—George W. Bush, about his father’s dealings with congressional leaders in the fall of 1991
On his final day in office, January 20, 1993, George H.W. Bush took a last trip aboard Air Force One. It’s a lonely flight for most ex-presidents, but Bush, a compulsive optimist, thought to brighten the day by inviting friends and former staffers to join him on his return to Houston.
The three-hour flight was a time for reminiscence and second thoughts—none having to do with his election loss to Bill Clinton, a subject then still raw. But when talk turned to his relations with Democratic congressional leaders, the former president had serious second thoughts about his dealings with Senate majority leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley.
“They kept saying, ‘We’re here to help get your program through,’ ” Bush recalled. “It took me a long time to realize they didn’t mean to help at all.”
Naive George—at least in his eldest son’s eyes. Entering the Oval Office as president in January 2001, young George was determined not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Some things are out of a president’s control, but in matters where he had the last word, there would be no naiveté in the way this President Bush dealt with Democrats or the national media or members of his own staff. The old man had put his trust in too many people with self-serving agendas; the new White House staff, with the exception of Andy Card and his deputy, Joe Hagin, would be a tight circle of Texans, people the son knew prized loyalty above all else.
Card, new White House chief of staff and a Bush loyalist for more than 20 years, was the lone eyewitness that wintry afternoon when the two presidents, Bush 43 and Bush 41, went into the Oval Office. The son moved behind the massive executive desk for the first time, then looked across the room at his father. Not a word was said, recalls Card: “They just looked at each other and smiled.” A more melodramatic version of the scene, described by Todd Purdum in the September 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, has both Georges in tears. Not so. The only politician known to be in tears that 2001 Inauguration Day was outgoing vice president Al Gore.
By no means was the scene Card described on the order of what had taken place 40 years before, when Joe Kennedy watched his son enter the Oval Office for the first time. The Kennedy patriarch was a kingmaker who saw Jack as only the first in a line of Kennedy presidents, while George H.W. Bush wasn’t inclined to think in terms of political dynasty.
“Politics was hardly ever the subject of dinner-table conversation around the house,” says Marvin Bush, the youngest of George and Barbara’s four sons. “We had other things to talk about.”
Politics to the Bushes was a matter of civic obligation, not a family obsession. Working in the 1980 campaign, I soon concluded—as did most members of the staff—that other than Barbara, the only member of the candidate’s family who had any real impact on voters was Jeb, a crowd-pleasing orator in two languages. After watching him work up a Spanish-speaking audience one sweltering Miami afternoon, I told a fellow staffer that whether his father won or lost, Jeb was one Bush with a political future.
It wasn’t that young George lacked political skills. He had his father’s grasp of campaign organization along with the old man’s gift of memory for names and faces. While less impressive than Jeb as a public speaker, in a one-on-one exchange and before small groups George W. displayed a down-home personality that broke through social barriers—the Texas straight-shooter image he honed as both governor and president.
Young George did, however, have his drawbacks as a campaign surrogate. He had a penchant for making waves by talking too freely and flippantly to members of the press: off-the-wall statements that made for unwanted items in the Periscope section of Newsweek. But there was never a hint in any of his father’s campaigns that young George had a strained relationship with the old man.
“There’s a higher father I appeal to.”
—George W. Bush to Bob Woodward on whether he consulted George H.W. before making the decision to invade Iraq
On reading that response to Woodward’s question, my first thought was that young George was up to his old tricks, throwing out a flippant line to see how his listener reacted. Then I thought again: This wasn’t the cocky son we’d known in the 1980s. This was the President of the United States, sitting in the Oval Office, with reminders all around that words have consequences.
Not that the old flippancy hasn’t occasionally slipped through the cracks, even after he took office—the macho frat boy doing his imitation of Sylvester Stallone (“Bring ’em on!”) or calling for the capture of Osama bin Laden, Texas Ranger–style, “dead or alive.” But in this case I read into his answer something more calculated: He was putting distance between his administration and that of his father. With a few notable exceptions—Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Andy Card, John Bolton—everyone connected with the Bush 41 presidency had been frozen out of anything relating to policy.
More than that, the selection of George H.W. Bush’s bitter political enemy, Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of Defense signaled not only distance but a wall between the two Bush presidencies.
Rumsfeld is gone now, replaced by Robert Gates, a CIA protégé of George the Elder’s. The story line following the 2006 midterm election was that George W., his presidency overwhelmed by problems at home and overseas, had finally turned to his father for advice. But the question of whether the wall between son and father had really come down—and why it was raised in the first place—remains a topic of conversation when Bush friends and supporters get together.
In his study of the two Iraq conflicts, The Wars of the Bushes, Stephen Tanner speculates that George the Elder was completely shut out of the decision-making process leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that he knew what was going on only through watching CNN.
