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California think tank acts as Bush 'brain trust'

Texas governor culls advice from members of Hoover Institution in his presidential bid.

George W. Bush may have gotten his drawl from Texas and his pedigree from Washington, but many of his ideas are coming from California.

Though the GOP presidential front-runner made his first trip this week as a candidate to this state, he's had a year-long running engagement with the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution, a collection of battle-toughened conservatives who have emerged as the early core of Mr. Bush's brain trust.

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There are many interesting aspects of this relationship, not least of which is the juxtaposition of the think tank's staunchly conservative heritage and the candidates moderate political persona. But whatever the attraction, the relationship has blossomed fully, with no end in sight.

It started cozily enough in April 1998 in the home of George Schultz, former secretary of State to President Reagan and now a Hoover fellow. Mr. Schultz's home on the Stanford campus was host to three hours of wide-ranging policy discussions involving half a dozen Hoover fellows, all built on the premise that Bush would eventually run.

"He surprised people with how quick he was and how much he knew," says former Reagan and Nixon policy adviser Martin Anderson, a Hoover fellow who was at that and many subsequent meetings with Bush.

For many outsiders, the greatest surprise may be that Bush has hooked up with a think tank close to neither home nor his desired destination, Washington.

While the latter may actually score him political points with many Republicans, the overriding appeal of Hoover was based on both its outstanding reputation for intellectual rigor and a friendship with Hoover fellow and economist Michael Boskin, say those familiar with how the relationship evolved.

For Hoover, being in the spotlight brings lots of advantages and also a few worries.

Established in 1919 by former President Herbert Hoover, the institution's tower juts emphatically from the shady, sprawling campus of mostly low-rise buildings.

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The Hoover tower has been a beacon over the years to those fighting a holy war against communism as well as a lightning rod for those who objected to its philosophy and partisanship amid the social tumult of the 1960s and '70s. Hoover is rare among think tanks in residing on a university campus, a fact that has often put it at odds with the left-leaning college community.

Animosity between Hoover and the university reached new heights in the 1980s, when moves to bring the Reagan library to the campus were resisted and ultimately defeated. These days, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a new Stanford president, and a new Hoover director, the relationship is far more harmonious, at least for now.

When Hoover's involvement with the Bush candidacy became known, there were some objections raised by faculty. While it has ignited nothing like the controversy that Hoover has known in the past, director John Raisian concedes "we have to be very careful in how we handle it."

While Mr. Raisian says Hoover has not changed its mission to "sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life," the institution has sought to expand its reach and influence.

With an endowment now close to $250 million, the Hoover has begun to develop a more unified agenda, rather than acting as an umbrella for an amalgam of high-profile academics and former government heavyweights.

Raisian has launched what he calls "institutional projects," a collection of essays, books, and conferences, meant to address contemporary social issues.

STILL, fellows enjoy tremendous freedom to pursue their own agendas and have little organizational responsibility, except for the weekly 3:30 p.m. cookie sessions meant to keep fellows current on what everyone is doing.

Interestingly, the Hoover's involvement with the Reagan administration was far greater than during the presidency of George Bush. While some have attributed ideological differences to that separation, others say it was really just a matter of style.

Mr. Anderson says President Bush was unusual in not wanting a huge army of policy wonks. His son, on the other hand, continues to add prominent advisers from around the country and by all accounts thoroughly enjoys debating options.

After their initial April 1998 meeting, Hoover fellows Schultz, Anderson, John Taylor, John Cogan, and Condoleezza Rice, who rejoined Hoover this week after serving as provost of Stanford, have continued to meet periodically with Bush in Austin.

The discussions range far and wide and Bush runs them. While the expertise around the room undoubtedly exceeds that of the candidate, Anderson says Bush has fairly clear ideas of where he wants to go. "He just wants to look at how to get there," he says.

No one is sure when or if Bush's heavy reliance on the West's citadel of anticommunism will recede, but Anderson has a file of concrete tax-policy proposals he's just waiting to run by the presidential hopeful.

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