The new George W. Bush Library and Museum is dedicated to educating the public. Here’s one story it left out. Play ball!
Here is Chapter 17 of the book Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years, by WhoWhatWhy Editor-in-Chief Russ Baker:
W. was not quite the baseball player his father and grandfather had been—but he was the master of a certain kind of pitch. In the days leading up to the 1988 election, W. was on the phone constantly making sales calls, though not for his father’s candidacy. As Bush family adviser Doug Wead recalled: “It was interesting to sit and listen to him pick up the phone again and again and say: ‘Well, we’re gonna buy a baseball team. Want to buy a baseball team?’ ”
Maybe George W. Bush felt that his father’s election was in the bag. Or maybe he was in a hurry because he thought it was less unseemly for the son of a vice president seeking the presidency to be soliciting funds for personal reasons than for the son of a sitting president to be doing so. Whatever his reason, at that particular moment, baseball was on his mind.
W. has genuine affection for “America’s pastime,” but his decision to acquire the Texas Rangers baseball team was not just about fun. He was creating a legend that would set him on the path to the presidency. How could a man with so few accomplishments be made into an impressive public figure? How could a fellow who had few prospects of honestly earning a fortune be set up in the sort of lifestyle he and his friends expected?
Such questions were certainly on the mind of his informal political adviser Karl Rove. Although the Bush forces would claim that W. had not seriously thought about running for higher office until well into the 1990s, as far back as Poppy’s inauguration Rove had been letting reporters know that there was another Bush waiting in the wings. In fact, W.’s name was floated as a possibility for the 1990 Texas governor’s race, but W.’s mother publicly opposed his bid because of concerns that a loss would be seen as a referendum on Bush Sr.’s presidency.
Even back then, Rove was envisioning a path for him and his friend straight to the White House. The Texas governorship would give W. a base, and a bucketload of electoral votes to start with. So in the final days before his father’s victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis, George W. Bush was looking toward his own future—first, a brief baseball “baptism” as a public figure, then political office. “Mostly he was talking about his plan with the Rangers and governor, back then,” recalled Wead. “It was Rangers and governor, Rangers, governor, Rangerrrrs . . .”
Anyone seeking a path to the big leagues could do worse than owning a ball team. George W. Bush and his cadre well understood that a winning sports play, like a steady spot in a forward church pew or an art museum with one’s name on it, accorded instant points—and went a long way toward ameliorating deficiencies (particularly moral ones) on other fronts.
The Bushes and their friends had ownership stakes in a lot of teams—the Reds, the Mets, the Tigers, and other favorites. It all started with W.’s greatgrandfather George Herbert “Bert” Walker, who was a force behind professional golf’s Walker Cup and, in fact, the introduction of golf itself into America. He was also a prominent booster of the New York Yacht Club, professional tennis, and premier horse racing. This family legacy culminated in George W. Bush’s successful effort at capturing a new constituency known as the NASCAR voter. Of course, being associated with sports offers obvious benefits in terms of pleasure and ego, but there is little question that the Bush group was adept at leveraging yet one more beloved American institution.
As would be demonstrated by the Supreme Court that would decide the 2000 election in W.’s favor, getting a “fair break” for oneself begins with knowing the referee. Peter Ueberroth, the baseball commissioner at the time W.’s group acquired the Arlington, Texas–based Rangers, was known to be looking for opportunities in politics as he left baseball in 1989, the year Poppy took office. One source close to the negotiations told the New York Times that after W. had failed to persuade the wealthy Texan Richard Rainwater to join the investment group, Ueberroth himself had approached Rainwater and suggested that he team up with Bush, at least partly “out of respect for his father.” As commissioner, Ueberroth was succeeded by Bart Giamatti, an Andover alum who became president of Yale; he was succeeded by Fay Vincent, another old friend of the Bushes who had roughnecked in the oil business in Midland, and even lived at the Bush house briefly when W. was growing up.
W. was relentlessly optimistic about his plans to get into baseball. “He’d get off the phone after somebody said no, and there was not even the slightest disappointment or discouragement,” recalled Doug Wead. “You couldn’t even see a whiff of self- doubt. I thought, man, he’d be a great salesman, he doesn’t even have any [sense of ] rejection.”
Not that there was too much rejection. Smart men—and it was virtually only men who invested—knew that this was a good moment to be in business with George W. Bush, the president’s son.
Family and friends understood the plan: turn a nobody with a famous name into a “somebody,” and, while you’re at it, use the famous name, insider connections, and the implied glamour of the project to make a bundle.
