Inside the open tent, shielded from a brilliant Florida sun and cooled by gentle breezes from an azure Gulf of Mexico, George Bush wrestled with himself, his heart against his Episcopalian conscience. Heart was winning.
On that late March day, just 15 months since he’d left the White House and forsworn politics, George and “Bar” Bush were in public again, honored guests at a fund-raiser on the broad lawn of a Naples estate. In the distance, pleasure boats rode the swells. Secret Service agents, incongruously dressed in dark suits, lurked about, eyeing the crowd, the press, the white-jacketed caterers. The former president shed his suit jacket and tie in deference to the gathering humidity and ascended the makeshift platform. He prepared to do something he — as the former head of the Republican Party — would normally regard as a political mortal sin.
Meddle in an internal party race.
Never miss a local story.
Bush was in Naples on behalf of a candidate for governor. This was unusual only in that, at the time, there were a half-dozen Republican candidates in the race for the party’s nomination. The first primary was more than five months away and it was far from clear that the former president’s candidate would eventually be the choice of the party. This, Bush knew, would be serious meddling, bound to offend even some friends. He had met and liked most of the other candidates. In any other year he would maintain discreet distance during this intraparty contest, while promising total fealty to the winner against any Democrat.
But not this year.
“Usually I don’t interfere in primaries,” the former president told the sockless-Weejuns and DKNY crowd with unusual, almost apologetic seriousness. “But for me and for Barbara, our politics now are the politics of our two sons.”
The crowd applauded and the former president appeared moved. “I can’t begin to tell you the joy that brings to us,” he said of his two oldest sons, George W. and Jeb, both of whom were on the verge of becoming the Republican nominees for governor of their respective states. He tried to say something more, but the words were inaudible, caught in his throat. Instantly all eyes peered intently toward the platform wondering if the former commander in chief, the hero of Desert Storm, verged on shedding a tear.
George Bush, eyes glistening, breathed deeply, smiled, and went on.
“I hope the others will understand that, in this situation, it is family, it is pride, and I’ll do everything I can for our wonderful sons.”
The family thing.
The Name Game
American history is replete with political families. The Adamses of Massachusetts, John and his son, John Quincy; the Roosevelts, Teddy and cousin Franklin Delano; the Tafts, William Howard, son Robert and grandson Robert III; the Kennedys, brothers Jack, Robert, Ted and Robert’s son, Joseph; the Rockefellers, Nelson and nephews Winston and Jay; the Gores, Albert and Al Jr., to name a few. But when the final chapters are written on the Bushes, the possibility exists that few of these families, if any, will be writ as large. Every thinking American knows, of course, that George Herbert Walker Bush was the nation’s 41st president, a post he won after serving a two-term apprenticeship as vice president under Ronald Reagan. And many Americans may recall that the former president’s father, Prescott Bush, was the U.S. senator from Connecticut during much of the 1950s and early 1960s.
That’s interesting, as far as it goes. But consider what may lie ahead.
In a historical first, the first- and second-born sons of George and Barbara Bush are seeking to become the governors of two of the nation's three megastates, Texas and Florida. The joke is that, to make up for their father’s loss of the White House in 1992, the Bush offspring are determined to recapture power for their family, one state at a time.
That’s hyperbole, of course. Only two of the four boys, George W. of Dallas and Jeb (born John Ellis Bush) of Miami, are candidates this year. The younger brothers, Neil and Marvin, and sister Dorothy, will have nothing to do with politics. Whatever political aspirations Neil Bush might have had crashed with his involvement in the Silverado savings and loan scandal in Denver when his father was in the White House. Marvin, his family says, is too thin-skinned, too easily bruised by the rough-and-tumble of political life to enter the arena. Already that inner turmoil has triggered gastritis in him, his family says. And Dorothy, the youngest child and only daughter, hates the spotlight that has shone so brightly for so long around the family.
Still, think of the possibilities: Should either George W. (nicknamed “Junior,” although his name lacks the extra Herbert) or Jeb succeed in displacing entrenched Democratic governors this fall, he — or they — would move to the top line on any Republican Party list of potential presidential contenders, perhaps as early as the millennium election year, 2000.
And if either should win the presidency, this Bush would be the first presidential son to match his father’s feat since John Quincy Adams won a disputed election by a vote of the House of Representatives in 1824, in the nation’s infancy. In short, what we may be seeing this year is the emergence of a great political dynasty, one that will be talked about by schoolchildren for hundreds of years.
Or maybe not.
