Sunday, October 03, 1999

Friends put faith in Bush




BY PETER BRONSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the man most likely to be the next president of the United States came to town in July, two of his closest friends welcomed him to Cincinnati as he stepped off a plane.

        “It was a little awkward standing there with all these politicos and business people after Bill and I had known him for so many years,” said Mercer Reynolds.

        “I'm walking to the car and all these big black Explorers and Suburbans are taking off, and off to the side was this odd person in tennis shoes and black socks, with a hat pushed off to one side, wearing plaid shorts and holding a baseball. I didn't know what he was there for. I don't think anyone else did, either. But George knew. He wanted an autograph. So "G.W.' rolls down his window and stops everyone to get out of the car and sign an autograph. Can you see Bill Clinton or Al Gore doing that?”

        Not unless a TV camera was rolling.

        “There were no cameras there,” Mr. Reynolds points out.

        He tells the story as an example of Mr. Bush's genuine, caring nature — an article of faith for Bush supporters.

        Mr. Reynolds and his business partner Bill DeWitt Jr. have known George W. Bush Jr. since 1980, when they visited Midland, Texas, looking for prospects for their oil company, Spectrum 7. They are the Cincinnati connection to the Bush campaign, as finance co-chairs for Ohio. Their July 22 fund-raiser in Cincinnati set a state record: $1 million in one stop.

        The Reynolds-DeWitt partnership doesn't make headlines like Cincinnati's other pro-sports owners. But Mr. DeWitt is the managing partner of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mr. Reynolds has Reynolds Plantation, a retirement community and resort in Georgia. They share those and other businesses from investment banking to Arby's franchises. Until they joined the Bush campaign, they were not political, Mr. Reynolds says.

        But they've teamed up with Mr. Bush in oil and baseball, as former owners of the Texas Rangers. And now that Mr. Bush leads the pack, his business is everyone's business.

        Investigative reporters have drilled dry wells all over Texas looking for scandals in Mr. Bush's past. Most stories insinuate that Mr. Bush's oil company, Arbusto, was bailed out by merging with Reynolds-DeWitt's Spectrum 7; they hint that his share of the Texas Rangers (Mr. Bush put up $500,000 and sold for $15 million) had more to do with his father's job than his resume.

        “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr. Reynolds said. “His company wasn't struggling. We needed him. We needed a guy we trusted.”

        Such stories “paint a picture of George that is not accurate,” Mr. Reynolds said.

        “We didn't go into business for his connections. We had all the connections ... People did not invest with us to garner favors from his father. That's just not the way the business world works.”

        Mr. Reynolds grades his former partner “A-plus” in the business world, “for integrity, vision, leadership and his ability to empower people to do their best.”

        On road trips in their oil business days, Mr. Reynolds learned a lot about Mr. Bush that doesn't match the media mug-shot.

        “He would shy away from his father's name or his brother's. He wanted to be his own man, and stand alone,” he said.

        “I've known him when he would still go out and drink beer. We've been on many trips ... You can imagine two guys on the road selling oil and gas deals. Every opportunity presented itself. And nothing happened. I never saw him intoxicated or out of control.”

        After Bill Clinton, this is the boomer generation's great expectation for a president: He's real, he cares and he's not a disgrace.

        In Cincinnati, Mr. Bush took the pledge: “When I put my hand on the Bible to become your president, I will swear to uphold the dignity and honor of the office I have been elected to, so help me God.”

        The crowd cheered, and so will the rest of the nation, Mr. Reynolds said, because we're fed up with Clinton fatigue and want moral leadership based on religious beliefs.

        The first thing he said about his friend was, “I've known George for so many years, and he is a very strong evangelical Christian. Many people don't know about that.”

        But they're catching on.

        A curious side-effect of Clinton nausea is the revival of moral character as a job requirement. Al Gore is suddenly testifying about his faith in a “controlling authority.”

        And Mr. Bush explains his “compassionate conservatism” by saying, “I know the transforming power of faith.”

        After eight years of scandal, shame and disgrace, voters are figuring out that it's not such a bad idea to put faith in a leader who believes the Bible is more than a prop.

        Maybe that's why G.W. has so many friends.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.