According to Comer Cottrell, a black Republican hair products entrepreneur who put up half a million dollars to become a limited partner, “George brought a lot to the table just by being the president’s son and running for governor . . . Everybody wanted to know him.”
Bush paid six hundred thousand dollars in borrowed money for a 2 percent stake in the Rangers. However, he secured the generous proviso that his share would jump to 11 percent once the partners had gotten their investment out. Thus, the entire deal seemed designed to benefit Bush.
For about eighty- six million dollars, Bush and seventy investors bought the team. Among the investors were William O. DeWitt Jr. and Mercer Reynolds III, the fellows who had bailed out W.’s Arbusto Energy. This new deal was certainly a natural for DeWitt, who grew up around baseball and whose father served as general manager of the Detroit Tigers and later owned the Cincinnati Reds. Other Rangers investors included the much-investigated Nixon administration “Jew- counter” Fred Malek, who managed Poppy Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign. Malek, who by 2008 was making a bid for the Chicago Cubs, has long been a kind of Bush family handyman. It was he who arranged a job for W. on the board of CaterAir, a subsidiary of the secretive global holding company the Carlyle Group.
Typically, sports team ownership is a badge of pride. Yet, as with so many other ventures involving George W. Bush, many of the people who invested in the Rangers with him preferred to remain below the radar. “The city went berserk when I got a list of owners,” said attorney Glenn Sodd, who represented plaintiffs suing the city of Arlington and the team owners over private land seizures to make way for the new stadium that would exponentially increase the value of the franchise. “They got the court order to prevent names from coming out. The team was desperate to keep it secret . . . The list didn’t tell you a whole lot, because there were some partnerships [hiding] who the actual people were. For all you and I know, there were Saudis.”
There certainly were Saudi connections, including the attorney representing Bush as he pursued the Rangers. James R. Doty was a partner with Baker Botts, which represented major Saudi interests, as well as many American companies doing business with the kingdom. Doty had also represented W.’s old friend and Saudi financial agent Jim Bath when Bath sued his business partner Bill White, a saga described in chapter 14. Shortly after handling Bush’s Rangers deal, Doty was named general counsel to the SEC under Poppy Bush’s administration, and though he recused himself, he was there when the agency investigated the possibility of insider trading on W.’s Harken stock sale—and closed the file with no action.
Roland Places His Betts
If Harvard deserves much of the credit for the boost Harken Energy provided George W. Bush on his path to the White House, then Yale deserves some credit for the boost that the Texas Rangers provided. With Yale, however, it was not the school’s money so much as the clubby milieu the school created for private arrangements.
The largest investor in the Rangers deal was Bush’s Yale friend Roland Betts, who put in a hefty $3.6 million. “I’m George’s biggest fan,” Betts once told the New York Times. Betts, who served as rush chairman of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale while Bush was the fraternity’s president, would subsequently play a unique role over the years in persuading the media that W. was really quite a moderate fellow. As the Times wrote in 2005:
When people ask Roland Betts how a New York Democrat can be such a good friend of President Bush, he whips out a ready answer. “Which would you prefer: my being close to him, or some rightwing zealot being close to him?” Mr. Betts said in a recent interview. “Who do you want to have his ear? So it’s not a bad thing. Maybe I give him a little balance. . . . I don’t think he’s as conservative a person as the media generally characterizes him as,” Mr. Betts said.
The media loved Betts: not only was he a Democrat friend of Bush’s, but he had also worked for a while in an inner- city school, and he had a black wife. Moreover, Betts was founder and chairman of Chelsea Piers, a popular sports complex on Manhattan’s West Side. After Yale, and after a spell as a teacher and assistant principal during the Vietnam War, Betts moved on to Columbia Law School and then became an entertainment lawyer with the white- shoe Manhattan firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Even better, Betts started his own limited partnership, which cut a deal with the company that is practically synonymous with Hollywood entertainment culture—the Walt Disney Company—and put George W. Bush on the board. Betts’s Silver Screen Management financed nearly every Disney movie made between 1985 and 1991, including Pretty Woman, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. The company also backed The Hitcher, with Rutger Hauer as a psycho- killer hitchhiker, which was derided for its “gizzard- slitting depravity.”