Maybe we’re seeing yet another feeble attempt, destined to fall short, of third generations attempting to match the accomplishments of the first and second. That’s the funny thing about American political dynasties. As political-commentator Daniel Gross wrote: “When it comes to politics, presidents’ kids seem to stand Charles Darwin on his head. Instead of evolving, they devolve.”
There is little in the historical record to suggest that carrying the genes of a president can be anything but a burdensome task, weighing down rather than buoying the descendants’ movements. Even the famous Kennedy clan’s second generation has produced only a mediocre congressman from the Boston suburbs, an aspiring congressman from Rhode Island and an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
So what’s with these Bush sons, Jeb and George W.?
What compels them to proceed down the same path as their father and grandfather, bearing such historic freight? Each has a stock answer, which George W. concedes he pirated from his younger brother.
“I’m not running for governor of Texas because I am George Bush’s son,” says George W. “I’m running because I am Jenna and Barbara’s father.”
Likewise, Jeb says: “I’m not running because I am George and Barbara Bush’s son. I’m running for governor because I am Noelle’s, Jebbie’s and George P.’s father.” But can it be that simple? Are they that idealistic? Are they, as their protective friends might say, that foolish? Why do they want the aggravation? What makes them believe they are qualified to run a state government when neither has served a day in elective office? Why do they believe they have the answers that have eluded so many others?
Or, as their detractors insist, are they in it for the power? Are they just spoiled boys with weak credentials grown enamored of the spotlight? Is it arrogance? Are they afflicted by the same conceit that Texas Democrat Jim Hightower said of their father: “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple”?
To be sure, both Bush sons have political credentials, serving their father as top aides in his presidential campaigns and, in Jeb’s case, heading the Dade Republican Party in the mid-1980s. But it could be argued that, in both cases, the credentials came gift-wrapped with their last name. The same can be said of the fact that neither has lacked for public attention or money.
George W., after knocking around in the west Texas oil fields (as his father did before him, albeit more successfully), has carved a comfortable niche at the age of 47 as the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, entitling him to a solid six-figure salary and, as he points out, the privilege of being pitching-legend Nolan Ryan’s boss.
Life is good for 41-year-old Jeb as well. His real-estate partnership with Miami megadeveloper Armando Codina made him a millionaire. Most of his investments have proven shrewd, including recent shares in the Jacksonville Jaguars football team, which won a coveted expansion slot from the National Football League. He is a respected member of Miami’s civic elite, a former Florida secretary of commerce, a man sought after to serve on the boards of charities and chambers of commerce.
For both of them, the rough-and-tumble of a campaign is more likely to provide grief than glory. Each knows that bearing the family name and carrying the family history can be a curse as well as a blessing.
George W. learned this back in 1978 when he made a brief and unsuccessful run for Congress as an oil man from Midland, Texas. His opponent was Kent Hance, a rangy native of Lubbock who seized every opportunity to contrast his homespun roots with Bush’s Andover-to-Yale-to-Harvard resume.
“There was this farmer,” Hance would say to audiences, as Bush squirmed a few feet away, “sittin’ on his fence one day when this big, fancy limousine comes rolling up the dirt road and stops right in front of him. The windows roll down and the fella inside says, ‘You know the way to get to Lubbock?’
“The farmer, he chews on the straw for a couple seconds and points up the dirt road and he says to the chauffeur, ‘Go on up the road a couple of miles till ya’ see the cattle guard, then go left and pretty soon you’ll be in town.’
“Well,” Hance would go on, “a while goes by and the farmer sees the big fancy limousine coming back down the dirt road. The window rolls down and the chauffeur says, ‘Forgot to ask, what color uniform is that cattle guard wearing?’”
When the audience pauses in its laughter, Hance slips in the zinger. Turning slightly to face George W., he continues: “You see, that limousine wasn’t from around these parts. I think it had one of them Connecticut licenses. That where you from, George?”
Of course, George would chuckle good naturedly. But he was effectively reminded that privilege carries a price. When he announced to run for governor, incumbent Ann Richards — who in 1988 ridiculed then Vice President Bush of “being born with a silver foot in his mouth” — dismissed George W. as being something less than his father. “Shrub,” she called him, a little bush. Richards twisted the knife again last month when, on opening day of dove-hunting season, Bush had the misfortune of mistaking a protected killdeer for a dove — and shooting it dead, drawing a $100 fine. “A real Texan would never mistake a killdeer for a dove,” Richards quipped.
