DECISION '92: SPECIAL VOTER'S GUIDE TO THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION : THE FORMATIVE YEARS: The varied experiences of their lives have profoundly shaped the outlooks of the men who would be President

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Party platforms and candidates' positions on issues are important, but ultimately presidential elections for many voters come down to a choice among individuals.

Over the years, American politics has seen repeated examples of campaign promises broken, platforms abandoned and stands on issues altered. For that reason, voters often--and wisely--listen with some skepticism to candidates' professed stands on the issues of the day.

"Asking just what a person says he will do has turned out to be absolutely absurd," says James David Barber of Duke University, who has written extensively about the presidency and presidential character. "You need to know 'Who is that person?' "

In answering that question this year, one thing is clearly true--the 1992 campaign has offered the electorate an unusually clear choice among men with vastly different biographies, ideologies and backgrounds.

Begin with the President: George Herbert Walker Bush was born in 1924, the son of Prescott Bush, a prosperous investment banker who later became a senator from Connecticut, and Dorothy Walker Bush, the daughter of one of the country's leading men of wealth--G. H. Walker, for whom the President is named.

As a boy, the young Bush had all the advantages of wealth and position, from a chauffeured ride each morning to school--the Greenwich Country Day School--to tennis lessons in the afternoon. After time, he moved onto the graceful and cultured campus of one of New England's oldest and most prestigious preparatory schools--Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

World War II interrupted what might otherwise have been a seamless slide for the young George Bush from Andover to Yale to one of the Wall Street firms where he might have joined his father or his uncle or one of their friends in managing the business of America. Instead, at age 18, he joined the Navy, became a flier and headed to the Pacific to join the war.

There, he nearly lost his life. Shot down by Japanese gunners off Chichi Jima, he floated alone on a small raft until found by a passing submarine, one of whose officers thoughtfully captured the rescue on film.

Returning home after the war, the young Bush quickly got on with his life--marrying Barbara Pierce, having a child, moving to New Haven to hurry through Yale, playing baseball, studying economics, planning for the future.

And then, in what he has ever since recalled as the most fateful decision of his life, Bush turned away from the easy path that would have followed the commuter train tracks from New Haven to New York and, instead, struck out for the West. To Texas. In 1948, the young family moved, settling in on the flat, bleak territory of Odessa and learning the oil business.

Bush did not exactly strike out on his own, as he has sometimes implied. Family members who put up $300,000 in capital gave him the stake he needed to play in the oil game. And after 1964, when Bush quit the oil business for politics, other family members and friends of his father, the senator, helped lubricate his career. But even Bush's detractors concede he always worked hard, devoting his seemingly limitless energy to constantly expanding his circle of friends and contacts and pushing toward his goals.

Bush started his political ambitions high, running for the Senate in 1964. He lost, but then won a seat in the House two years later. One thing led to another: a second unsuccessful Senate campaign, a post as ambassador to the United Nations, the chairmanship of the Republican Party, ambassador to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then, finally, the big break--Ronald Reagan's choice for vice president in 1980, which came after Bush's own presidential bid fell short that year.

In 1964, as Bush--at age 40--began his political career, Bill Clinton set off for college. Neither his mother nor his guidance counselor could ever quite fathom how the young man had settled upon Georgetown University to attend. One day, he simply announced that that was where he would go to college, and that was that.

Much to their dismay, Clinton politely declined entreaties to apply elsewhere, telling those who asked that the Catholic college in distant Washington was certain to admit the Baptist boy from Arkansas. He was the student who everyone in his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., had long since picked out as most likely to succeed, and the possibility of failure seemed not to have occurred to him.

He was right. And Georgetown proved the ideal place for a young man who already seemed set on politics as a career. Short on funds, Clinton took a job working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman was Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. And he quickly settled into a front-row seat to watch as Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society took shape--and then fell apart.

From there, it was on to England for two years on a Rhodes scholarship, then Yale Law School, then back to Arkansas to begin a political career. By 1978, at age 32, he had won election as the nation's youngest governor. Fourteen years later--in the wake of one political defeat and numerous victories--he is now the nation's longest-serving governor.

Perot's birth came only six years after Bush's. But the gap made a crucial difference. Bush came of age in time to fight in World War II. Perot followed his interest in the military to Annapolis, where he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1953 with honors. But while Bush's experience in the wartime naval air corps proved a grand adventure, Perot's experiences in the peacetime Navy led only to frustration.