In large part that remained the conventional wisdom around Washington until Gates’s appointment, though knowing George H.W. Bush’s passionate focus on foreign policy, I never believed it.
For one thing, it would have been difficult if not impossible to have kept a former president and CIA director in the dark about large-scale war preparations in the Middle East. George H.W. had high-level contacts in both the State Department and the intelligence community, not to mention contacts with high-level international figures urging him to try to stop the drift toward war.
Their assumption was that a father who as a former president and diplomat had actually experienced war would have influence over a son who hadn’t. And they further assumed that George W. would in the end heed the old man’s counsel to wait and see what the UN inspectors came up with on weapons of mass destruction before ordering American troops into battle.
Both assumptions proved wrong.
In his Vanity Fair story on the political Bushes, Todd Purdum worked overtime to make the case that George H.W. Bush and his eldest son are essentially “the same stock in a different box.”
Like Bush 41, Bush 43 has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy that, along with an obsession about staying on schedule, wears out aides. But even a cursory look at where the energy goes and what the schedule includes shows where the similarity ends.
For George H.W., a speech—especially a televised speech with its time-consuming rehearsals—was an unwanted break in the work routine. For his son, who came of political age in the sound-bite era of cable TV, it is the work routine.
Unlike his father, who thrived on reading reports and firing off memos from the Oval Office, George W. is known to despise long stretches of desk work. Two consecutive days behind a desk and he’s ready to head out the door at the drop of an Air Force One manifest.
Hardly the leadership style of George the Elder, who, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, rejected advice that, Reagan-like, he make a televised speech proclaiming victory in the Cold War. Instead Bush 41 opted to stay behind his desk and avoid the high drama that could have proven politically useful when he ran for reelection a few years later.
No, if Todd Purdum was looking for the Bush son most like his father, he’d have done better to bypass Washington and head south to Tallahassee.
True, Jeb Bush’s physical resemblance to the old man isn’t as strong as young George’s, and he can’t work a room with the easy bonhomie of either of the Georges. But beneath those superficials lie the core values and instincts that set the father apart from other politicians.
In his autobiography, Looking Forward, George the Elder tells of the decision he and Barbara arrived at after he finished college “to make it on our own” by rejecting an offer to follow in father Prescott’s footsteps as a New York investment banker. No comfortable life in Connecticut for George H.W. Unlike his privileged peers at Phillips Andover and Yale, he would “break away” to Texas.
Compare that with the career paths taken by the two oldest Bush boys: George W., though assuming the guise of a rebel, followed family tradition as a third-generation legacy at Yale (Skull & Bones like Dad and Granddad), then settled in Texas to build a business and political career under the sheltering wing of the Bush family name.
Jeb, on the other hand, became the first Bush in three generations to spurn Yale, choosing the University of Texas, then moving to Florida where he could shape his own future as a businessman, state secretary of Commerce, and a governor elected on his record rather than on his family’s name and influence.
Nor does the similarity between George H.W. and Jeb end there: Like his father, Jeb can be short-tempered without being petulant; can be caught up emotionally but never enough to make shoot-from-the-hip decisions or statements; and not only accepts reports running more than a single page but spends long hours at his desk reading reports and studies.
To borrow Purdum’s phrase, the same stock in a different box.
One year after George H.W. Bush left the White House, I traveled to Houston and found him preoccupied with what had become an expanded family enterprise: two sons simultaneously running for governor. Like most political prophets in early 1994, I questioned George W.’s ability to win an election in Texas over an experienced campaigner like Ann Richards.
Of Jeb’s ability to win the Florida governorship, I had no doubt. I’d heard he was running well and expected that whatever happened to his brother George W. in Texas, at least one Bush would be sworn in as a governor come January 1995.
The story is that on election night, as the numbers poured in ensuring his upset victory over Richards, young George grew irritated because his parents, instead of rejoicing, were heard lamenting his younger brother’s defeat in Florida.
Alternative history: Had Jeb been elected governor of Florida in 1994 rather than four years later, who can doubt that he, rather than George W., would have been the Bush chosen as the Republican presidential nominee in 2000?
And if in fact Jeb rather than George W. had won election that year and entered the White House as Bush 43 in January 2001, what then? There’s no way of telling what might have taken place in the war on terror that began nine months later. But as a long-time observer of the Bush family, of this I’m certain: The American people would have had a president in the White House more like his father, George H.W.—which is to say, the president they thought they were getting when they elected his older brother.
National correspondent Victor Gold coauthored former president George H.W. Bush’s 1987 autobiography, Looking Forward. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons
Destroyed the GOP," due out in April.