Jeb has not escaped similar jolts and jibes. Like his brother, Jeb has endured the label “Bush Lite.” And he is made to suffer for the supposed sins of his father. After Bush spoke to a gathering of defense industry workers in St. Petersburg several months ago, he was grilled by a woman about his father’s long-ago membership in the elitist Tri-Lateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, long targets for conspiracy-minded right-wing groups. “Isn’t your aim to take control of the United States?” the woman demanded.
A just-vanquished Republican rival, Secretary of State Jim Smith, called a press conference in May to read a Letterman-like “top 10 reasons how Jeb Bush may have gotten rich after his father was elected president.” The list began — you could have guessed — “He pawned his silver spoon” and concluded with, “He had great foresight in selecting parents.” In August, Smith and Tom Gallagher, who later finished third in the Republican primary, aired an attack ad against Bush that ended with the snarky question: “Jeb thinks he’s special. Do you?”
But still the Bush brothers run, chins out, into the fists of insults.
“I guess my own rationale is that it can’t get any worse,” George W. told me one morning in June as we sat in his high-rise North Dallas office. He has struggled with this question for many years and worries still that the hot lights of politics will singe his 12-year-old twin daughters and his wife. But, he insisted, looking at me with unflinching eyes, he’s not worried for himself.
“How could it get any worse when you love a guy as much as I love George Bush or as Jeb loves George Bush, and you see your father torn down? There can’t be anything worse than that. It’s a lot worse than me being torn down.”
A half a continent away, at the end of a luncheon speech at Orlando’s faux 1890’s Church Street Station, Jeb offered a different slice on why he’s willing to run. He gestured toward his parents seated at a table a few feet away and said in firm, measured tones:
“I want to be able to look my father in the eye and say, ‘I continued the legacy.’”
The Anchor to Windward
When my telephone rang late one morning in April, I picked it up to hear a familiar voice: “Hi, this is George Bush,” the caller said with no other warning, no other explanation. I had written the former president requesting an interview about his sons’ ambitions. I said in the letter that I was searching for threads that might run through a family to produce a U.S. senator, a president and now two candidates to be their respective states’ chief executives.
I had anticipated catching up with him in Houston, where Bush maintained his office.
“It’s up to you,” the former president said. “But if you really want to get a feel for the family, why don’t you come to Kennebunkport next month? That's where the family legacy lives on . . . It’s the anchor to windward.”
The village of Kennebunkport, Maine, straddles the mouth of the Kennebunk River at the point where it widens into a harbor, then flows into the dark and icy-cold waters of the Atlantic. George Herbert Walker, a multimillionaire dry-goods merchant and sportsman from St. Louis, came upon the village at the turn of the century and bought a rocky, 17-acre spit of coastline upon which he built a rambling home.
Walkers Point, as it came to be called, was where the ever-expanding family spent its summers in frantic bursts of swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, horseshoe pitching, motorboat racing and every other form of competition a group could devise. When George Herbert Walker’s daughter, Dorothy, married Prescott Bush, a tall, handsome Midwesterner-turned-Wall Street financier, new cottages were built and their children added to the clamor.
It is here, said George Herbert Walker Bush, one of those offspring and the current owner, as we walked the property on a chilly, rainy May day, that the family spirit has been kindled and rekindled, now over five generations. He is dressed in well-worn jeans, deck shoes, a powder-blue oxford shirt, a bulky crew-neck and a Mackinac jacket with the presidential seal on the chest — the only sign that this is not an ordinary man.
“I’ve lived in 31 places in my married life,” he says, his words beginning to fall into that staccato cadence so familiar to Americans. “Walkers Point has always been the anchor to windward. It was always here. Always stable. Long on memories. Long on values. Happiness.
“It just repeats.”
On this day, George Bush doesn’t shrink from the reality that he was born to privilege. Those contrived stunts of driving bulldozers, eating pork rinds, going bowling, even ordering drinks in a waterfront bar while saying he “kicked some ass” in his 1984 debate with Geraldine Ferraro — all to show he was a regular Joe — are behind him now. None of that matters here.
The president’s office is in the converted attic of a weathered Cape Cod-cottage set apart from the rambling main house. It is furnished with a wooden desk and chair, a small computer, some bookshelves and two other chairs for guests. There is little to remind me that the man who works here was once the leader of the Free World. One of the few mementos of his past is a model of the USS Finback, the submarine that rescued him in World War II after his plane was shot down in the Pacific. No plaques. No grip-and-grin pictures. Just family.