And while Bush sought his fortune in the oil business, Perot, when he left the Navy in 1957, gravitated to a hot new field--computers. Perot's rise in that business had become the stuff of legend long before his presidential campaign--the unstoppable salesman who broke all records at IBM, then, in 1962, took a $1,000 loan from his wife and used it to start up a business of his own now worth billions.

Legendary, too, have been the fights Perot jumped into along the way--an epic battle with General Motors that ended with his departure from the company's board of directors but left him wealthy beyond the dreams of most men, a rescue of two employees jailed in Iraq and a two-decade-long attempt to rescue American prisoners of war in Indochina.

The varied experiences of their lives have profoundly shaped the outlook of the men who would be President.

Bush almost assuredly will be the last of the line of World War II veterans who have dominated presidential politics for four decades.

Clinton, were he to win, would be the first President from the Vietnam generation.

Perot, for his part, exemplifies some of the characteristics of the generation in between, the men and women who came of age in the 1950s--too young to have fought in the world war and too old to have fought over Vietnam. His mix of ardent patriotism and belief in the ability of American business to solve problems, along with the strict codes of behavior he has employed in business to govern everything from dress to personal morality, reflect many of the values and mores of the Dwight D. Eisenhower years.

Perot's is the generation that largely has been passed over in national politics--sandwiched between the World War II veterans and the baby boomers. Given the state of the polls, it seems likely to be passed over again.

As for Bush and Clinton, some of the bitterest fights in their campaign reflect the generational differences between them, particularly Bush's strident attacks on Clinton's participation in demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

The strong influence World War II has had on Bush's outlook shows up most strongly in foreign affairs, as the war against Iraq made abundantly clear. In justifying the military buildup in the Persian Gulf, Bush talked repeatedly of how his generation had learned the lesson that appeasement only encourages dictators to press on.

Bush came of age in an America unified by the goals of a universal war. For Clinton, by contrast, the formative experiences involved division--the often violent confrontations of the civil rights movement that transformed his native South and the bitter arguments that divided America over Vietnam.

Clinton himself--as well as his close friends--say that for him, those experiences reinforced a predilec tion toward compromise set by the early events of his personal life, particularly the strife caused in his home by his alcoholic stepfather. Clinton's career has been marked by repeated attempts to find ways of accommodating opposing forces. Friends hail that trait, saying it gives Clinton power as a healer. Opponents, such as Bush, call it waffling.

Like former President Johnson--a politician he resembles in some ways--Clinton shares the experience of having begun life in straitened circumstances in a provincial backwater of the South.

But Johnson, who graduated from a state teacher's college, spent much of his life believing he was despised by the Ivy League intellectuals who surrounded him in Washington, and that feeling profoundly shaped his life and his presidency. Johnson's biographers repeatedly have noted the deep insecurity the man felt.

Clinton, by contrast, who was confident enough of his ability to apply to only one college, has continued to display an optimistic belief in himself that at times--particularly during the darker moments of the campaign year--has left his aides stunned.

And while Johnson was forever uncomfortable with intellectuals, Clinton has surrounded himself with them, building a formidable network of like-minded men and women--fellow Rhodes scholars, policy experts, graduates of prestigious universities--who share his belief that the world can be conquered by intellect.

Clinton began shaping that network during his four years in Washington. And it was also in that period, 1964-68, that Clinton developed much of the ideology that still shapes his outlook on his chosen career.

As Clinton's campaign has made clear, he deeply believes in the ability of politics and government to change people's lives for the better.

Bush, by contrast, hews to a deeply skeptical view of government--one that fundamentally believes the best response government can make to most social problems is to do nothing, avoid making things worse and trust the workings of the free enterprise system to produce success.

In that belief, Bush reflects both the ideology of those among whom he grew up and the conservative Texans among whom he settled as a young man.

The America of the 1930s, before the vast changes wrought by the New Deal, the civil rights movement and the shift of population and power from the Northeast to the South and West, had a well-defined ruling class: white, Protestant and connected by common ties to institutions ranging from exclusive preparatory schools to Wall Street law firms and brokerages.

Bush is of that class. From early on, he absorbed the belief that his family members shared in limited government and conservative principles. And Bush surrounded himself with close advisers with similar backgrounds--men like James A. Baker III, scion of the founder of one of Houston's most prominent law firms and a graduate of Princeton University, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, one-time managing partner of a prominent Wall Street firm and a graduate of both Yale and Harvard.

