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Jewish World Review August 2, 1999 /20 Av 5759

Chris Matthews

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Dubyah's last hangover -- THIRTEEN SUMMERS AGO, George W. Bush woke up with his last hangover. A heavy drinker right up to and including the night before, he never had another drop.

Closing the bottle of B&B opened up a whole new world for the 40-year-old Texan.

Before he stopped drinking he was a losing wildcatter in the oil business. Afterward, he became a major-league baseball winner as co-owner of the Texas Rangers. Before that morning-after in July 1986, he was a failed pol, the embarrassed loser in a race for Congress. Afterward, he become a proud, two-term Texas governor.

Before, he was a big shot's son. Since then, he's become a presidential candidate to be reckoned with.

If no one can ever say for sure what caused George W. Bush's hard, mid-life rite of passage, the question itself is certain to matter between now and November 2000. We Americans may not need or want to know everything about the person we elect president, but many of us demand to know what kind of character he has.

This decision of George W. Bush to stop drinking gets to the heart of that eternal riddle. Question: What makes this guy tick?

Answer: Whatever got him to quit.

Having pursued this rite of passage myself, I recognize the power of the decision. It is not some spur-of-the-moment, existential leap like joining the Foreign Legion but a daily decision to manage and carry on an abrupt change in your life. It's a choice made unconsciously at certain times, consciously at others, to sacrifice temporary pleasure for enduring opportunity.

It's the decision, made again and again, to be a greater, better person.

"I realized that alcohol was beginning to crowd out my energies and could crowd, eventually, my affections for other people," Bush told the Washington Post. "When you're drinking, it can be an incredibly selfish act."

"Once he got started, he couldn't didn't shut it off," recounts Bush's boyhood friend, Don Evans, who serves as his national finance director. "He didn't have the discipline."

"He had been working toward it for a long time," said Laura Bush of her husband's stunning decision to quit cold turkey.

"I think for a year at least he'd been thinking, 'I really need to slow down or quit.' Most people who try to quit drinking first think, 'Well, I'm just going to only have one drink.' And I think in his mind he thought, 'Well, that's what I'll do.' And then, of course, it didn't really work. Like for everybody, just about, who tries, it doesn't really work."

What moved Bush to quit altogether? Was it the usual list of suspects: Embarrassment? Disgust? Duty? Faith? Was it the thrilling realization that he could have and be as much fun and get a lot more done with a clear head?

For George W. Bush it may have been that most intimate of ambitions: To be a bigger man; in his case, to be more like his dad.

As for its consequences in the campaign, I offer an early hunch. Voters look for a "connection" with a candidate: party, philosophy, region, religion, generation. Millions may find it with this well-born Texas governor through the common experience of having beaten a bad habit.

There are a lot of people in this country, after all, who know what we're talking about here. Those people, all of us, respect what George Bush, 53, did for himself way back when the newspapers weren't asking questions, when the answers mattered only to his friends, his children, his wife and, most of all, himself.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

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