Along the hallway walls are old photographs of Bushes and Walkers and Stapletons and other branches of the family, each featuring pretty girls and handsome men and perfectly orthodontic smiles. The setting, utterly unostentatious, bespeaks comfortable affluence laced with a seemly amount of humility.
“We’re blessed. We’re privileged. We know it,” the former president is saying, trying to answer my question of what it is that drives the Bushes. “But less in material things. The material is there. But that’s far less important than the moral strength that each person takes from the family.”
For all the family’s success in politics, the Bush men insist that winning and holding office was never — and still isn’t today — a subject of dinner table discussion. These aren’t the Kennedys who, if the docudramas are to be believed, plotted power grabs over dinner. What the Bush elders discussed, among themselves and in little homilies to the children at breakfast, was service, the aristocratic notion of noblesse oblige, that those born with much are under great obligation to give much in return.
Biographer-journalist Richard Ben Cramer, author of the best-selling book about presidential aspirants called What It Takes, said this ethic provided the initial impetus for George Bush to run. “He would never look at it as noblesse oblige. And the reason is he doesn’t mean to set himself above anyone else . . .
“But (the president’s father) Prescott Bush had a large streak of that in him,” Cramer continued. “His own father had started the Community Chest in Columbus, Ohio. So Prescott was quite overt and explicit about Bushes having to serve. To him, service is the real measure of a man, it is the truest test of what he had done with his life.”
To the Prescott and Dorothy Bush children, however, this lesson was conveyed indirectly, by example. Never does George Bush recall his father gathering his brood and saying, “‘Now this is what you owe,’” Bush says, leaning far back in his chair and propping one denimed leg up on the desk.
“As children before the war, we saw our father spending a lot of time on the road raising a lot of money for the USO,” Bush says. “And he was also the moderator of the Greenwich Town Meeting, which was the equivalent of mayor. He’d work in New York City all day, then he’d come out and he’d attend these meetings.
“ . . . I guess we were in our formative years and it just struck us with pride.”
Beyond running the town meeting, the alliance between service and politics remained unforged until years later. By the time Prescott Bush ran successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1952 (he’d lost narrowly in 1950), George was living in Odessa, Texas, speculating on oil leases. The senator’s son fulfilled his service in other ways, “what I call ‘points of light service,’” Bush says — heading up charities, coaching Little League, raising money for the church.
But somehow it wasn’t enough for him; something was missing, something that also was taught on those playing fields at Walkers Point.
Competition was missing. And George Bush loved competition, craved it like a narcotic.
It was one thing to perform service to others. It was quite another to compete with someone else to see whose concept of service — otherwise known as a political platform — would prevail. Now that got his attention, like putting money behind a friendly bet.
Here, says Cramer, lies the answer to what makes the Bushes run. “You had this streak of noblesse oblige running through Prescott Bush. Then it was allied with that streak of Walker steel.”
If the Bush side of the family tree valued service, the Walker branches thrived on contests. It was George Herbert Walker who, desiring to sharpen the skills of American golfers, endowed the Walker Cup, a prestigious international competition to determine which country produces the best amateur players. It was Walker who pushed his children and grandchildren to engage in games of every sort at Kennebunkport, games where winning was always the object, the only object. He even established a summer baseball league using teams composed of Maine town boys and imported college players for whom he’d found summer jobs — all so his offspring could be tested.
Recalls Bush: “We’d have contests for everything. We’d see who could dive in the water and swim to the raft first. We’d hit tennis balls into the air and see who could win the most dimes for catching them.”
Even after he was vice president, the Bush family would form a team to play against the Secret Service agents in horseshoes, softball, tennis.
“These streaks” — public service and the hunger to win — “came together and became a kind of ferocious will to serve and a ferocious will to get to the place where service is done — elected office,” says Cramer, the biographer.
“What you have now is a much more competitive and fierce concoction than a pure Bush-ethic might have been,” Cramer continues. “It was definitely passed down, explicitly to George Herbert Walker Bush and, in every waking moment, to each of his kids throughout their lives.”
The former president loves to tell stories about the competitiveness of his sons. Like the time that Neil bet Jeb, then a teenager, that Jeb couldn’t stay in a steam bath for an hour. Jeb emerged 60 minutes later and demanded payment, only to be told by Neil that he had no money. “I can still see Jeb, red as a lobster, running through the house trying to catch Neil, threatening the life out of him,” the president says.
Or the time when tennis pros Chris Evert and Pam Shriver bet the president that Jeb and Marvin couldn’t take two games per set off them in a match. Not only did the brothers take the two games, they won both sets.