Friends and aides say that background provides Bush considerable strength, giving him a sure sense of who he is and where he comes from. But in a year in which many voters say they believe the President is out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans, the experiences of a lifetime may now have become Bush's most serious liability.

As for Perot, he and Clinton share the unlikely coincidence of coming from the same out-of-the-way corner of the old Southwest. Texarkana, Perot's hometown, was the metropolitan center for Hope, where Clinton was born. Where Bush was born to a certain level of prominence, both Clinton and Perot escaped obscurity through force of will.

But while Clinton rose through the network of education and politics, Perot's path came through business. And the different paths have shaped them differently. Clinton early on learned the primacy of the political arts of compromise, accommodation and the artful fudge. Perot learned the power and the results one can achieve by complete--some would say ruthless--committment to a personal goal.

Perot's entire life testifies to the can-do spirit that imbues his campaign speeches. But as voters re-examine him in the final stage of the race, that same background has caused many to wonder about his temperament and his ability to handle the frustrations and compromises inherent in political life.

Their Influences: Key Moments in the Candidates' Lives

George Bush's first child was born the same year as Bill Clinton, an indication of the generational differences between these two candidates. Ross Perot, in a sense, overlaps with neither; he was too young to join Bush in fighting in World War II, too old to part of the Baby Boom experiences that helped shape Clinton:

GEORGE BUSH

June 12, 1924: Born in Milton, Mass., to Prescott and Dorothy Bush

1942: Graduates from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Enlists in Navy on 18th birthday

1944: Shot down on mission in Pacific (awarded Distinguished Flying Cross)

1945: Marries Barbara Pierce

1946: First of six children born (one died of cancer in childhood)

1948: Graduates from Yale University with bachelor's degree in economics

Turning Point

1948: Armed with an economics degree from Yale University, Bush moves his family to West Texas to enter the oil business. He often cites this experience as providing him valuable insight into private enterprise.

1964: Runs unsuccessfully for the Senate from Texas

1966: Elected to House of Representatives from Texas

1970: Loses Senate race to Lloyd Bentsen

1971: Named U.S. abassador to the United Nations

1974: Serves as special envoy to China

1976: Named director of CIA

1980: Loses bid for Republican presidential nomination, wins vice presidency as Ronald Reagan's running mate

1988: Elected President

BILL CLINTON

Aug. 19, 1946: Born in Hope, Ark., to Virginia Blythe. His father, William Blythe, died in car accident three months before Clinton's birth

1950: Mother marries Roger Clinton

1964: Graduates from high school in Hot Springs, Ark.

1968: Receives his bachelor's degree from Georgetown School of Foreign Service; attends Oxford University for two years as a Rhodes scholar

1969: Avoids military draft

1973: Graduates from Yale University Law School

1974: Runs unsuccessfully for U.S. House seat in Arkansas

1975: Marries Hillary Rodham

1976: Elected Arkansas attorney general

1978: Elected governor of Arkansas

1979: Daughter born

Turning Point

1980: After winning national attention when he became governor at age 32, Clinton is defeated for reelection, a loss that sparked an intense period of re-evaluation. "I spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out where I messed up," he said recently.

1982: Reclaims governorship, wins reelection in 1984, '86 and '90

1988: Gives nominating speech for Michael S. Dukakis at Democratic National Convention

ROSS PEROT

June 27, 1930: Born in Texarkana, Tex. to Gabriel Ross and Lulu May Perot

1947: Graduates from high school in Texarkana

1953: Graduates from the U.S. Navel Academy, begins four years of military service

1957: Marries Margot Birmingham; hired as salesman for IBM

1959: First of five children born

Turning Point

1962: Frustrated with IBM management, Perot quits and starts Electronic Data Systems. Operated with a management style that emphasizes strict standards and employee loyalty, the company evolves into a multimillion dollar concern. Contracts with burgeoning government health and welfare programs prove a key to its success

1965: EDS wins key computer contract from Texas state government

1979: Organizes team to rescue two EDS employees being held hostage in Iran

1983: Spearheads education reform program in Texas

1984: Sells EDS to General Motors for $2.5 billion

1988: Starts new computer service company called Perot Systems

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