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Divining the George Bush Ex-presidency : He’s Intensely Relaxed, Has a Few Regrets and Is Devoted to Privacy. But He Still Hasn’t Quite Locked Onto a Vision for His Retirement.

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“I’ve learned the power of the word of a President. Not maybe necessarily to make -- get something done, but the power of the word.”

-- George Herbert Walker Bush, 1991

*

When George Bush broke ground for his presidential library at Texas A & M University last November, it was a testimony to his sense of loyalty that Brian and Mila Mulroney swung beribboned shovels alongside him and his wife of 50 years, Barbara Bush. Mulroney had resigned as Canada’s prime minister in 1993, partly because many Canadians considered him too accommodating to the Connecticut Yankee who had occupied the White House.

From the close perspective of their friendship, Mulroney describes America’s 41st President in the third year of his ex-presidency: “You’re looking at a happy man. He’s enjoying the golden years.”

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Much of the time, this is true. Sunny at baseball games or reeling in a Florida bonefish, George Bush says he loves the privacy of retirement and doesn’t miss the political rough-and-tumble. When he reads of Bill Clinton’s latest misstep and tells a Washington chum, “I can’t believe I lost to this guy,” he is self-mocking rather than bitter.

Just beneath the grandfatherly veneer, however, is a restive soul simmering with emotions.

In private conversations, the 71-year-old Bush worries that Clinton is frittering away America’s world leadership--the primacy that never wavered during his extensive public life. He is caustic about two forces he blames for his defeat, Ross Perot and the “national press.” He is sorry that abortion has become politicized. He says the new Republican ideologues are too strident, too isolationist and too protectionist. He yells at the TV talking heads who used to talk about him. And can’t those celebrity golf tournaments keep fairway spectators farther from flailing amateurs like himself?

There’s a querulous undertone to much of this, and after two years of sulky silence, Bush is showing his edge. His ego has rebounded from the public shellacking reflected in the lowest popular vote for an incumbent Republican President since William Howard Taft--38%. Pausing from profitable globe-hopping--as a Fortune 500 pet, he’s been quietly amassing more than $3 million a year giving speeches--Bush recently stormed back into public debate.

With the bite he once displayed in vowing that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s aggression “will not stand,” he renounced his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Assn. after the gun lobby slammed as “jackbooted government thugs” the federal agents Bush has worked with for decades.

*

Message: He cares. Question: How much?

In guarded responses to written questions, answers he faxed from a private yacht during a Greek islands cruise, Bush told The Times this: “Barbara and I are trying to be good citizens in Houston and Kennebunkport--trying to support a number of charity and volunteer and other worthwhile organizations.

“But after 27 years in government service to our country, I don’t know how public that role needs to be. I had my turn and gave it my best shot, and now Barbara and I take great pride in seeing our kids giving their all to help make their communities better places to live.”

There’s scant evidence of resentment in that considered response. But here is one measure of George Bush’s sullenness until events of recent weeks brought his old public service noblesse oblige to the fore: It was not until June 13, a day after he marked his birthday at his idyllic Maine oceanfront estate, that NBC’s “Today” aired his first post-White House network television interview.

Radio-miked while he fished for bass from a riverbank, Bush explained the bombshell that restored him to national attention--his May 3 letter resigning from the blunderbuss NRA--as a protest compelled by “my sense of honor.” It was “an exception” to his chosen reticence, Bush stressed. Then, back in his office cottage on the estate, and still smoldering, he made another exception.

The spark was a question from NBC’s Jamie Gangel about the second-guessers who carp that Bush should have ousted Hussein during the Gulf War. Bush defended his rescue of Kuwait and noted that he supported Clinton’s dispatch of troops to forestall another Iraqi invasion.

“But what burned me up,” Bush went on about the Clinton Administration’s move, “is some little minion in the White House was alleged to have said--notice the way I’m very careful--alleged to have said, ‘This time we’re going to do it right.’ And I thought to myself, ‘You little sandal-clad minion. What are you talking about, “Do it right?” What do you know about it? What do you mean, “Do it right?” We did it right, and we restored the honor and credibility of the United States.’ And for some cheap shot coming out of there, I almost spoke out on it. Of course, I’ll never do that, but I almost did. It burned me up. It burned me up. But this incident? Fine, I’m glad to get it off my chest.”