“Chrissie saw the White House usher later and complained to him, ‘The president never told us that those damn boys could play so well,’” the former president said. He hadn’t told the women that Jeb played on the University of Texas team, one of the nation’s best, and Marvin was at least Jeb’s equal. (Says Jeb, when asked of the match later: “We caught ’em on an off day.”)
And the father laughs about George W., a marathon runner and perhaps most competitive and demanding of all, bringing a girlfriend to Kennebunkport one summer and encouraging her to jog back and forth to town to lose weight and get in better shape.
Public service. Competition. Hand in glove. Walker-Bush. Ferocious noblesse oblige.
The president now makes the connection himself, talking almost inaudibly over the sound of the rain off the Atlantic slapping the window. “The boys went through that. But that ties over into politics. If you want to do well in politics, you have to remember the lessons you learned when you were thrown off the tennis court for being a bad sport.
“And with the rules of sportsmanship comes a sense of honor: You don’t cut corners. You don’t cheat. You don’t assign bad motives to the other guy. And the adrenaline factor is the same in politics as it is in sports.
“I’ve always felt that.”
Of course, sometimes the will to win interfered with sportsmanship. Ask Michael Dukakis, whose patriotism was questioned by Bush in 1988 because Dukakis refused to make schoolkids recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Or ask Bill Clinton, whose youthful protests of Vietnam were characterized by Bush as un-American. But, Bush would reply, he was just giving as good as he got. It was all a part of the competition.
The Sons Also Rise
It isn’t even midday yet in Gonzales, Texas, a dusty, two-stoplight town on the edge of the prairie, a good long way from anywhere else, and the bank thermometer tops 102. It was here that the Texas revolution started in 1835 when Mexican troops under Gen. Santa Ana stole the local militia’s cannon. And it is here, on a withering summer’s day, that George W. Bush has come in search of votes and money to fuel his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.
His presence is big news to the local weekly newspaper editor, who invites him in for an interview and snaps several pictures. The 60-watt AM radio station disrupts its programming schedule to carry a live broadcast with the man who comes as close to political royalty as Gonzales has seen since Sam Houston. Even Richards has never been there, the local editor says. Bush knows there aren’t many votes to be had in towns like this.
But to the eldest son, getting Texans to know who he is — who he really is, all by himself — is vital.
“I’m spending a lot of time in Texas letting people know that there’s another George Bush,” he explains to the 35 people who come to a fried-chicken lunch at the senior-citizens hall. Then, his eyes twinkling, he says:
“The other day I was giving a speech and a woman stood up and said, ‘He’s got his daddy’s eyes — but he’s got his mamma’s mouth.’” The group roars as one. George isn’t finished yet. His smile widens and he adds: “I took that as a compliment. I’m not sure my mother did.”
Of course there was no such woman at a speech “the other day.” The line is part of his stump speech, unfailingly getting a laugh, unfailingly reminding people about who he is — and who his parents are — while suggesting he doesn’t take it all too seriously. But the joke is right about some things. The eldest son can, in certain poses, bear a striking resemblance to his famous father. Like dad, his resume lists Philips Academy, Yale and Skull and Bones, the secret society redolent of patrician families and future influence.
But such surface comparisons are surely misleading. If, as the Texas Monthly once put it, President Bush is an earnest bore who “reminds every woman of her first husband,” son George W. is “the wild boyfriend” every woman dreams she had in her youth. With flashing blue eyes, a quick smile — which can turn instantly into a smirk — and restless, kinetic gesticulation, he strikes those who meet him as cocky, brash, irreverent. In his years after college, Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and flew jet fighters, adopting flawlessly the fighter pilot’s rakish air.
He drank whiskey and beer with the guys, chased oil leases by day, lived in a succession of rarely cleaned bachelor pads, swore like a . . . a fighter pilot, didn’t marry until 1978 at age 32 and — at age 40 — so scared himself after he blanked out following an entire night of partying that he swore off booze to this day.
“I call it the romantic period in my life,” George W. tells me with an unapologetic smile as we fly above rural Texas in the chartered prop plane he uses to hopscotch from one windsock landing strip to another. “Jeb got married right out of college and went straight to work.”
He says it not so much to suggest that he did it right and Jeb did it wrong, but only to make the point that these Bush boys, like the Bush dad, are not cut entirely from the same bolt of cloth.
“What differences do you see between yourself and your brother?” I ask.
