had anything other than a rosy scenario," Kerrey said.

''Entrepreneurs like rosy scenarios, they like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it is an admirable characteristic. The problem is rolling the dice or being more cautious. You need to bring the planning in, especially in Iraq. It is not like drilling for oil."

If Bush wins reelection, aides said that he will focus even more on an entrepreneurial style, seeking changes in the tax system that provide what the president calls ''empowerment" for those willing to risk their capital.

That will include initiatives on home ownership as well as an effort to follow through on Bush's promise to partially privatize Social Security. He would be likely to push harder for drilling for oil in places like the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and would probably put more pressure on nations such as North Korea and Iran, which he has described as part of an ''axis of evil" that once included Iraq.

Bush will not be reluctant to go it alone, using executive powers as much as possible, according to William G. Howell, a Harvard professor and author of ''Politics Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action." Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq was the ultimate example, but other examples include his directive to provide funding for faith-based initiatives after failing to win congressional approval.

''You could call it a strength or a weakness, his willingness to stick by a handful of objectives and press for them, often in the face of public or congressional or international opposition," Howell said. Bush ''is acting like a true chief executive officer," which in this case means betting that his risks will be rewarded with reelection.

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. 

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