One August morning in 1998, I hopped onto a golf cart with George H. W. Bush and went for a spin on the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Compulsively polite, the ex-president commented on the weather, pointed out the newly built recreation room and asked me if I needed more coffee before we sat outside and proceeded to talk about his son, the governor of Texas, who at that early stage was deciding whether or not to follow in his father’s footsteps as he’d done intermittently throughout his life.
But the conversation became, unavoidably, a discussion about both men. A recent article in a national publication had praised George W. Bush for possessing qualities—decisiveness, vision, retail political skills—that his father supposedly lacked. It got back to George the Elder that compliments of this sort had made the Younger uncomfortable. He promptly wrote his eldest son and implored him not to let the collateral snark ruin his national coming-out party.
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“It hurts him when the national press writes, ‘Unlike his dolt of a father,’” the 41st president said that day. “I’m immune to these things now, and I’m very comfortable with how we’ll be judged. But it hurts George and it hurts Jeb to have it look like they’re riding a wave their incompetent father couldn’t.”
Eight years later, I sat in the White House with President George W. Bush and asked him about his decision to select Dick Cheney as his vice-presidential candidate. Had he discussed the idea with his dad, for whom Cheney had worked as secretary of defense? “Yeah, I asked him about it,” 43 replied, but his voice quickly turned edgy: “My relationship with my dad is, y’know—I don’t call him and say, ‘Give me your list of potential candidates, man!’ Or, ‘What are the five things you would do if you were me?’”
Those two conversations have always resonated in me when I’ve thought about the peculiar psychological seesaw that defines the tandem political fortunes of the two George Bushes. As the latter’s just-released book 41: A Portrait of My Father aptly reminds us, love has always occupied the seesaw’s fulcrum. Still, their shared history over the past half-century has been that of one Bush succeeding at the expense of the other Bush. As a young man at Andover, Yale, the military and later the West Texas oilfields, George W. was at pains to keep up with the legacy of his ascendant father. After Bill Clinton bested the latter in 1992 and W. won the governorship two years later, it was the father who became diminished as the son took on outsized proportions—a reversal of fortune that only intensified by early 2003, when President Bush, bristling with post-9/11 certitude, chose to invade Iraq without asking his father’s learned opinion on the subject. But by the end of 43’s tumultuous presidency, a reappraisal of both men was already underway, to 41’s benefit.
Only now have the two achieved a kind of parity, dual beneficiaries of Obama fatigue and equal targets of derision by Tea Party conservatives. And thus only now, perhaps, could a book such as 43’s, a book uniting their two life stories, have been written.
It’s tempting to over-rely on these psychodynamics, of course. I don’t think that 43 went about his eight years seeking to prove himself to be the superior President Bush. (Had that been his central mission, then surrounding himself with so many of his dad’s former lieutenants—among them Cheney, Karl Rove, chief of staff Andy Card, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and legislative affairs director Nick Calio—would seem to be a counterintuitive pathway.) But that pungent remark he made to me in December of 2006 hints at a paternal shadow that lingered over 43’s presidency and chafed at him, even six years in.
Up to a point, his experience of close proximity to a father-president had been unquestionably beneficial. He learned the art of political warfare while sharing an office in 1988 with 41’s young strategic wizard, Lee Atwater. He learned White House office politics during the next four years (and, along the way, delighted in giving the walking papers to his dad’s imperious chief of staff, John Sununu). He learned, through his father’s reelection defeat in 1992, not to offend the supply-side fiscal hawks by raising taxes or the social conservatives by treating them like marginally useful idiots. And when it came time in 1999 to mount his own presidential campaign, George W. Bush had four years’ worth of solid governing accomplishments to run on—but also his dad’s formidable donor Rolodex, not to mention a full roster of potential White House appointees. What had previously been the biblically familiar wayward trajectory of a famous father’s first son—following in the old man’s footsteps in prep school and undergraduate (and, somewhat half-assedly, in the National Guard), departing from them at Harvard Business School, rejoining the path in Midland and Washington, then decisively finding his own way to the Texas Rangers and subsequently the state governor’s mansion—now became a self-assured adult’s appropriation of his birthright.
But what is one to make of that self-assurance? In 1998, Governor Bush told me that because of his father’s unconditional love, “I never feared failure.” This always struck me as a dodge. The question about George W. Bush has never been whether he feared failure measured in dollars or political victories, but whether he feared failing to measure up to George H.W. Bush. And that question leads to others.
Was W.’s Texas-inflected overconfidence—sleepwalking through the New Hampshire primary of 2000, brushing off the pre-9/11 warnings, charging toward war without soliciting a single dissenting opinion, coasting through the 2004 debate prep, brushing off the pre-Hurricane Katrina warnings—merely the insouciance of a spoiled rich kid, as so many have asserted? Or could it also have sprung from a conscious rejection of his father’s New England-bred prudence, as part of an ongoing compulsion to claim a separate identity of his own? For that matter, when 43 labeled himself The Decider and titled his presidential memoir “Decision Points,” was this a case, as many believe, of protesting too much about Cheney’s influence? Or does that self-identification stem from four vacillating decades as the underachieving George Bush?
Scholars will wrestle to no end with these questions, properly so. Meanwhile, both Bushes—90-year old George H.W. and 68-year old George W.—are long gone from the White House and back in Texas, with only their lives to govern. Both await history’s verdict with seeming equanimity. Their love for each other is unquestioned and, today at least, uncomplicated.