“We have different personalities. He’s more reserved. He’s driven by idealism. He’s probably never been called ‘bombastic’ by his friends. I was . . . Which may not be great because it may tend to make people think that I am less thoughtful. Jeb will always seem more thoughtful.”
But he’s unable to suggest a political issue on which they could pick a fight. Both men, like their father, have hardened in their opposition to abortion rights (unlike their mother, who believes the woman should choose). Both send their children to private schools and both put forth radical plans to dismantle their respective states’ public-school systems. And both preach a gospel of personal responsibility, a gospel that favors self-reliance over public charity, that espouses laissez-faire economic policies over government control and regulation.
And like their father, they are respectful of the Christian right, articulating their positions with excruciating care, one phrase at a time, like hand-planting seeds in a garden. “These are good, decent people who work hard for what they believe in,” George W. says. “Some of them are more intolerant than I would like, but they’re a minority. There’s room for them in our party.”
Is there any difference between George and his father?
George W. again treads carefully. “I love him and I respect him. But I went to San Jacinto Junior High and he went to Greenwich Country Day School. Big difference.”
Journalists used to ridicule President Bush’s attempts to appear Texan, the craving for pork rinds, the affected drawl when campaigning in the South, the macho hunting trips, the membership in the NRA and the late-acquired taste for country- and-western music. But, Kent Hance aside, son George W. has slipped easily into all things Texan. He wears cowboy boots with his Brooks Brothers suits and talks fluent Texan, using phrases like “bein’ in the oil bid-ness” or “revital-ah-zin’ state gum-mint.”
George W. professes utter disdain for “the trust-fund boys” he prepped with in New England, bleeding-heart liberals in the making, and suggests that disdain fuels his current political philosophy.
“One of the lessons I learned by going to school at Yale University is this concept of guilt,” he says. He closes his eyes as if in mental anguish and mocks the lesson he said most Yalies learn: “I feel so guilty about the fact that my fellow mankind is impoverished and downtrodden that now I’m going to blame others for it as opposed to thinking of ways to encourage people to lift themselves up.”
It’s this kind of guilt-ridden, soft-hearted thinking that has screwed up government in Washington, D.C., and, under Richards, will eventually screw up Texas, Bush believes. It has created lousy public schools, bloated welfare rolls, escalated illegitimacy rates, violent crime and just about every other civic plague one can name. Eventually, he tells audiences, Texas will look like “every place else.”
Unless he can stop it.
“This is a motivating factor for me,” George W. tells me, getting back to my question of what makes him run, what makes him willing to sacrifice his enviable lifestyle, endure the jokes and the ridicule coming his way. “What I’m trying to say is that this is important enough to put up with the trouble.”
There is another option, I suggest to him. He is persuasive, skilled at backroom politics and a proven facilitator adept at getting other people to put up money and talent. He did it in the oil “bid-ness.” He’s done it with the Rangers. So why not just talk somebody else into running while he remains on the bench, shouting instructions?
The question seems to catch him off guard, as if I had asked him whether he’d rather be a private or a general. It all seems so . . . so obvious.
“I never looked at it that way, being kingmaker instead of king,” he finally says. “I guess it doesn't fit my personality. When your name is George Bush with the kind of personality I have, which is a very engaging personality, at least outgoing, in which my job is to sell tickets to baseball games, you’re a public person.”
A Long, Tall Texan
Barbara Bush is talking now. She wears a snappy, navy-blue dress with a shawl-like collar reminiscent of a sailor uniform. Her familiar white hair sets off large, red earrings. She radiates strength and warmth befitting her former role as the nation’s grandmother. Barbara finds the whole thing amusing.
“You’ve all come here this morning to listen to me brag about my son,” she tells the breakfast crowd at Orlando’s Omni Plaza hotel. “Isn’t this a wonderful way to start the day?”
And brag she does. Her second-born son, Jeb, is “the world’s most energetic, attractive, wonderful man,” Barbara says as if this is unarguable fact. Jeb squirms and laughs at a table nearby, but others at this mostly female fund-raiser love it.
But despite those qualities, she continues, “of our four sons, Jeb might be the last one I thought I would be doing this for. Not because he isn’t qualified. But because he never bragged about himself.”
Barbara has many stories about young Jeb’s humility. Like the time he asked if he could stay after school and be in a Christmas pageant. “I thought he was just going to be something like a spear carrier,” Barbara says. “So when we went to see it, imagine how surprised we were to find out that he has the singing lead as St. Joseph. Jeb thought that if he told us we’d think he was bragging.”