Gone was the indifferent Bush who peeked at his watch during a 1992 debate. The feistiness of his ’92 New Hampshire campaign was back, along with his high-pitched Bushisms. “Sandal-clad minion.” “Weird cultists,” as he undiplomatically referred to Waco’s dead Branch Davidians in his complaint about the NRA’s “ugly” fund-raising letter smearing federal agents.

And there was more proof that his political energy had returned. In April, the man who nominated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and adopted Ronald Reagan’s “gag rule” on abortion-clinic employees as his own, stepped into a vicious intra-party bloodletting and endorsed John W. Warner, the moderate Republican senator from Virginia who had train-wrecked Oliver North, hero of the hard right. Bush’s long, futile thralldom to his party’s most conservative wing was broken.

In his peevish, oddly inarticulate way, George Bush has been discovering and testing the freedom of being ex-President. “He doesn’t have political handlers anymore,” notes Robert Mosbacher, Bush’s Houston friend and former commerce secretary. “What a great position for a person who has, in my view, the right gut feelings.”

Not that Mosbacher expects Bush to make a habit of alienating former allies like the NRA, an element of the conservative power base he’d appeased but never satisfied. “He only says something like that when he feels very strongly,” says Mosbacher. “He could go for another six months or six years or the rest of his life” without another eruption.

On the other hand, Bush has a lot to get off his chest. “He’s guiding his activities now by what he enjoys, by the loyalties he’s developed over the years and his sense of right and wrong,” says Marlin Fitzwater, his former spokesman. “I don’t think he’s thinking in political terms anymore.”

Maybe not, but will it be bile or guile that motivates his outbursts? University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato thinks Bush is consciously reclaiming his genteel Connecticut heritage. “Bush still cares about what the Washington Post and New York Times will say about him the day he dies,” Sabato contends. “He’s going for a kind of redemption, and he’ll try to get it by becoming the Establishment’s favorite Republican to beat up on extreme Republicans.”

Even if Bush developed that much of a “vision thing” for his ex-presidency, however, a new constraint might well dampen his self-expression. That constraint is the political promise of two highly conservative sons--George W., the Bushes’ eldest, elected last November as governor of Texas, and second-born Jeb, planning a second, 1998 try for the governor’s mansion in Florida.

“I had my day, and now it’s their time,” Bush told The Times. “Besides,” he continued, lapsing into the self-effacement of a born patrician, “I don’t understand people acting like they think they are somebody when they’re not.”

On that point, the new powers in the GOP would agree with him. The Bush brand of Republicanism, accommodationist at heart, is about as popular as teen welfare moms in Washington, D.C., which Bush revisits only about twice a year.

Bush swings little weight in the party now, and knows it. “He recognizes that his stance on the social issues would not fit in too well in today’s Washington,” says Mulroney. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour ducked a recent request to assess Bush.

“His name doesn’t even come up,” says GOP campaign consultant Eddie Mahe. “He went into the history books very rapidly. George Bush was never a leader of the conservative wing of the party at all. He was never even liked by the conservative wing.”

It’s Reagan they talk of wistfully, not Bush. “First of all, he’s a one-term President and he lost,” snorts Lyn Nofziger, a pioneer Reagan retainer. “Secondly, he was an ineffective one-term President. Thirdly, he walked away from the Reagan legacy and tried to create his own--and failed that. A lot of people are very resentful of his ‘no new taxes’ statement and his follow-up double-cross.”

Bush got no credit in Reagan circles for his NRA letter. Huffily resigning, Mahe says, “is the equivalent of saying, ‘I’ve never been comfortable with these people and it gives me an excuse to get out.’ ”

Beginning by defining the kind of former President he isn’t, Bush is slowly establishing the kind of former President he wants to be.

*

The ex-presidency of George Bush started sourly. On his last full day in office, Bush secured an agreement from National Archivist Don W. Wilson to let him review and perhaps keep from the public eye 5,000 White House computer backup tapes. A federal court judge shredded the tape deal when the American Historical Assn. sued, joined by a liberal group citing potential evidence in the Iran-Contra affair.

Wilson gave Bush something he could keep: a paperback called “Farewell to the Chief” to read at the temporary Houston home the Bushes rented. A study of how ex-Presidents have coped, the book concluded that America leaves the role unsettled, offering each occupant a blank slate for fulfillment or tedium. “Madame,” Herbert Hoover quipped to a woman asking what ex-Presidents do, “we spend our time taking pills and dedicating libraries.”

