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In His Father’s Shadow, a Son Charts His Course

Times Staff Writer

By the time he arrived at Yale University in 1945, George H.W. Bush had been the Navy’s youngest pilot and was a decorated combat veteran. He made Phi Beta Kappa and captain of the baseball team. A famous photograph captured him, dressed in his college baseball pinstripes, shaking the hand of Babe Ruth.

When his son George W. Bush landed at Yale 19 years later, he quit baseball after his freshman year, calling himself “mediocre.” A hellion of a fraternity president, he earned average grades and became known for such pranks as tearing down Princeton’s goalposts. When his name appeared in the New York Times, he was defending the practice of branding fraternity pledges with red-hot coat hangers.

Same road, very different style.

Yale and military service, the Texas oil business and politics: George W. Bush has traveled a route similar to that of his accomplished father, sometimes seeming diminished by his father’s long shadow. Even when he became president, the son’s lack of foreign policy experience was shrugged off by many who thought his father’s expertise and former aides would guide him.

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But this week, as he accepts the Republican nomination for a second term, President Bush is clearly more than his father’s son. The man who will stand before the nation on Thursday is a product of his father’s example, his high expectations and expansive advantages, but he is also someone who has bristled at them enough to establish his own style: openly religious, politically combative and aggressive in his approach to foreign policy and tax cuts.

The path Bush has chosen also has put him in one more competition with his formidable father. If he wins in November, he will have surpassed the career of the first President Bush, who was defeated after a single term.

If he loses, Bush will end up repeating his father’s fate as a one-term president in part because he worked so hard in the White House to cut a different path.

The first President Bush chose to limit his pursuit of Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and broke his campaign pledge against new taxes. The current President Bush cut taxes to such an extent that even some Republican allies complained about the resulting budget deficits. His approval ratings, sky high after Sept. 11, have fallen steeply as the war in Iraq has continued.

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Doug Wead, an aide in the first Bush White House and a close friend of the current president, has seen up close how the son was formed by competition with his father. “The word that keeps coming to me is irritation -- maybe positive as well as negative -- the way a pearl is formed with a piece of sand,” he said. “It’s very much a love-hate relationship.” The Bush camp rejects efforts to explain the president, 58, by analyzing his relationship with his 80-year-old father.

“It’s a spurious and specious story line,” said Mary Matalin, who has been a campaign advisor to father and son. “I think this whole thing is a press creation ... this whole Oedipal nonsense, like life is some kind of Shakespeare,” said Matalin. “This is not fiction, this is not a Broadway play.”

But others cannot resist. “If you had to write this up as a novel,” said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst who has written books about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, “someone would say, ‘Oh come on. You’re being heavy handed.’ ”

Though he is not technically a “junior,” George W. Bush has been called that for much of his life. The first time he ran for office, in 1978, he spent a good deal of time reminding people that he was neither his father -- already a well-known political figure -- nor a “junior,” going so far as to display his birth certificate so that reporters could see their names were different.

At 15, Bush left Texas for the same Massachusetts boarding school his father had attended, then followed his father to Yale. In 2001, he told a graduating Yale class, “To the C students, I say, you too can become president of the United States.” On his 18th birthday, his father enlisted in the Navy and went on to become a war hero; Bush joined a unit of the Texas Air National Guard that was considered safe for young men wishing to avoid combat in Vietnam, learning to fly a kind of jet that was being phased out of combat.

His father was a casual drinker, but by the time Bush got to Harvard Business School, his uncle, Prescott Bush, has said, he “was becoming a real boozer,” according to Peter Schweizer, co-author with his wife, Rochelle, of “The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty.”

In fact, his biography as a young adult is punctuated with unpleasant alcohol-related incidents. In 1972, at 26, he tried to pick a fight with his father after bringing his younger brother home from a party and running over garbage cans on the way into the driveway.

Bush’s four siblings considered him, as his brother Marvin once said, “the family clown.” Even Bush has described himself -- to Queen Elizabeth -- as the “black sheep of the family.” It was the second son, the far more serious and accomplished Jeb, whom the family expected to become president one day.

