News & Politics

Straightening Out the Facts About the Bush Family

Why Is This Man President? Yes, It's a Family Affair, but Not in the Way Many People Think. Strip Away the Myths About the Bushes and You Won't Risk Underestimating Them.

Victor Gold, a onetime speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, coauthored the former president's autobiography, Looking Forward.

I first met George Herbert Walker Bush at a political rally in Houston, Texas, in October 1970. I was a self-important aide on the staff of the Vice President of the United States. Bush was a candidate for the US Senate. A losing candidate–which everyone except George, his wife, Barbara, and their kids seemed to know.

Our conversation was short and to the point–something along the lines of "You and Mrs. Bush stand over here; the Vice President will pass your way and pose for a picture." Let me confess, I did not see a future president in the lot. Certainly not a political dynasty.

It was neither the first nor the last time that the Bushes would be underestimated. But unlike many other self-important Washington functionaries, I made an effort over the next 35 years to discover where I'd gone wrong.

What I learned was that, second only to the Kennedys, the Bushes are the most mythologized political family in modern history. Here, on the eve of the third Bush inaugural in two decades, is my take on those myths.

MYTH NUMBER ONE: The Bushes are bone-bred New England Brahmins.

This is the granddaddy of Bush family myths, the one that's led all Bush opponents to think they're dealing with political dilettantes. From John Connally in 1980 to John Kerry in 2004, the assumption has been that no son or grandson of Prescott and Dorothy Walker Bush could possibly bond with rank-and-file Americans.

"Brahmin George Bush," wrote pundits Jack Germond and Jules Witcover when George H.W. entered the 1980 presidential race, "may be the first candidate in history whose campaign peaked before it was announced."

The column was proved wrong on two counts, beginning with the lazy stereotype of Bush as a blue-blood Brahmin. If you think the Bush lineage is old-family New England, you've never met a real Brahmin: Think stiff-necked Strobe Talbott. Or lockjawed Elliot Richardson.

True, Prescott and Dorothy's son and grandson both went to exclusive Phillips Andover–but so did Jack Lemmon and Humphrey Bogart. A prep-school background, whatever Washington pundits may think, does not a Brahmin make.

FACT: Had any of the Bushes' political opponents checked it out, they would have learned, as George H.W. reveals in his memoirs, that his parents "were Midwesterners who had migrated to New England to make a life for themselves: Dad came from Columbus, Ohio, and Mother from St. Louis.

"Dad's father, Samuel P. Bush, was president of Buckeye Steel Casting in Columbus," wrote the former president. "But Dad wasn't interested in going to work there. He took a job with Simmons Hardware Company in St. Louis, where he met and married Mother in 1921."

A year later, the elder Bushes transferred to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Dorothy Bush had the first of their five children, Prescott Jr. The move to New England, where their second son, George H.W., was born, came not long after that.

"Many years later, while on a speaking trip to Kingsport, I met an elderly lady who still remembered Dad's working there in the early 1920s," recalls George H.W. "En route back to Washington, I reflected on how much my life would have changed if my parents hadn't moved to New England but had settled down in Knoxville."

Interesting prospect–but what would Maureen Dowd and the Bush-bashing wing of Washington punditry have done without their Brahmin myth to work with?

"My parents believed in the middle American, old-fashioned way of bringing up a family," writes the former president. "Generous measures of both love and discipline, with religious teaching as part of our home life. Each morning, as we gathered at the breakfast table, Mother or Dad read a Bible lesson to us."

In short, far from being East Coast blue-bloods, the Bushes were American heartlanders whose son George, in the words of biographer Herbert S. Parmet, grew up "a people-person whose style and mannerisms, both casual and unconventional, breached the Eastern establishment heritage."

MYTH NUMBER TWO: Both George H.W. and George W. are faux Texans, preppy elitists who feign their down-home ways.

This is the other side of the Brahmin myth–a Maureen Dowd favorite when all other ideas for a Bush-bashing column come up short.

FACT: The year was 1948. Given a choice between going to England on a Rhodes scholarship or entering the business world as a rig-equipment salesman in east Texas, young George Bush, home from the war, chose the sales job. Why?

"I'd come home from the Navy with my own ideas of what I wanted out of life," Bush wrote a half century later. "I was looking for something outside the established mold, something different, and fortunately I'd married someone who shared my ideas about breaking away. My parents had gone east; Barbara and I would make our way and raise a family in the west."

