WHEN I WAS a little girl in a convent school, the nuns impressed on me the power of setting a good example. These beloved teachers are no longer around to instruct the president and his family, so I recommend that the Bushes learn from Mark Twain, who said: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
My suggestion comes after the White House announcement earlier this month that Jenna Bush, one of the president’s twin daughters, is writing a book on her all-expenses-paid trip to Panama, where she worked for a few weeks as an intern for UNICEF. Jenna Bush is quoted as saying she will donate her earnings from her book to UNICEF, a commendable gesture, considering her father’s net worth of $20 million. But while the 25-year-old makes the rounds of TV talk shows this fall in a White House limousine, dozens of her contemporaries will be arriving home from Iraq in wooden boxes. In Britain, Prince Harry is insisting on going off to Iraq — even as his country is reducing its troop commitment.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed how the power of good example could also be powerfully good politics. When he led the country to sacrifice in World War II, his children enlisted and his wife traveled to military bases to counsel and comfort the families of soldiers. Newsreels showed the president’s four sons fighting with the Marines in the Pacific, flying with the Army Air Forces in North Africa and landing with the Navy at Normandy. Soon other public figures followed suit — movie stars (James Stewart and Clark Gable) enlisted and sports heroes (Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg) went off to war.
The contrast between FDR’s good example during wartime and that of George W. Bush is stark and sad. The Bush family rallies to the political campaigns of its scions and spends months on the road raising money and shaking hands to put their men into public office. In fact, the public image of their cohesive family — the pearl-choked matriarch surrounded by progeny and springer spaniels — helped cinch more than one presidency for the Bushes. Yet now, when its legacy is most in peril, the family seems to be squandering its good will on a mess of celebridreck.
The president tells us Iraq is a “noble” war, but his wife, his children and his nieces and nephews are not listening. None has enlisted in the armed services, and none seems to be paying attention to the sacrifices of military families. Until Jenna’s trip to Panama, the presidential daughters performed community service only when mandated by a court after they were cited for underage drinking. Since then they have surfaced in public during lavish presidential trips with their parents, bar-hopping outings in Georgetown and champagne-popping art openings in New York.
The first lady, so often lauded for her love of literacy, has not been seen in the reading rooms of veterans’ hospitals. The president’s sister, Doro, publicly picketed Al Gore’s last days in the vice president’s mansion as he awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the Florida recount of 2000. Yet she has been strangely absent from publicly supporting her brother’s war.
The presidential nieces and nephews also have missed the memo on setting a good public example. Ashley Bush — the youngest daughter of the president’s brother, Neil, and Neil’s ex-wife, Sharon — was presented to Manhattan society at the 52nd Annual International Debutantes Ball at the Waldorf Astoria. Her older sister, Lauren, a runway model, told London’s Evening Standard that she is a student ambassador for the United Nations World Food Program, but she would not lobby her uncle for U.S. funds. Her cousin, Billy Bush, chronicles the lives of celebrities on “Access Hollywood.”
“Uncle Bucky,” as William H.T. Bush is known within the family, is one presidential relative who has profited from the Iraq war. He recently sold all of his shares in Engineered Support Systems Inc. (ESSI), a St. Louis-based company that has flourished under the president’s no-bid policy for military contractors. Uncle Bucky told the Los Angeles Times that he would have preferred that ESSI, on whose board he sits, was not involved in Iraq, “but, unfortunately, we live in a troubled world.”
The only member of the Bush family to show the strains of our “troubled world” is former President George H.W. Bush, who shed tears recently while addressing the Florida Legislature. The elder Bush was talking about son Jeb’s gubernatorial loss in 1994. Jeb, who was later elected, tried to console him. But the sobs of Bush 41 seemed to be more about his older son’s “noble” war.
Perhaps the father’s sadness sprang from his own experience fighting in what his parents called “Mr. Roosevelt’s war” — the good war — the war that saved the world from tyranny. He enlisted at 18 to fly torpedo bombers. He flew 58 missions in two years and returned home a war hero. Since then, no one in his large family has seen fit to follow his sterling example of service and patriotism.