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“He had a pretty underdeveloped adulthood,” Renshon said of Bush. “There are a lot of family expectations, especially when you have a father who was a terrific achiever. My take as an analyst is that his sense of being thwarted and never measuring up was one of the reasons he was drawn toward self-medication, his alcohol issue.”

Despite a Harvard MBA, success eluded Bush. He ran for Congress and lost. He founded an oil company that lost money and was saved only by a merger. On the verge of 40, his marriage strained by alcohol, Bush became a born-again Christian. He attended a weekly men’s Bible study group in Midland, Texas. And then, he abruptly stopped drinking.

Politically, however, the big change in Bush’s life came in 1988 when his father ran for president. Bush worked full-time on the campaign. For the first time, he not only followed his father’s path, but also was able to use his own skills and connections to shore up his father’s political weaknesses.

Bush helped smooth relations with the evangelical movement, which was distrustful of the elder Bush, who had supported abortion rights under certain circumstances and was seen as too willing to compromise on conservative issues. And where his father preferred a more polite brand of politics, Bush joined with the political strategist Lee Atwater to push for the kind of aggressive campaigning that helped his father overcome a slow start in the Republican primaries.

Still, he was in his family’s shadow. Bush mused about running for Texas governor in 1990 but was shot down publicly by his mother, who thought he should not take on a campaign when he had just become managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

“Thank you very much,” he said to his mother, according to news reports at the time. “You’ve been giving me advice for 42 years, most of which I haven’t taken.” Nonetheless, he would wait four years before running.

Although it was a heartbreaking moment for the family, the elder Bush’s 1992 failure to win a second term as president would pave the son’s avenue to freedom. Despite the family’s low expectations for the first-born son who had struggled so hard to be just like his father, Bush would never again have to worry about how his own aspirations would affect his father’s career: His father’s public life was over.

Leveraging the family name and his newfound credibility as a successful businessman -- he’d become the public face of the Rangers -- Bush was elected Texas governor in 1994 and was easily reelected in 1998. Few people expected him to win the first time out. His opponent, then-Gov. Ann Richards, was considered unbeatable. His own mother had told him so.

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The outcome would irretrievably alter the family dynamic.

Jeb also ran for governor -- of Florida -- in 1994. The former President Bush campaigned extensively for Jeb; his wife, Barbara, campaigned on behalf of George. On election night, the father’s sister, Nancy Ellis, stood next to a victorious George as he took a phone call from his father.

“They chatted for perhaps 10 minutes,” Ellis told Schweizer. She said she heard her nephew say, “Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?”

Then, her nephew hung up the phone, and his disappointment was evident. “It sounds like Dad’s only heard that Jeb lost,” Bush said, “not that I’ve won.”

The family dynamic changed though, when the implications of Bush’s victory sank in.

Suddenly, as cousin John Ellis told Schweizer, the prodigal son became the family’s rising star. “As in all things, it’s always good to be with the winner,” said Ellis. “So they saddled up with ol’ George W.”

Jeb would win his next campaign for governor of Florida, in 1998, but by that time, his older brother was already making plans to run for president. Jeb would have to wait.

By the time Bush ran for president in 2000, there would be no mistaking him for his blue-blooded father.

Complaining he’d been “out-countried” in his first, and unsuccessful, political race, he took to clearing brush in his jeans and cowboy boots. He made his second home not on the coast of Maine with his family but in dusty West Texas. He cultivated his twang. Unlike his parents, he wore his religion on his sleeve, declaring June 10, 2000, “Jesus Day” in Texas, and even going so far as to tell friends and family on the day of his second gubernatorial inauguration that he thought God wanted him to be president.

After watching his father’s defeat in 1992, Bush understood that his father’s political strategy could be used as “a reverse playbook,” in the words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, author of “Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk.” The first Bush presidency would offer a blueprint on how not to be president; the father’s reelection campaign would be a primer on how not to run for a second term.

On the pages of that playbook are lessons embedded so deeply in the political culture that they can be evoked in shorthand. They are also the very things that could come back to haunt the president in November:

The wimp factor: The father’s professed love for pork rinds aside, his shallow Texas roots were never a match for his feelings for the Maine oceanfront estate at Kennebunkport that is his true emotional home. The father, often accused of having no fixed ideology, was a supporting player to Ronald Reagan, whom he served as vice president. Journalist Gail Sheehy once called him a “man of a thousand humiliations.” In 1987, Newsweek magazine put the questions about the then-vice president’s image on its cover with the headline: “Fighting the Wimp Factor.”