For Bush, an ex-President’s life has been a healing experience. Adulated abroad in the way the French love Jerry Lewis, he compulsively flies to world capitals to make bland speeches to corporate audiences, events resolutely closed to the press. He collects medals and gifts: a high decoration from Queen Elizabeth II, a 100-year-old palace door from the Emir of Kuwait.

In defiance of cynical reporters and dubious architects, Bush winters at the low-maintenance, three-floor brick residence he and Barbara wedged onto an improbably narrow lot in Houston’s third- or fourth-nicest neighborhood--just Pop, Bar, 9-year-old Millie, the writing spaniel, and the Secret Service at home. During lingering Maine summers, he bases himself at breezy Walker’s Point, inviting scores of house guests for fish fries and sing-alongs--Arnold Palmer, Argentine President Carlos Menem, Yale classmates.

He picks and chooses among politicians’ fund-raising dinners, advancing the ambitions of his two political sons. “If one of them became President,” Bush acknowledges, “Barbara and I would be very proud, like any two parents would be.”

He dispenses quality time to the 13 young ones Barbara calls “the grands.” He does charity work for a Houston cancer hospital. For the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships, he mingles once a year with mid-career “emerging leaders” touring the United States.

Above all, Bush has fun. A fit 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, he powers through tennis with Chris Evert, sportfishing with Mulroney and golf with Barbara. He’s lost $5 bets at the Kentucky Derby, written about country music for Forbes and even taped a “Saturday Night Live” spot for Dana Carvey, the comic who skewered his “wouldn’t-be-prudent” mannerisms.

In shaping his ex-presidency, Bush is behaving as Reaganites always thought he did--without a philosophical lodestar. “It’s not clear to me what he sees as his role,” says former Ohio Democratic Congressman Thomas (Lud) Ashley, a buddy since Yale. “He’s evolving,” says Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s White House national security adviser and collaborator on the wonkish foreign policy book they are taking forever to write. “I think he has not found yet a niche where he can be active, intellectually but comfortably,” says Scowcroft.

The niche probably will be the monumental, $85-million George Bush Presidential Library Center, rising toward a 1997 opening at Texas A & M. Steadily reworking his priorities to make the institution a dominant interest, Bush plans to lecture at its attached public-service school.

Until the library comes on line, Bush is trying on for size some of the ex-presidential suits his modern predecessors have tailored. He has borrowed little from Jimmy Carter’s role model of hard work on the world stage. Carter, bucking for the Nobel Peace Prize denied him for the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Camp David agreement, sometimes drives Clinton to distraction with his autonomous instincts while mediating conflicts in Haiti or North Korea. In contrast, during last month’s Bosnia crisis, Bush cruised the Aegean with Barbara aboard the yacht of Greek banker John Latsis, a friend of several years’ standing.

“You won’t see him free-lancing in foreign policy a la Carter,” says a former top Bush Administration official. “He feels there can only be one President, you can only have one foreign policy and you only do those things when you’re asked, particularly in a high-profile issue.”

When Bush wakes at 5:30 a.m. in Kennebunkport, it’s to rev up the 28-foot Cigarette boat Fidelity for bluefishing. Bush has a leisure-heavy regimen that forms its starkest contrast with the schedule of the late Richard M. Nixon. Nixon was running for rehabilitation in his lifetime, and died beatified--at least until H.R. Haldeman’s posthumously published diaries muffled apologists. Nixon cranked out weighty memoirs and advice on world problems. He flattered journalists with small candlelight dinners. He accepted no speaking fees, shunned corporate connections.

Bush, pleading modesty, has no intention of giving future generations his presidential memoirs once he completes the foreign-policy book next year. He told NBC: “I just want to get up into heaven, and I don’t get there by bragging on myself. My mother told me that years ago.” Of course, Barbara largely did the job for him with her own chatty but spiky September, 1994, memoir, which spent 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Bush isn’t entirely ignoring posterity’s verdict. He’s cooperating with a friendly unauthorized biographer, retired City University of New York historian Herbert Parmett. But journalists needn’t expect Nixon-style rehabilitation soirees. “I think he’s still a little bit hung up on the media,” says Spike Heminway, a Kennebunkport pal. He has sat for lengthy post-White House print interviews with just three writers: Victor Gold, collaborator on his 1988 campaign autobiography; Time’s Hugh Sidey, a personal friend, and George Plimpton.

In weighing business offers, Bush has looked to Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. All three have rejected the example of Harry S. Truman, who once wrote after he left office, “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the President.”