If older brother George inherited his mother’s sassy temperament, Jeb inherited his father’s impeccable manners, studied humility and almost puppylike desire to make everyone his friend by saying “yes” — when hindsight shows he should have said no. He is more preppy, less earthy, than his brother.
There is some irony in this: Of the public Bush men, Jeb is the one who is the truest Texan, born, reared and — except for a brief, unhappy stint at Philips Academy in Andover, Mass. — educated in Texas. But there is none of the Texas stereotype in him, none of the mannerisms affected sometimes by his father and absorbed naturally by George W.
Jeb is cerebral, hungry for ideas, impatient with nuance and forever striving for ideals. He seems always in a hurry. Jeb graduated from the University of Texas in just 2 1/2 years, then went straight to work at the Texas Bank of Commerce to save money so he could marry Columba Garnica Gallo, a Mexican girl he had met during a high-school student exchange trip and with whom he fell immediately in love. In 1980, he moved to Miami, in part to help run his father’s campaign, but mostly because he was in search of that decade’s version of the “frontier town,” a place not unlike Odessa, Texas, after World War II where a bright young man with the right connections could rise quickly to prominence.
Says his brother George: “Jeb is a very idealistic fellow. He absolutely has a philosophical grounding and he’s got great faith in his ideas. That's why I’m not surprised that he would run.”
At six-foot four-inches tall and with poster-boy good looks, Jeb fits the central-casting concept of today’s ideal candidate. He is more compelling as a public speaker than his father, though not as witty as his brother. When the campaign began, the younger Bush had to fight a tendency in answering questions to quickly spin into public-policy minutiae, thick with numbers and statistics, leaving listeners impressed — but numbed. He worked through that, substituting simpler (some say simplistic) themes in his stump speeches calling for tough prisons (glossing over the fact that they’re already tough), up- by-the-bootstraps incentives (overlooking his own advantaged start) and that old standby, capital punishment.
Yet policy minutiae is important to him. People should know, he says, that he is running for governor bursting with ideas, even radical ideas, not merely trading on his name, trading on his pedigree. This “wonkhood,” says biographer Richard Ben Cramer, sets him apart from his father and brother.
“There is not often much policy discussion with the Bushes. There isn’t much introspection. Several generations of Bush men could pass by in which the great questions of humankind will go undiscussed.”
When Bushes have stood for election in the past, Cramer says, the appeal dealt less with policy stances than it did with a contest of character. They believed their characters were better than the other guys’, that voters should know that and act on it.
“It’s not arrogance, it’s not like they are saying, ‘I have the answers,’” Cramer continues. “They’re saying, ‘I am solid and trust can be reposed in me. But this isn’t automatic. In the Bush mind-set, you have to first make yourself worthy. It’s not an easy road. It’s three generations of Bushes going off and establishing their own fortunes.”
The younger Bush clearly feels he has made himself worthy, financially and spiritually, like a knight headed on a crusade. When he announced for governor, he gave up his interests in his many businesses and walked away with assets that make him a millionaire twice over. He recently converted to Roman Catholicism, the religion of his wife and children, and practices it with a devotion lifelong Catholics would find startling. Even his campaign speeches are laced with dogma.
“There are such things as absolute truth,” he told a crowd in Pensacola at the end of a speech in which he railed against teenage pregnancies, deadbeat dads and welfare dependency.
Unlike brother George W., the ex-fighter pilot and saloon regular, Jeb invites — even insists upon — being tested on virtue. He volunteered in an interview with The Herald's Sydney Freedberg that, in 20 years of marriage, he had never cheated on his wife. In fact, Bush added, he’d never been intimate with any woman before Columba. “I didn’t even ask him about that issue,” Freedberg said. “He just came right out with it.”
But virtue seemed to matter little in the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. Critics, especially newspaper editorialists, dismissed the younger Bush as not just inexperienced, but “shallow” and “unqualified” except for his name. It should have been devastating that not a single one of Florida’s major daily newspapers recommended him for the GOP nomination.
But not to Jeb, who simply said the “ultra-liberal” editorial boards were not receptive to his conservative ideas. He didn’t want their backing and he didn’t need it. Bush, the driven competitor, worked to exhaustion and beyond, full time for 14 months, six days a week and sometimes seven, shaking hands, sending handwritten thank-you notes and entering the name of every positive encounter into a computer data base so the voter could be called on Election Day. Just like he did with Chris Evert and Pam Shriver, he thumped his seven opponents, gathering 45 percent of the vote and finishing 26 points ahead of the next guy.