Not that the younger Bushes would find their move west as easy as his parents had found their move east. As Midwestern transplants in New England in the 1920s, Prescott and Dorothy Bush had settled in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut; as newly rooted Texans in the 1940s, the younger Bushes would live with their infant son George W. in a one-bedroom duplex in Odessa with a window unit to ward off the 90-degree midnight heat.

Paying dues, Lone Star-style. Conditions would improve, as Bush recalled in his memoir, "but those early years in Odessa and Midland, hard as they sometimes were, brought us friends and memories that have lasted a lifetime. We'd found what we came for–a home of our own, not in Connecticut but in Texas."

MYTH NUMBER THREE: Public faces to the contrary, the two Georges are at odds.

According to this scenario, George 43 is in filial rebellion, while George 41 uses his old NSC director, Brent Scowcroft, to vent his displeasure over administration policy in op-ed broadsides to the Wall Street Journal.

FACT: Asked once by an interviewer what he considered his proudest accomplishment, George 41 pointed to a family picture and said, "That our kids come home for Christmas."

Translated, politics runs a distant second to family on the Bush scale of values. Whatever their differences over foreign-policy issues–differences said to be based more on style than on substance–father and son are bonded closer than ever as a result of personal attacks on the Bush family over the past four years.

"George 41 remembers what it was like when he was criticized during his presidency," says a White House source close to both father and son. "What Scowcroft does, he does on his own."

MYTH NUMBER FOUR: If it weren't for Karl Rove, George W. never would have been elected, or reelected, president.

An old Ann Richards favorite. You remember Ann–George W.'s first political victim, still trying after all these years to explain her 1994 defeat at the hands of an opponent she dismissed as "Shrub."

This myth portrays George W. as a rebel-without-a-clue being manipulated by Rove, a sagebrush Svengali–an updated version of Ronald Reagan as "an amiable dunce."

FACT: A skilled political handler like Rove might slip an empty suit past voters one time, but no candidate wins two terms as governor of a major state, then two terms as president, if he's a dumb "Shrub."

MYTH NUMBER FIVE: Laura Bush, while a popular First Lady, is a throwback to the oatmeal-cookie political wives of the 1950s.

Just when when we thought this one had been put to rest, Teresa Heinz Kerry tossed off a derisive campaign comment about Laura's never having held a job. An apology followed, but the truth is that Teresa was only mouthing the party line of blue-state NOW members who can't see a female SMU graduate with an east-Texas accent as anything other than a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

FACT: Though she doesn't have a Hillary-style West Wing office, Laura Bush's ability to connect with voters has put her own stamp on the role of First Lady, not only as a campaign asset but as a political confidante. "The President respects her political instincts," says a Bush friend familiar with White House operations. "Especially when it comes to judging people."

MYTH NUMBER SIX: Jeb Bush plans to run for president in 2008 to complete the first dynastic trifecta in American history.

The theory here is that Jeb, the best stump speaker in the family, won't be able to resist the instinct to reach for the top rung of the political ladder.

FACT: Campaigns may be fun for political junkies, but they put incredible pressure on the candidates and their families. Proud as George and Barbara Bush may be over the political success of their sons, they've endured seven draining elections–not counting primaries–in ten years. Not only has this taken a toll on his elders, but Jeb is enough of a realist to know that the family's campaign fatigue might, by 2008, be matched by voters' Bush fatigue.

But what about 2012? Jeb would be tanned, rested, and ready. There could even be a wave of Bush nostalgia.

The hitch: Eight years is an eternity in today's high-speed culture. Jeb, near 60 by 2012, might be seen as a has-been, a party elder better suited to guiding political campaigns than running in them.

Which brings us to the next turn of the dynastic wheel, Jeb and Columba Bush's 28-year-old son, George P.–the initial stands for Prescott, the family patriarch who launched the dynasty as US senator from Connecticut in the 1950s.

Check out this third-generation George as a prospect for high office. A crowd-pleasing bilingual speaker with movie-star looks and a Mexican-born mother, he's settled down as a practicing lawyer in Dallas. All a Karl Rove of the future could ask for.

Congressman? Governor? Our first Latino-heritage president by 2020?

It's a long way off, but I for one won't bet against it. If I go wrong again on any candidate named Bush, it won't be because I underestimated him