Nine months into retirement, the widely beloved Reagan, 84 now, plummeted in public favor when Fujisankei Corp. handed him $2 million for a week of appearances in Japan. There, Reagan praised Sony’s controversial acquisition of Columbia Pictures, saying that “maybe Hollywood needs some outsiders to bring back decency.” In the ensuing furor, Reagan downsized from wholesale to retail and gave countless $60,000 speeches, with no repercussions. When he poignantly announced last November that he has Alzheimer’s disease, all was forgiven.

Ford made connections with seemingly every corporate board from metal-smelting Amax Corp. to 20th Century Fox. Slowing down at 81, he remains a director of two insurance companies and an adviser to American Express and Texas Commerce Bancshares. Americans have cut the big, likable ex-jock who galloped in after Watergate a lot of slack, granting him his sunset of golf at Rancho Mirage and Vail.

Bush promised shortly after leaving the Oval Office that he would join “no corporate boards.” While the pledge doesn’t yet resemble his fatal “read my lips, no new taxes,” he is weakening. In May, at Mulroney’s behest, he became “honorary senior adviser” to a blue-ribbon international advisory board at Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp., for what Mulroney suggests is a five-figure annual honorarium.

In late May, the gold-mining firm invited 125 prominent Canadians and Wall Streeters to hear Bush’s 20-minute speech at the private Toronto Club. As one listener recounted it, the talk was little different from the spiel Bush gives four to six times a month all over the world. Bush spoke about his earlier stops in Romania and Albania, characterizing these former dictatorships as budding free-market democracies. Except for substituting Russia and China for Romania and Albania, Bush’s speech three weeks earlier for Johnson & Johnson in Orlando, Fla., duplicated the one in Toronto.

“Nothing remarkable,” says Johnson & Johnson external communications vice president Robert Kniffin, “but he said it with great conviction.” In September, Bush, who supported the Vietnam War as a House member and ambassador to the United Nations, takes his script to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for Citibank.

Don’t cry for him, Argentina. His speaking fees range from $70,000 to $100,000. Occasionally, George and Barbara Bush (a $40,000 to $60,000 attraction on her own) hire out as a tag team to Amway and suchlike hosts. To The Times, Bush explained that “everybody has to earn a living,” and joked in Reagan’s self-deprecating style: “When you get to be 71 years old, speaking is about the only thing you can do without serious risk of injury. Besides, Barbara gets tired of hearing me yell at the TV every night--so I’m fortunate some people out there are interested in what I have to say.”

Millionaires even before leaving the White House, the Bushes have few money worries. The presidential pension is $148,400 annually. Bush gets other pensions of undisclosed sums from his two House terms (1967-71), the 1971-73 United Nations ambassadorship, the 1974-75 Beijing diplomatic post, the 1976-77 CIA directorship and the eight-year vice presidency.

Barbara received a reported $2.2-million advance from Scribner for her memoirs, which went through six hardcover printings. Houses on their gated Houston block sell for $600,000 to $900,000. Walker’s Point, a family manor of 9.6 acres on its own peninsula, is worth “maybe” $5 million, surmises a local real estate agent.

Bush has suffered a few financial setbacks, though. After Reagan left office, the grateful Republican Party set up a fund to pay its ex-Presidents a $150,000 yearly stipend, but when Business Week disclosed the fund in 1993 , Bush returned his first $50,000 payment. His lame-duck 1992 pardon of Iran-Contra defendants and his tardiness in giving vice presidential diaries to independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh brought him $461,346 in legal defense bills. A judicial panel has ordered the government to reimburse Bush for only $272,352. Under a 1993 statutory cutback in the pampering of ex-Presidents, the government will pull the plug in 1998 on Bush’s eight-member staff, forcing him onto the smaller staff of his library’s private fund-raising foundation.

Scowcroft and Mulroney say that Bush’s speechmaking will stop fairly soon. “He’s doing it to build up a little nest egg, and then he doesn’t want to do it,” Scowcroft says. Because his jet-setting lectures often precede talks with such leaders as China’s President Jiang Zemin, Bush intensely backgrounds himself on American political currents. He telephones Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson with detailed questions about who’s up and who’s down on Capitol Hill, then quickly interjects, as if to say he doesn’t care, “I try to stay out of that.”

