Like most Republicans here, retired oil executive Clark Bissett has long admired former President George Bush, who used to hunt quail in the fields outside this tiny South Texas town.
But when Bush’s eldest son, George W., brought his campaign for the Texas governorship to a farm bureau rally here last week, Bissett assessed him an improvement on the old man. “I find him to be a little more aggressive, a little more outspoken,” he said.
That description, in fact, fits both George W. Bush and his younger brother Jeb, who last week brushed aside his last challenger for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida.
More articulate and confrontational than their father, the brothers symbolize the tectonic generational drift to the right in the Republican Party. Although President Bush often seemed uncertain of his ideological compass, his sons are running confident campaigns sharpened on the cutting edge of conservative thought--particularly the cluster of value issues centered on out-of-wedlock births, welfare and crime.
In style and appearance, the brothers reflect traces of George and Barbara Bush, but in their language and agenda, the line of succession runs more through new-wave conservative social theorists like William J. Bennett and Charles Murray.
“This . . . blaming those of us who try to live decent lives for society’s ills has got to end,” says George W.
Says Jeb: “We have to dismantle the welfare state if we have any chance of solving our crime problem.”
Both Bushes are locked in difficult battles against older, moderate Democratic incumbents: Lawton Chiles in Florida and Ann Richards in Texas. With polls showing both races close, each could turn on the same question: In these increasingly conservative and Republican states, will voters put more weight on ideological affinity or on experience--the card both Chiles and Richards are emphasizing?
The Bush brothers are running in a year that looks very good for Republicans, but they are also running against history: The children of presidents have rarely enjoyed much political success. James Roosevelt, the son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a landslide loser to Earl Warren in the 1950 California gubernatorial race. Robert A. Taft, the son of William Howard Taft, won election as a Republican senator from Ohio--but three times was denied the Republican presidential nomination.
As in many families, the Bush brothers are defined mostly by their contrasts--as if Jeb, seven years younger at 41, filled in the spaces left by his exuberant, impetuous older brother. “George is aggressive, highly energetic, very quick--quick witted, quick to make decisions,” says their younger brother, Neil. “Jeb is very serious, always has been. When someone presents an issue, he will study it and study it and come to a conclusion.”
Born in July, 1946, George W. is six weeks older than Bill Clinton. He spent his childhood in West Texas, then followed his father’s path through Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale. After college he comfortably drifted, living the high life in Houston and casting about for direction. He unexpectedly enrolled at Harvard Business School--earning an MBA--and then, just as unexpectedly, followed his father’s example again and returned to West Texas to start his own oil exploration firm.
Through the 1980s, he rode the waves of the oil business with only modest success: On two occasions he was forced to find larger suitors into which to merge his struggling exploration firms--transactions that Democrats now suggest offered inflated prices to rescue the then-vice president’s son. One Richards radio ad charges “every business he’s ever been involved with had to be bailed out by his daddy’s friends.” Bush emphatically denies that any of the deals reflected favoritism.
In 1989 he organized a group of investors that bought the Texas Rangers and, although owning only a small fraction of the baseball team, was installed as managing partner. That position gave him, for the first time, an independent public identity. Now, on the campaign trail, George W. is asked as many questions about the team and the cancellation of the major league season as about his parents, and admirers sometimes present him with baseballs to sign.
John Ellis Bush, Jeb, maneuvered out of his father’s tracks more quickly. Born in 1953, he also went to Andover but detoured during his senior year when, during a class visit to Mexico, he met his future wife, Columba. After Jeb graduated from the University of Texas, they married and eventually set out for Miami, where Jeb went into business with a prominent Cuban American developer he met in his father’s 1980 presidential campaign.
Jeb accumulated his own fortune in the go-go Miami real estate market of the 1980s but also exhibited some lapses in judgment that have opened him to charges of trading on the family name.
In the most questionable case, during the Ronald Reagan Administration, Jeb phoned officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seeking a federal waiver that would have benefited a health management organization that he was representing in a real estate transaction. Later, the company collapsed amid charges of defrauding the government, and its president was indicted for bribing a union official.
“At the time, I didn’t feel like I was doing business with a crook,” Jeb later told the Miami Herald. “Unfortunately, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought.”
While building their fortunes, both brothers circled around the political world for years before stepping into the center ring. George W. actually ran once before, losing a bid for a West Texas congressional seat in 1978. Jeb served briefly as Florida’s appointed secretary of commerce and burrowed into Florida politics as chairman of the Republican Party in populous and tumultuous Dade County.
As candidates they bookend their father: one folksier and yet more focused, the other more cerebral and polished.
George W. is the outgoing Texan with an oversized manner, a knack for instantly establishing intimacy and a quick, self-deprecating wit. While the former President was lanky and vaguely entropic, his eldest son is physically and emotionally coiled, with a flashing temper that as a candidate he’s mostly kept holstered.
Like his father, George W. is attentive to the details of politics: Settling into his six-seat campaign plane after an event, he immediately jotted off a stack of thank-you notes. At an early morning press conference in Brownsville, he deftly cajoled a hesitant local police chief to move just a few steps closer--into the frame of the television cameras covering the event.
The details of public policy appear to move him less. George W. has put forward a wide-ranging agenda but doesn’t pretend that he stays up late at night scouring scholarly journals for ways to improve it.
Anticipating a few hours off before a Houston fund-raiser last week, he groaned like a student handed an unexpected homework assignment when an aide told him they had to spend part of the afternoon going over questionnaires from interest groups seeking his views on specific issues. When pressed, he can sometimes be hesitant and vague trying to explain the implications of proposals in his position papers on issues like welfare reform.