Asked why he brought W. into the film- financing business (Bush remained on the board from 1983 to 1992), Betts told the Times it was to benefit from his friend’s common sense. If anyone had common sense, it was Betts himself. Silver Screen got its start- up funding courtesy of the investment house E. F. Hutton. In that period, E. F. Hutton was being run by W.’s uncle Scott Pierce. Before coming to E. F. Hutton, Pierce had worked for the “other” Bush- Walker clan investment firm, G. H. Walker and Company. And the man who preceded Pierce at Hutton and brought him into the company, George Ball, was both a funder of W.’s Arbusto oil venture, and, as noted in chapter 15, presided over Hutton in a period when it engaged in a major check- kiting scheme; the firm later pleaded guilty to two thousand counts of mail and wire fraud.
The Betts family, meanwhile, turns out to mirror the Bushes in many respects: Yale legacy, employment in the Walker brokerage, roots in the spy world.
The most visible Rangers investors, including Betts, were thought of not just in terms of the financial resources they could provide, but also of demographics. “The first time I met George, he came up to my office and wanted to meet me and told me that he was wanting to have a true American diverse team partnership,” recalled Cottrell, one of Bush’s co- investors. “He says, I would be his black partner, Afro- American. Then he had some Jewish people, and he had some European Americans from Yale. Half the guys were from Yale.”
Besides Betts, another strong Yale connection was the Bass family of Fort Worth, famously right- wing heirs to the vast Richardson- Bass oil fortune. The man who is generally characterized as putting the baseball financing deal together, the brilliant Texas investment manager Richard Rainwater, had been the investment manager for the Basses. Rainwater was a Wall Street legend for transforming a Bass inheritance of about fifty million dollars in 1970 to more than four billion dollars by the time he went out on his own in 1986. At the time Rainwater partnered with W., the Basses were involved with W. through Harken’s Bahrain drilling deal.
Bush, Betts, and Ed Bass had all been at Yale at the same time, and Bass Brothers Enterprises—Lee, Ed, Sid, and Robert Bass—would be the fifth-largest donor to W.’s Texas gubernatorial and 2000 presidential campaigns, and ninth among his 2004 presidential campaign donors.
Betts’s good fortune with regard to Silver Screen—and W.’s as well—may have come courtesy of the Bass family, who were Disney’s largest stockholder, having saved Disney from a hostile takeover and selected Michael D. Eisner to run the studio.
The Basses shared the ideological and cultural interests of the Bush clan and their secret society confreres. In 1991, Ed Bass’s brother Lee donated twenty million dollars to Yale, his alma mater, and specified that the money—one of the largest donations ever made to the school—was to be used for revitalizing the Western civilization program. In fact, Bass hoped to limit the growing emphasis on multiculturalism; he was worried that the study of Toni Morrison and Malcolm X was pushing out the “classics.” A controversy ensued, and Yale returned Lee Bass’s money. To some, the problem with the Basses’ gambit was not their ideology, but rather their apparent belief that money, rather than vigorous open debate, should be the deciding factor in a matter of broad public concern. As if to confirm this, when Lee Bass’s effort backfired, Lee’s father, Perry (Yale ’37), offered five hundred million dollars to the school to formally declare that his son had done nothing wrong; Yale president Richard C. Levin refused that deal.
Nevertheless, by the time George W. Bush had become president, Ed Bass was one of Yale’s nineteen trustees, along with Roland Betts. Capping it off, in 2005, the Yale Athletic Department presented Betts with a George H. W. Bush Lifetime of Leadership Award.
Probably the most interesting thing of all is that the top men at America’s top two universities would have a hand in enriching George W. Bush. W.’s apparent secret friend on the Harken transaction, Robert G. Stone, was the most powerful board member at Harvard, while Betts, the largest single investor in W.’s next enterprise, the Rangers, would become Stone’s equivalent as senior fellow of the Yale Corporation.
Financially, the Rangers deal was basically about real estate. By getting the city to build them a new stadium, Bush and his partners increased the team’s book value from $83 million to $138 million. This required convincing the city’s taxpayers that they would lose the team if they did not pay up for the stadium. To raise the $191 million it would cost to build the Ballpark at Arlington, residents were asked to add a half cent to what was already one of the nation’s highest sales tax rates.
According to attorney Glenn Sodd, W.’s group helped egg along Arlington by leaking a story that Dallas was competing for the team and had offered to build them a stadium. “We found out that this was untrue,” said Sodd. In any case, Arlington mayor Richard Greene used the supposed threat to rush a deal through.
Bush put aside his much-touted antitax, free- market principles just long enough to get the city of Arlington to increase taxes on ordinary people there in order to build a stadium for—and then give both the stadium and the land underneath it to—Bush and his partners.