No one would ever call the son a wimp. But his opponents have instead called him inflexible and stubborn, unwilling to change course when events suggest that he should.

Read my lips: In 1990, the first President Bush waffled, then flip-flopped on his “no new taxes” pledge. And despite the fact that many economists say the resulting tax increase helped stimulate the economic boom of the 1990s, he alienated his conservative base.

“He was a disaster as a president and party leader,” wrote neoconservative pundit John Podhoretz, a former Reagan speechwriter, in his new book, “Bush Country.” “The son’s passionate advocacy of tax cuts isn’t just a political lesson well-learned. It is nothing less than a philosophical renunciation of the father’s political legacy.”

The second President Bush presided over some of the largest tax cuts in history and, even with budget deficits that have some Republicans concerned, has insisted that it was the right thing to do.

Iraq: The father, who had driven Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, did not pursue the dictator all the way to Baghdad, nor did he help Kurdish and Shiite minorities after encouraging uprisings that were brutally put down by Hussein.

The son, by contrast, pursued war in Iraq with a single-minded determination and aimed to change the character of the entire region. But the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the controversy over a lack of postwar planning and the continuing insurgency have divided the electorate.

Still, Bush has said it was his father who made mistakes in Iraq. This year, after it became clear the struggle in Iraq would be a protracted one, Bush told the Washington Times that “freedom will prevail so long as the United States and allies don’t give the people of Iraq mixed signals, so long as we don’t ... do what many Iraqis still suspect might happen, and that is cut and run early, like what happened in ’91.”

There is no evidence that his father took that as a slap in the face, but some thought it was.

“That made me wince,” said Dowd, who has maintained an intermittent e-mail relationship with the father. “I am sure it must have hurt, but the father can focus on the positive, which is that he is proud of his son.”

According to people who know them, the two men talk frequently, and their relationship operates on two levels -- father to son and ex-president to president.

The elder Bush, averse to introspection, prefers communicating emotional thoughts to his son in writing, a practice that has struck some in the family as “almost sadly formal,” according to Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio, author of “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty.”

The former president is acutely aware of the pressures of the office, and does not offer advice to the current president unless it is sought.

In interviews for his book “Plan of Attack,” journalist Bob Woodward pressed the president about conversations he might have had with his father in preparing for the war in Iraq -- exchanges, which under the circumstances, would be of lasting historical interest since they pursued wars against the same man.

“I cannot remember a moment where he said, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Do this,’ ” the president told Woodward. “I can’t remember a moment where I said to myself, ‘Maybe he can help me make the decision.’ ” It was also during this interview that Bush said his father “is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”

After Hussein was pulled from his “spider hole” in December, the president told Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime” that his father called to congratulate him, but he didn’t linger on the phone. “It was a touching moment,” Bush said, but “I was busy.... Look, I had phone calls stacked up, and I wanted -- I didn’t want to keep other foreign leaders waiting.”

This year, said Matalin, the elder Bush campaigned for his son but has not been giving interviews. Traditionally, the family has been sensitive to linking the father too closely with the son, fearing it would build the perception that the second President Bush has inherited, not earned, his office.

In 2000, after the father called his son “our boy” in public remarks, the campaign made it clear that such comments would undermine the candidate, according to biographers. After all, they said, the son was a 53-year-old man. Later that year, the elder Bush did not speak when his son was nominated for the presidency, nor is he scheduled to speak at this week’s Republican National Convention in New York, though he plans to attend with his wife.

University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan finds it odd that the elder Bush will not be given a moment in the spotlight, even if he did last only one term. He pointed out that the Democrats invited Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, to speak at their convention in Boston.

“And many of the others the Republicans are trotting out” -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- “are moderate, centrist Republicans, which is the face they want to put before the public, and that would seem to be what the father represents.”

Keeping the elder Bush out of the spotlight, said Buchanan, “could be interpreted as a slight, but I am sure the father and son have discussed it and made their peace.”


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