Jeb is more conversant with the details of policy and the trends in conservative thought. Devising his welfare plan, he consulted Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and sociologist Charles Murray--two gurus for the GOP on social policy. Touring a securities firm in Tampa last week, he answered a question about educational vouchers by touting an experimental program in Milwaukee.
Compared to his brother, Jeb cuts a more urban, contemporary figure. He shakes hands easily, but doesn’t slap backs as often. George W. has been known to chew tobacco while drinking coffee; at the securities firm, Jeb cited the noted political philosopher Mick Jagger to explain his view of the services government should provide. (“You can’t always get what you want. But . . . you get what you need.”)
“I quote the Rolling Stones and play golf,” Jeb told one young questioner at a campaign stop last week. “I’m not the hunter.” He was trying to explain his cultural differences with Chiles; but he could as easily been talking about his brother--notwithstanding the problems George W. ran into for mistakenly shooting a protected killdeer on the first day of dove hunting season this month.
Despite their personal differences, the brothers are running on similar agendas--so much so that comparisons are a sore subject with them. One close family friend says Jeb earlier this year called his older brother to complain he was stealing his lines. But Jeb denies the conversation occurred. “Any challenger, any governor, running from the conservative perspective . . . is talking about these things,” he insists.
At the margins, Jeb’s campaign, in fact, has a harder ideological edge. Both want to cut off aid to welfare recipients after two years on the rolls--without offering the public service jobs President Clinton would provide under his time-limit plan; but Jeb also proposes a tougher version than his brother of the “family cap” that would deny additional benefits to women who have children while on the rolls.
Both want to lengthen the sentences prisoners serve, but Jeb supports a crash prison construction program that would allow Florida to keep criminals in jail for at least 85% of their sentenced time.
Both want to slash central school bureaucracies and radically devolve power to local school boards, but Jeb is more enthusiastic than his brother about vouchers that would provide public funds to help parents send their children to private schools. And unlike George W., Jeb has proposed a constitutional amendment that would require voter approval for all state tax increases--an idea conservatives are aggressively pushing around the country.
Still, the differences between the brothers are minor compared to their distance from their father’s perspective--especially in their common efforts to link crime to family breakdown and the growth of what Jeb calls a welfare-dependent “permanent underclass.”
With their proposals for cutting off aid to welfare recipients after two years, both are proposing social experiments more radical--and polarizing--than their father ever risked as President.
“Basically, you’re saying poverty is a crime; we’re going to give you a suspended sentence for two years and then you’re in for life,” says Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth.
Faced with these strikingly similar political challenges--the most recent public polling in both states has shown the races a virtual dead heat--the two veteran Democrats facing the Bush brothers are responding with markedly divergent strategies.
Texas Gov. Richards, who remains personally popular, so far has generally tried to avoid directly debating Bush’s proposals. Instead she has emphasized her own accomplishments--trumpeting the state’s job growth, budget surplus and an across-the-board reduction in crime through the first half of 1994. She’s been even more intent on attempting to paint Bush as inexperienced and unqualified: To underline the point, the tart-tongued governor has at times referred to the younger Bush as “shrub.”
In Florida, the race hasn’t sharpened as much as in Texas, because the GOP primary wasn’t held until Sept. 8. Bush didn’t win the nomination outright until early last week, when Secretary of State Jim Smith, who finished a distant second in the primary, dropped out of a potential runoff.
Like Richards, Gov. Chiles is questioning his opponent’s qualifications and touting his own experience. But, unlike Richards, Chiles’ campaign is signaling an intent to wage ideological combat with Jeb Bush, portraying him as an extremist out of touch with the state on issues like his opposition to legal abortion.
The former President looms over both contests. Both brothers have benefited enormously from the fund-raising networks their father established through his three-decade career in Texas and national politics. The Austin American-Statesman recently calculated that 1,400 people had contributed to both campaigns.
Their father’s political legacy is cloudier. It has given both brothers a pool of partisans instantly attracted to them. But the famous name leaves them open to suspicions that they have enjoyed a privileged rise through life--which could help Democratic efforts to paint their stern ideas on welfare and crime as unfeeling and insular. Partly as a result, both brothers have deployed their father only sparingly, and mostly to raise money--as he did in a series of fund-raisers across Florida for Jeb last Friday.
The man who defeated the elder Bush could also cast a long shadow over these races. In Florida, Bill Clinton has emerged as a bit of improbable inspiration: Jeb Bush is echoing some of the themes the President employed against his father in 1992, presenting himself as the candidate of change and promising to stand up for middle-class voters “playing by the rules.”
But mostly, the President is a target: Clinton isn’t popular in either state--although his firm response to the Cuban exodus has improved his standing in Florida somewhat--and both Bushes are trying to lash their opponents to his sinking ship. “Bill Clinton has been bad for Texas and bad for America, and doesn’t it make sense to have a governor who understands that?” George W. declared last week at a Houston fund-raiser hosted by his father’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III.
Both brothers are sensitive to any suggestions that they are running to rehabilitate the family name.
But the former President seems to understand the symbolic implications of these elections, coming just two years after voters overwhelmingly turned him out of the White House: At a fund-raising breakfast for Jeb in Tampa last Friday, he looked down from the podium at his son and said in a suddenly cracking voice: “No one likes not to finish what they started out to do. But the finish is sitting here . . . at my right hand.”