This subsidized land and stadium windfall was engineered at a time when Poppy was president and the savings and loan industry was in a free fall, with real estate being dumped for a pittance. To get the land, the new owners went to governmental agency liquidators and banks handling land liquidations and snapped up property. “Essentially, Bush’s daddy sold him property for pennies on the dollar,” said Sodd. What they couldn’t get on the market, they grabbed with government assistance.
Bush and his partners wanted over two hundred acres of land to develop an entertainment complex around the seventeen- acre stadium. So they used the state’s power of eminent domain to force out landowners without the inconvenience of free market negotiation. As New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston discovered, the Texas Republican Party had already expressed official disapproval of such activity, having stipulated: “Public money (including taxes or bond guarantees) or public powers (such as eminent domain) should not be used to fund or implement so- called private enterprise projects.”
W. would later campaign for governor as a defender of property rights. Speaking to the Texas Association of Business, he said: “I understand full well the value of private property and its importance not only in our state but in capitalism in general. And I will do everything I can to defend the power of private property and private property rights when I am the governor of this state.”
So the Rangers deal was essentially predicated on public funding through a tax increase and the seizure of private land through eminent domain. One attorney called it “welfare for billionaires.” To make money, the own ers needed a new stadium, and they needed someone else to pay for it.
To engineer the crucial land deal, the Bush team found an inside man and an inside- inside man. The inside man was Tom Schieffer, brother of CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer. A former Texas state representative once dubbed one of the “ten worst legislators” in Texas by Texas Monthly, Schieffer had already been involved with a competing group seeking to buy the team, but was persuaded to transfer his allegiance, as well as to bring in a $1.4 million investment. As president, W. would appoint Schieffer ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.
Along with Bush’s lawyer in the Rangers deal, James Doty, the Baker Botts lawyer working for the Saudis, the person who recruited Tom Schieffer also represented both the American oil industry and the Saudis. James C. Langdon Jr. was a Washington attorney who ran the energy practice for the prominent Dallas firm of Akin, Gump.20 Langdon would give $3,500 to Bush during his gubernatorial campaign and become a principal fundraiser in 2000; he and his wife would be overnight guests at Camp David, and Langdon would be named to President George W. Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Again that board. It is not a certainty that Saudi money was involved, but as in past deals, the smoke suggested a fire of some kind.
The inside man was the mayor of Arlington, car dealer Richard Greene. Greene played a key role in the city’s decision to heavily subsidize Bush and his group. At the time he began working to secure a home on favorable terms for Bush’s Rangers, he was in trouble with federal banking regulators working for W.’s dad.
In 1990, at the same time he was talking with the Rangers about a new stadium, Greene was negotiating with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to settle a large lawsuit it had filed against him. He had headed the Arlington branch of Sunbelt Savings Association, which the local Fort Worth Star- Telegram described as “one of the most notorious failures of the S&L scandal.” Sunbelt lost an estimated $2 billion, and the feds (and the nation’s taxpayers) had to chip in about $297 million to clean it up. Greene and the FDIC reached an agreement on the pending suit just as he was signing the Rangers deal.
The Arlington mayor paid just $40,000 to settle the case—and walked away. “George had no knowledge of my problems; there is no connection,” he assured the New York Times in September 2000.21 All of the bank’s key figures were charged except for him. Not only was Greene not criminally indicted, but he also escaped with minimal monetary pain. Ten days before Arlington’s 1991 public referendum on a special sales tax hike to help finance the stadium, Greene, now charged in losses of $500 million, settled all of his civil litigation for a modest $165,000.22
Greene Becomes Green
Greene’s tenure was identified principally with pro- growth and business-friendly policies. Yet after George W. Bush became president, he appointed Greene to be a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, where he oversaw federal environmental programs throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. These states have some of the nation’s most severe pollution problems, most of which are connected to petroleum, and thus of central interest to the Bush political clan—which has typically fought emissions controls.
The announcement of Greene’s EPA appointment, which required no Senate approval, cited no environmental accomplishments or related experience for Greene. It did note that his wife was founder and current director of the River Legacy Foundation, which created trails and a nature center along undeveloped portions by the Trinity River. But it failed to add that she had been named to that post by the city government that her husband ran. In 1997, then- governor George W. Bush appointed Mrs. Greene to the Trinity River Authority board of directors. It all raised the question: Why was a car dealer in charge of environmental protection efforts in a part of the country befouled by some of the most noxious emissions found anywhere? Greene’s EPA appointment was a nice farewell gift from his friends in the White House. He will get a pension equivalent to 100 percent of the highest pay he received at the EPA—this for a man who helped bankrupt two S&L’s at massive cost to the public, and who walked away with just a forty- thousand- dollar fine.