He had shown his critics what he was made of. And he could look his father in the eye and say he was a step closer to carrying on “the legacy.”
Nothing to Lose
Jeb Bush picks at the chef’s salad, grappling for the umpteenth time with the questions about his father. He is plainly weary of them, frustrated that after months of stump speeches, countless interviews, thousands of handshakes, he must still explain what influence his father had on his running. He dislikes introspection as much or more than his father and brother. He’d rather discuss Charles Murray’s draconian views on welfare than himself.
But Jeb is nothing if he isn’t polite. So he offers an answer:
“I think my dad thought politics was a noble calling; it was a way of giving back in service. He thought being successful required that, required some public service.
“My world view is shaped more by what is going on today,” he continues. “I really do believe that if the public is to be served, government has got to shrink. Our government isn't subservient to us anymore. That’s got to change. Public service implies that our government is there to serve us.”
That’s what drives him, says Jeb Bush, this compulsion to club government back into submission. He thinks he knows how to do that. He’s got the political credentials (So what if they trade off his dad?). And he’s got the guts to try.
“If there is something that ties us together,” Bush said, “it is that we both believe in that quote from Teddy Roosevelt about all honor going to the gladiator down in the arena. We share a very low tolerance for the whiners sitting and watching and complaining.”
Determining motivation is a tricky thing. Maybe, as the skeptics say, the Bushes — father and sons — run because of who they are. Jeb and George W. hear the same attacks, over and over: “If their names were Smith, who would take them seriously?”
One of Jeb’s rivals conducted a poll earlier this year asking Republican voters if they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “If he were not the son of a president, Jeb Bush would not be a serious candidate for governor.”
The result: 45 percent agreed and 43 percent disagreed (the rest undecided). In pollster’s parlance, that means half of the Republican electorate — the people he needs most of all on Nov. 8 when he faces incumbent Lawton Chiles — “are suspicious that Jeb has gotten a great part of his boost from his heritage,” the pollster told me.
When I ask about the poll results, George W. gives me an impatient shrug. This is the part people don’t understand, that bearing the Bush name raises the bar over which he must leap. “As I say to people, I inherited all my dad’s enemies and half his friends. I’ve got to work on the other half of his friends and peel a few away from the other side.”
And when they are bouncing around in vans over back country roads at midnight, only to get up at dawn to shake more hands, eat more chicken, feign interest in yet another hard-luck story, of what help is the family thing?
“When you’re running, you’re out there by yourself,” George says. “All that other stuff — ‘Who’s your father, who’s your grandfather’ — all that begins to fade away very rapidly in the political arena. And when it comes Election Day, it won’t matter if we’re George Bush’s sons."
But their protestations aside, being George Bush’s sons does matter on Election Day, although not so much in helping them win. Rather, in helping them lose.
Unlike most of us, the Bush brothers carry a cushion against the consequences of losing. They know from personal experience that when Bushes lose — as Prescott the grandfather did in running for the U.S. Senate in 1950 and George the father did in running for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 1964 and in 1968, and as George W. did in running for Congress in Texas in 1978 — the fall is never far, if at all.
The money helps. For all three generations of Bush men, winning public office means taking a pay cut, a perverse incentive. Friends help, too. When George the father lost the 1968 U.S. Senate race in Texas, Richard Nixon named him chairman of the Republican National Committee, the perfect training ground for his subsequent presidential races. One step back, two steps forward.
They have seen firsthand that good can emerge from losing. Says Jeb: “The way I was brought up it’s not winning. . . . I could lose this race but, if done right, I could still push ahead the discussion.”
The little plane is circling over San Antonio, preparing to land at the end of another day of campaigning among cottonwoods and mesquite, of making speeches to folks in Sunday best or in overalls and ball caps bearing the logos of seed companies. I am sitting in a jump seat, knee to knee with George W. Bush, who looks up from some papers. He says he has been thinking about a question I asked him earlier in the day — that legacy question — about whether he felt any imperative to live up to his father’s achievements, perhaps by running some day for the White House.
“I didn’t go charging into this,” he says of his campaign. “The decision evolved slowly. But at some point it came to me that I don’t have anything to lose.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. If I was in a position where I had a long-term political game plan, I would have something to lose. But I don’t feel that way. I feel liberated from all that.
“I don’t have to worry that if I say something a certain way, I might lose it all, the dynasty will end,” George continues. “Our parents’ message to us was, ‘We’re trying to raise you surrounded by love so you can go and succeed and excel.’ That’s got to be a better message than, ‘Hey, this is expected of you.’”