The son watched his father, vowing not to repeat his mistakes.
The weekend before George W. Bush defeated Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, he stood in the backyard of his Dallas home hitting tennis balls into the swimming pool for his dog to fetch and ruminating about the future with his media strategist, Don Sipple.
“At one point, Bush talked about his father, and he said: ‘Sip, my man, don’t underestimate what you can learn from a failed presidency,’ ” recalled Wayne Slater, a political reporter for the Dallas Morning News and one of Bush’s earliest biographers.
With that harsh assessment long before he took office as the 43rd president of the United States, Bush had already decided he would do things differently from his father. But as he prepares to leave office after eight years, there are many similarities he might have wished to avoid as part of only the second father-son presidential duo in history.
Both Bushes saw extreme highs in public opinion. The first President Bush won accolades for his handling of the Gulf War in 1990, forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. The second President Bush calmed a frightened nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, taking up a bullhorn to promise that the world would soon hear America.
And both saw their presidencies swamped by a sea of public dismay. The elder Bush was castigated for being out of touch as the economy foundered and he seemed unable to relate. The younger Bush was pilloried for his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he was criticized for an ideological rigidity that delayed early, forceful intervention as the economy careened into a ditch far deeper than his father’s.
As George W. Bush prepares to return to Texas, historians will be judging his legacy in the context of his father’s single term as president.
“The likelihood is that the father will be looked upon as a steadier hand and better prepared for the job,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas who specializes in the presidency.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, calls the senior Bush “dramatically more accomplished” in both foreign and domestic policy than his son. Still, he said, “They are in fact going to be doing chin-ups on the bottom tier of presidents in modern history.”
Ironically, George W. Bush set out to be a far different president than his father. He wanted his time in office to be of consequence. He wanted to spend political capital on matters that would endure, something he felt his father did not do after the Gulf War.
“It was an aspect of his personality and this clearly stated intent that if he was to go to the White House, he wanted to do something,” Slater said. “He was not going to be someone who would just be seen as a placeholder.”
Despite the younger Bush’s cold-eyed assessment of his father’s presidency, each has said in recent interviews that it was more painful to see the other criticized.
“It’s been tough on his father and his mother,” George H.W. Bush told “Fox News Sunday” last week. “We’re not very good sports about sitting around and hearing him get hammered, I think, unfairly.
“Now there are some things that clearly he deserves criticism for, but I think the idea that everything that’s a problem in this country should be put on his shoulders, I don’t think that’s fair,” the president’s father said.
In an interview with ABC News, President George W. Bush said: “One of the things I learned during his presidency is being the son of the president is a lot tougher than being the president. . . . I mean, it is really agonizing to have somebody you truly love get banged around in the political process.”
Both Bushes sat down for a joint interview with “Fox News Sunday” this weekend.
“The interesting thing is that a president has got plenty of advisors,” the younger Bush said. “But what a president never has is someone who gave unconditional love. You’ve got a lot of people [who] can give you advice, but you rarely have people who can pick up the phone and say, ‘I love you, son,’ or ‘Hang in there, son’ . . . and provide the kind of comfort that, you know, a president needs on occasion.”
Despite his love and affection for his father, George W. Bush also believed that there were serious problems with his dad’s administration.
“He felt like his father relied on a lot of the Washington establishment and people who did not necessarily have his interest at heart,” said Charles Black, a longtime Republican strategist. “He developed an attitude of anti-lobbyist and anti-Republicans who have been around for years and years and years and worked in other administrations.”
President Bush took office in 2001 with a coterie of Texas loyalists mistrustful of Washington players. His plan was to run a tighter ship. He wanted better message control in the White House and members of his Cabinet kept on a shorter leash.
He wanted to avoid what he considered the unfair label that plagued his father from a Newsweek cover: “The son came in thinking he was going to avoid being considered a wimp and he would be forward-leaning, he would be tough -- both in regard to foreign policy and the economy,” Jillson said.
Still, his time in the White House didn’t turn out as he had planned, thanks to events outside his control, such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
“I remember sitting in his office in Austin in the summer of 1998 and he said: ‘If I run, here’s the six things I’m going to do,’ ” Black recalled. “And they were the six things he ran on in the whole 2000 campaign. He got some of them done, but none of them ended up having the priority of fighting the war on terror and Homeland Security.”
Bush loyalists often dismiss talk of the younger president’s motivations in regard to his father as pop psychology without any basis in reality.
“I don’t think the current president ever went into an issue or made a decision and based that decision on having to be different than his father. That’s psychobabble, in my mind,” said Ron Kaufman, who was President George H.W. Bush’s political director. “He didn’t run to alleviate or avenge his dad. He didn’t go after Saddam Hussein because of any attack on his father.”
The family’s political legacy may not be finished with the retirement of the 43rd president on Jan. 20. A political dynasty was started by Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida.
George H.W. Bush recently suggested publicly that Jeb Bush would make a good president, but his son opted out of running for an open Senate seat last week and appears to be shuttering his political ambitions altogether.
“Right now is probably a bad time because we’ve had enough Bushes in there,” the elder president acknowledged during the earlier “Fox News Sunday” interview.
Still, there’s always Jeb’s son George Prescott Bush, 32, viewed by his family as a potential candidate for political office in the years to come.