Owning Up to It
It didn’t take special political acumen to see that association with the Rangers would be helpful for anyone with political aspirations. For one
thing, it appealed to state pride. After all, this wasn’t the Arlington Rangers, or even the Dallas–Fort Worth Rangers; it was the Texas Rangers. Not only that, the team was named after an institution dear to the hearts and minds of all Texans. Since its founding in 1823, the original Texas Rangers, heroic upholders of law and order, have attained a near- mythic aura based on exploits that range from routing Comanches and Mexican soldiers to chasing down outlaws such as John Wesley Hardin.
Years later, W. would refer to his Ranger years as simply “a win- win for everyone involved.” But the business dealings that extracted $135 million from taxpayers should have made Bush a juicy media target in the 2000 presidential election. New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof ferreted out the truth behind W.’s baseball bonanza in a front- page article in September 2000. Unfortunately, it took the Times six paragraphs to even hint that the report was more than a puff piece about a successful Texas businessman. Arlington attorney Jim Runzheimer was surprised that rival campaigns dismissed the reporting. “I thought at that point for sure the Gore campaign would have picked up on Nick Kristof’s article,” Runzheimer said. “I mean, they don’t know who some local yokel is, who might be saying certain negative things about Bush. But hey, if Nick Kristof . . . obviously he’s got some stature. He’s a Pulitzer Prize–winner, if nothing else. But they didn’t follow up.” Even if Gore had trouble untangling the thorny financial web of Harken Energy, the story of Bush and Arlington provided ripe material for debunking his supposedly antitax opponent. “The ballpark would have been an easy issue. Kerry didn’t do anything with it either . . . Bush would have been on defense if he would have had to explain, but not once did that come up in either campaign.”
At the very least, voters would have realized that they were dealing with, per David Cay Johnston, “arguably the greatest salesman of our time,” who would end up “having sold not just friends but political opponents on a war costing more than a trillion dollars and thousands of lives with the kind of pay- no- attention- to- that- pool- of- oil- under- the- engine polish that used car salesmen only dream about.”
W.’s public sales jobs thus began with his successful effort to sell the citizens of Arlington on a tax increase—one that ran counter to his stated antitax principles, but also one where the beneficiary would be himself.
A Good Job—If You Can Get It
All W.’s Texas Rangers position really required was for him to show up at baseball games—which, of course, he was eager to do because of the public exposure it gave him. For this he received a salary of $200,000, about $350,000 in today’s dollars—his largest compensation ever—for what was at most a part- time job.
Besides the constant association of his candidate with this beloved team in this beloved sport, Karl Rove loved to promote the public impression that Bush played an important role in the administration of the team. Given his conspicuous lack of experience in running ventures of any size or success, Bush needed to be seen as substantially engaged with the team’s operations in order to ask the people of Texas to elect him governor. Rove would insist that newspapers refer to Bush as the “Rangers owner,” though W. was just one of many owners, and certainly not the principal or most active one. He also was not at all engaged in daily operations. As Glenn Sodd, the opposing attorney on the Rangers’ land seizures recalled: “Bush never showed up at any of the key meetings about the [stadium deal]. If Bush spent two hours a week working on the baseball team, I’d be surprised.”
While he was ostensibly toiling for the Rangers, Bush traveled widely on the company budget and delivered hundreds of speeches. He was building a following throughout Texas—as Bush explained in an exchange of notes with David Rosen, an oil geologist and acquaintance from Midland. Rosen had seen W.’s face on the cover of Newsweek, and an accompanying article in which he said he might run for governor. “I dropped him a letter suggesting that he would be much better suited for the House of Representatives, inasmuch as it’s a gentleman’s club, a lot of Yale graduates there,” recalled Rosen. “Not a rough job. But I think he dropped back this note that he was more interested in what he could do for Texas.”
To be precise, the note read:
Dear David, thanks for the letter and thoughts. I will not run for the House. It is a young man’s seat and you and I are not young. I don’t have any specific plans except to run the Rangers and work hard for candidates and the party—100 plus speeches in 1990.
W. commented on how the Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams had virtually handed the nomination to Democrat Ann Richards through his intemperate remarks, then added:
Let’s hope she does well. If not there will be some folks after her . . . Sincerely, George.
Having egregiously gamed the system for years without being called to account, W. saw little reason to settle for so meager a prize as a congressional seat.
[For the entire book, click here.]