In May, he hosted his annual Bush Administration reunion at Washington’s Alibi Club. He revealed little of his own thinking while letting speculation about House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s future flow among former Cabinet ministers, a pollster and insiders like Katharine Graham and Elizabeth Hanford Dole. In his speeches and even with some confidants, Bush shies from comment on Clinton’s performance. To the frustration of his old foreign policy team, it is a discretion he has generally maintained in public.

A rare exception was the interview with Victor Gold, published by Washingtonian magazine at the end of an ex-President’s traditional one-year moratorium on backbiting. On Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, Bush chastised Clinton for an inconsistent, “stop-and-start pattern” in foreign affairs. Privately, this remains his jaundiced assessment of his successor, tempered by good marks on Russia and international trade.

When Bush golfed with Clinton, Ford and Bob Hope at Indian Wells last February, Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, detected tension between Bush and the man who unseated him. “There was friendly competition, but they weren’t glad-handing the same way Ford and Clinton were,” he says.

Bush certainly didn’t appear relaxed that day. Misplaced Bush shots bonked two bystanders, cutting a woman on the bridge of her nose and hitting a man in the lower buttock. Bush was solicitous and sheepish, but groused later that the crowd was too close.

Barbara’s diary-based memoir won better reviews than Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” but the score-settling was similar. Bar singed TV reporters, the cultural warriors who hijacked the 1992 Houston Republican convention, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and independent counsel Lawrence Walsh (“this dreadful man”). Her admission that her abortion views are more liberal than George’s prompted snarky predictions from some conservatives that she’ll turn him around publicly before long. Even considering Bush’s NRA apostasy, that’s doubtful, Scowcroft says; Bush often has confided to him that abortion makes an undesirable political battleground.

If Bush has some secretly moderate opinion on abortion’s merits, in publicizing it he would be torn between the reasonable man he is and the lofty figures he wants his elder sons to become. Representing the third generation of Bushes in politics, the two younger men are unyieldingly anti-abortion.

*

Jimmy Dean, the pork sausage king, appealed to the comradeship fostered at Kennebunkport lobster roasts in warning Bush to stay away from the Marriott ballroom in Richmond, Va., on the night of April 10. “I love you and I don’t want to see you hurt,” he wrote.

Virginia state Republican chairman Patrick M. McSweeney fumed privately that Bush’s presence would be “a kick in the teeth” to the party.

As Bush said when his 1988 primary campaign faltered in Iowa, it was “tension city.” But he flew in for Sen. John Warner’s reelection fund-raiser, ignoring the protester outside who carried a “Judas, Benedict Arnold, Quisling, Warner” sign. Raucous singers were chorusing “John Warner, Go Away” to the tune of “Anchors Aweigh.” Warner and Bush were Navy men, and with his old carrier pilot’s insouciance, Bush walked over to Fitzwater, a member of the dinner committee. “Another great mess you’ve gotten me into,” Bush joked.

A political fatwa was out on Warner for having sponsored an independent spoiler candidate against Republican nominee Oliver North, a conservative heartthrob, in the 1994 race for Virginia’s other Senate seat. By being here and endorsing Warner as a “sensible” conservative for the 1996 primary, Bush thumbed his nose at the right-wing avengers crusading to deny the senator renomination.

Bush explained himself in a March letter to Dean. If party powers were angry, “I am sorry about that.” He noted, “I worked my heart out for many years for the party,” and concluded, “Loyalty to elected Republicans was, and will remain, a hallmark for me.”

Plain and simple, Bush likes Warner, Fitzwater says. Besides, Bush owed him. Warner authored and floor-managed the ferociously debated 1991 Senate resolution authorizing military force in the Persian Gulf. Warner is as moderate as Republicans go these days, but that’s not Bush’s fund-raising criterion. Bush was a dinner draw for the extremely conservative Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California last year. Dornan, Scowcroft said, was another “loyal soldier.”

Three weeks after the Richmond flap, loyalty became an issue for Bush again. He phoned Fitzwater to read him his resignation from the NRA. Bush said he felt strongly about it but wondered whether it should be disseminated. Some longtime advisers were begging him not to go public, Simpson says. “I recommended he do it immediately,” Fitzwater says.

Bush came by his NRA life membership in a different time, as a politician who denounced gun tragedies pro forma while maintaining his opposition to gun control.

