Just Us Guys

The boys are back, as Bush and Bullock usher in the age of transpartisan politics

If nothing else, the inauguration of George W. Bush as the state's 46th governor served to once again set the dreary state of the Texas Democratic Party in bold relief. With the November 8 GOPslide having receded into a painful memory for Democrats, half the party seems to still be in free fall and plotting purges and the rest has switched from bipartisan to transpartisan drag, echoing the GOP's anti-federal rhetoric and contemplating political sex-change operations.

With Bill Clinton buddy Ann Richards gone and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock at the apex of what remains of the sputtering Democratic power grid, the president might find a more hospitable reception at a military base in Jesse Helms' neck of the woods than in the Lone Star State.

While Bush reveled in his ascent from Texas Rangers frontman to the state's chief executive, the inauguration provided Bullock with a stage to preen his conservative plumage and his open delight at the demise of the liberal cult that coalesced around Richards.

In fact, amid all the yawns provoked by Bush's low-key inaugural, the only act that seemed to have any real pizzazz was the quartet of George and Laura and Bob and Jan. The boys bonded boisterously, complimenting each other's "lovely wife," while the wives gazed adoringly at their men. The macho pseudo-secessionist remarks drew generous applause. It almost seemed antebellum.

The best line in the speechifying came from a dead Californian. "To quote John Steinbeck, 'Texas is a state of mind, not a state of the union,'" Bullock told the inaugural-ball crowd at Austin's Frank Erwin Center. The only food for thought in Bush's low-cal inaugural address focused on sending a blunt message to Washington that Texans can run Texas and, of course, his campaign tag line: "What Texans can dream, Texans can do."

The inauguration and first few days of the Bush administration left absolutely no doubt that the new governor is a dream come true for Bullock, who's pleased as punch that he has a real Texas boy to relate to -- instead of Richards and her self-contained circle of good ol' girls. Bullock could hardly keep his hands off the new governor, while Bush demonstrated an almost unseemly appreciation for Bullock's spouse, at one point describing Jan Bullock as "a lot prettier than he is and prettier than many Texas women." With all the "lovely little lady" comments in vogue, it seemed as if Richards' brand of feminism was just a dream Texas had during a four-year slumber.

"I think there's some good chemistry between him and the governor," observed Tony Profitt, Bullock's political pointman, in a deadpan understatement. "Ann had a lot of star qualities about her and always kind of moved in her own aura with a large following. I think Bush is more to Bullock's style: Pragmatic.Straightforward. Just a guy-type deal."

The differences in the working relationship between the lieutenant governor and the new and old governors were visible even before Bush and Bullock took their oaths of office.

"They've had more face-to-face meetings since Bush was elected than [Bullock] had with Richards the whole time that Richards was governor," says Profitt. "Richards seldom called a meeting to say, 'Bob, let's talk about it.' The communications are going to be much better."

While Richards and Bullock shared some history, such as their status as recovering alcoholics, Bullock charted a course as an independent and generally kept his distance from her on the campaign trail in both her gubernatorial bids.

"They had a contentious relationship and that's just the way it was," Austin political consultant Bill Miller says of Richards and Bullock. "What Bullock was saying to George [at the inaugural] was, 'I don't want to be contentious with you. I want to work with you.' And here we go."

Richards also tended to stick to the symbolic, hoarding her popularity. Bush is giving every indication he wants to get down in the sandbox and play with the boys of the Legislature.

"Ann was not an activist governor at the legislative level," says Miller. "She didn't even prepare budgets. She let Bullock do it. Bush is giving signs he's going to be an activist, and if someone's going to be an activist, you want to be activated with them."

Bush and Bullock are expected to work together on a number of issues the new governor pushed in his campaign -- welfare reform, a school voucher program, tort reform and revising the state's juvenile code. Bullock also did his new buddy a favor by informing Richards' interim insurance commissioner, Rebecca Lightsey, that he would support no major regulatory initiatives until Bush's pick to replace her, Elton Bomer, was on board.

Aside from the George and Bob duet, the inaugural lacked fizz from beginning to end. The largest of the three balls at the Erwin Center never reached critical mass, despite an indoor fireworks display, a sappy "Texas, Our Texas" slide show, some decent country and western music, and cascades of balloons and confetti.

Democratic state Representative Ron Wilson arrived at the basketball field house just as Mark Ballew finished belting out, "Your Daddy Don't Live in Hell, He Lives in Houston." The lawmaker from inner-city Houston found most of the crowd chatting quietly or sitting on their hands in the stands, and he gazed deeply into the desert of soul on the dance floor before executing a fast break for the door.

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