During the 1992 election cycle, when his vomit-flecked Tokyo trip and everything else was going wrong, his tie with the NRA grew strained. Haggling with Democrats over crime legislation, Bush said he’d accept the gun-registering Brady Bill and an import ban on some assault rifles. The NRA withheld its electoral endorsement; cynics theorize that his resignation now was pay-back time. “Absurd,” Bush scoffs. As close associates agree, the letter was a heartfelt act of personal loyalty to Secret Service Agent Alan Whicher, slain in the Oklahoma City bombing after transferring from the presidential protection detail.

“He didn’t make it a policy issue,” Fitzwater says. “It was a personal issue.” And Bush was making the broader civic point that “you don’t denigrate government service,” says biographer Parmett. “That, for him, is the highest calling.”

Bush himself told The Times: “I could not let that vicious attack go unanswered. It was hateful. It was wrong.”

If loyalty is to be the prime determinant of Bush’s political actions, he may face conflicting loyalties. His first loyalty, intimates say, is to his children.

Of the five Bush offspring, only George W. and Jeb are active politically. Neil is an international business consultant, with an office down the hall from his father’s. He moved back to Houston from Denver after his decisions as a director of the failed Silverado Savings & Loan led to government questions and embittering publicity. Marvin is an Alexandria, Va., investment banker. Daughter Dorothy is a Bethesda, Md., homemaker with nothing against politics; her second husband is Bobby Koch, a wine-industry lobbyist and former aide to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Bush’s political scions are more comfortable with the Darwinian crime-and-welfare strain of Sun Belt conservatism than their dad ever was. Vulnerable to collateral damage from their father’s remarks, they are real comers in an aggressively right-trending party that considers Bush a crypto-centrist country-clubber--although it turns out that he really does love Texas, country music and, yes, the fried pork rinds he keeps handy in his Houston office kitchen.

“The last thing he wants to do is cast a shadow over the rising sun of George W. Bush,” puns a Washington consultant who helps filter Bush’s political invitations. Inadvertently, Bush did exactly that with his NRA resignation. It hit just before Gov. Bush signed a divisive bill allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons for the first time since 1871. Prickly in any event about his separate identity, George W. issued a terse release to the effect that former President Bush has the right to express his own opinion.

Others were far more effusive.

Students at Virginia’s College of William and Mary applauded when Bush repeated in a commencement speech his criticism of “these crazy people” controlling the NRA. The New York Times and the Washington Post heaped rare editorial praise upon him. Post columnist Jim Hoagland pleaded for more such intervention: “His party and his nation need Bush to become the active, outspoken ex-President he has not been since he skulked out of town two years and four months ago.”

The Senate Democratic Conference, mostly gun controllers, congratulated Bush, discomfiting him. “I’ve got to be careful about who I get in bed with,” he told Sidey of Time magazine.

In national Republican circles, the reaction was chilly. Bush also had embarrassed the front-running presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole. Dole was already caught out on a limb by the Oklahoma City bombing because of an earlier promise to allow the NRA a speedy Senate vote on repealing last year’s ban of various assault weapons.

Dole, a small-town Kansan maimed as a World War II dogface in Italy, long resented Bush for his flyboy war and his chauffeured upbringing. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, a Wall Street kingpin and senator from Connecticut, was a high-minded aristocrat who once bailed contraception advocate Margaret Sanger out of jail.

Bush’s NRA letter sent Dole into acid reflux reminiscent of their 1988 gutfight in Iowa and New Hampshire. Asked at a Long Island GOP dinner whether he, too, would quit the organization, Dole snarled, “I don’t care what George Bush does.”

*

In the days following his election loss, Bush “was, I would say, pretty devastated,” recalls Mosbacher. “He must have said to me, I don’t know, more than half a dozen times, ‘I’m so sorry I let you down.’ He said that to a lot of people he’s close to.”

Even now, Bush regrets not being the “communicator” Reagan was. He bemoans his failure to breach a media screen of negative economic readings and accusations that he was out of touch. Friends say he gravely underrated Clinton, convinced that the “character issue” and their contrasting war records would be decisive. Reminiscing with Parmett in January, Bush was still questioning Clinton’s patriotism over protesting the Vietnam War as a Rhodes scholar in England.

The gloom lingered for a year, says Andrew Card, Bush’s transportation secretary and phone pal. The clouds started to dissipate when he realized history likely would treat him well over Kuwait, German reunification and the Soviet collapse. Meanwhile, Bush’s loss sowed the seeds for the revival of his dashed self-esteem: The defeat freed his boys to run.

The turning point for Bush’s morale, Fitzwater says, was the splendid Republican night of Nov. 8, 1994. Though Jeb lost--a source of pain--George W.'s win and the larger Republican triumph represented vindication. Bush is gratified that his boys “want to enter the political arena in the first place, especially after the ugliness of 1992,” he says. What compounded the family’s glee when George W. won the Texas gubernatorial race was the fact that he defeated incumbent Ann Richards. “Poor George,” she had bruisingly wisecracked at the 1988 Democratic convention, “he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Better yet, it meant that Bush’s archenemy, Perot, who had campaigned for Richards, was defeated, too.

“The man he’s most incensed with is Ross Perot,” says Parmett. When the historian told Bush that Perot “had a vendetta” behind his 1992 third-party candidacy, which siphoned off 19% of voters, Bush wanly replied, “What do you mean, had? He still has.

Bush says the enmity began when he was vice president and Perot blamed him for Reagan’s choice of another man, rather than himself, to negotiate with Vietnam on POW-MIA affairs. Perot extended his antipathy to Bush’s family, and into 1994. He stumped Texas for Richards and also plotted against Jeb, Bush claimed, but stayed out of Florida.

For Bush, his son’s restorative win was soon followed by another token of vindication. The triumphant new House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who had led a 1990 GOP mutiny over Bush’s tax concessions, publicly reconciled with him.

As witnesses tell it, Bush was almost pathetically grateful for flattery Gingrich extemporized at the ceremonial unveiling of the ex-President’s portrait at the Republicans’ Capitol Hill Club. Though Bush had gone unmentioned in electioneering for the “Contract with America,” Gingrich told Bush and his reunited retinue that the document was largely “George Bush’s agenda.”

Another signal that Bush and Gingrich have mended relations: One character named in Gingrich’s historical novel, “1945,” is handsome, heroic Navy Lt. George Bush.

“Put me down as very supportive,” Bush told The Times. “I think Newt is doing a superb job as Speaker of the House and Bob Dole is leading with distinction in the Senate.” Bush praises the party’s freshmen as “tough,” but confidants say he is chagrined about their isolationism, trade protectionism and willingness to abandon a federal role in education,

Bred for courtesy at Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale, Bush is dismayed over how unbridled conservatives’ rhetoric has grown. “He is concerned about the way the message is presented,” says a House member from the Midwest who talks with him. “It’s the us-versus-them and the tone . . . He has a general concern that as a party we not play to people’s fears and exaggerate the debate on our side, that we just keep it more of a debate on the issues rather than turning it into an ad hominem attack on Bill Clinton.”

Lately, Bush has ventured some quiet involvement in the 1996 Republican presidential race. He sounded out retired Gen. Colin L. Powell about accepting the second spot on the ticket. He discussed with James A. Baker III whether the former Cabinet member and White House chief of staff should run for President; Baker didn’t run. Bush’s advice to others is breezily noncommittal. When Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson phoned Bush, asking if he should jump into the race for the White House, Bush said: “You want to run, do it.”

*

With the dust from Bush’s NRA letter still hanging in the air, political pros are eager to learn whether he will continue to mentor the nation in civic decency by challenging other unmannerly types. Predictions are mixed.

More such gestures aren’t likely, says a Washington consultant who thinks Bush will put George W. and Jeb first. “He’s politically smarter than people give him credit for. He knows whenever you take on your base, it’s a story. I just can’t envision him wanting to be as major a player as [doing] that makes you, politically speaking.”

Political scientist Sabato says the NRA letter was just a warm-up for Bush. Its impact proved that Bush “had tremendous clout, but only by doing something unexpected, not just endorsing a Republican candidate. He’s learned that when he breaks a taboo in the Republican Party or on the right, he gets a lot of attention. Everyone finds some peace in their retirement eventually. He may enjoy what other ex-Presidents have enjoyed--sticking it to enemies right and left in their waning days. Even Nixon did it. It’s a kind of clout you can’t take away from them.”

With Bush settling in before long at the inspiring prairie library where he and Barbara will be buried someday, Sen. Warner ventures a forecast that he will grow beyond flighty expressions of pique to become more Late Nixon in timbre. “I look to him to begin to succeed to the mantle that Nixon left, as an elder statesman that the country turned to in foreign affairs, national security matters,” says Warner. “There’s a real void out there that President Bush will begin to fill.” Is that right?

“I’m hopeful that he will,” Warner says, correcting himself. “He’s moving on his own schedule.”


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