Not the Faith of Their Fathers

June 1, 2004 Topic: Society Tags: BusinessIraq War

Not the Faith of Their Fathers

Mini Teaser: Two unlikely adherents to their respective faiths, Bush and Blair find peace in war.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

This sense that the Anglo-American relationship was a dwindling asset, which had been marked during the first Bush Administration with its powerful commitment to German unification, fueled some querulous demands back in Britain to know just what reward British interests received in return for Blair's devotion. (The mass-market tabloid, Daily Mirror, ran a now-infamous front-page headline describing Blair as "Bush's Poodle.") The answer is that in the buildup to the war, Britain became a part of the American inter-agency process, reminding one senior Bush Administration official of the remark of Henry Kissinger in his memoirs that, while President Nixon's national security adviser, he "took the British more into my confidence than I did the U.S. State Department." Furthermore, Bush knew, even though some members of Blair's government did not, that Blair on the eve of the crucial pre-war vote in the House of Commons had written his letter of resignation and entrusted it to the Cabinet Secretary. Bush said that if it would help, he would be happy for the British forces to stay out of the invasion. Blair replied that there were some causes more important than one's political career.

And given that Blair was a believer, warning publicly of the danger of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's hands since the Clinton era and was never shy of using force (he was more of a humanitarian hawk on Kosovo than was Clinton), Bush almost certainly would have had Blair's support even had he paid less attention to his domestic difficulties. In the event, through persuasion rather than any threats to deny British support, Blair got quite a lot. He was able to convince Bush of the need to attempt a second United Nations resolution (which infuriated Vice President Dick Cheney). And a week before the Iraq War broke out, Blair had succeeded, at least in his own mind, in winning an important concession from the White House.

President Bush had agreed, at Blair's persistent urging, to publish the road map to a renewed peace process in the Middle East, a step that Blair saw as an essential signal to Muslim opinion as British and American troops prepared to invade Iraq. Indeed it was Blair who made the announcement on the road map from Downing Street. As he chose which tie he would wear for the television cameras, Alastair Campbell entered with Blair's text in hand. "Sorry", Campbell said, according to the Stothard account. "President Bush doesn't like your text. He's rewriting it now."

"One day your sense of humor will get you into big trouble. Or, more important, me into big trouble. Now, where was I?" Blair replied, and returned to choosing his tie. (Campbell, who later resigned from Blair's service pleading exhaustion, at least owes one remarkable souvenir to his prime minister's closeness to Bush. When they were all in Northern Ireland on April 8, 2003, just as Basra fell to the British troops and American forces penetrated Baghdad, and when Bush made yet another concession to Blair by promising "a vital role" for the United Nations in postwar Iraq, Campbell received a $100 personal check from the American president, a contribution to Campbell's marathon run for charity.)

At least one of the American books now being reviewed, the sound and thorough account of the Bush political dynasty by Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, appreciates the importance of the British connections to the Bushes; Margaret Thatcher for Bush 41, and Blair for Bush 43. Indeed, the Schweizers unearth one genuinely new nugget of information that seems to have eluded British journalists. In the 1950s, one of the investors in Bush the Elder's Zapata oil firm (and a member of its board of directors) was James Gammell. The Bushes and Gammells became friends, and young George W. Bush's first trip to Britain came in 1959, when he stayed at the Gammells' Scottish estate outside Perth. Young George W. became friends with young Bill Gammell, and the friendship, as the Bush family's friendships usually do, endured; he flew to Gammell's wedding in Scotland in 1983. Gammell attended the elite Scottish school of Fettes, where he befriended a young Tony Blair, and later became an important donor to the Blair campaign funds. When Gammell opened a new headquarters for his thriving Cairn Energy (which has recently struck it very rich in India), Prime Minister Blair cut the opening ribbon. When most observers on both sides of the Atlantic reckoned that Bush's election would end that special personal relationship that Blair had enjoyed with the White House, Gammell was able to reassure both Bush and Blair that they would and should be friends.

The Schweizer book, which appears well sourced and had the benefit of sixty hours of interviews with the extended Bush family and another forty hours with close family friends, gives the most complete account so far of the current President Bush's journey to his religious faith. They note one pivotal moment when he joined a Bible study group in Midland on Monday evenings, which meant giving up the local masculine rite of Monday night football. In one exchange, another member of the group was complaining of how tough it had been growing up as the son of a preacher; George retorted that was nothing compared to growing up in the shadow of a vice president. The weight of family expectations, with its tradition of success and fierce competition, must have been daunting. And just as he took refuge from the family's patrician tradition in a countrified Texan persona at Yale and at Harvard Business School--where he carried a paper cup to class for his spitting tobacco--so he seems to have found another kind of relief from family pressure first in drinking, and then in the religion that broke his drinking habit. Billy Graham played a central role, and at one point when Bush was arguing with his mother that Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation, Barbara Bush went to the source and telephoned the preacher. Bush's faith appears to be plain and profound, an essential step in overcoming his long devotion to what the young man called his "four Bs"--beer, bourbon and B&B (brandy and Benedictine).

The Schweizer book is a classic family biography, reliable and thorough, cautious in its judgments, and not deterred by the family's help with their research from probing some of the more tense periods, like the at least briefly ugly rivalry between the two political heirs, George W. and Jeb Bush. W. himself has spoken of his pain when he announced that he was running for Governor of Texas and his family laughed. He has also suggested a sense of grievance that his parents preferred Jeb. On the night that he won his Texas race and Jeb lost Florida, W. noted, "their heads may have been in Austin, but their hearts were in Tallahassee."

Jeb's turn may yet come. This is indeed a dynasty in the Kennedy mold, and perhaps the Clintons may yet follow, since the name recognition, the family connections and the political comitatus that tends to gather around such proven winners are distinct assets in American democracy. Indeed, it does not take much imagination to see a kind of War of the Roses developing in American politics, if Hillary Clinton follows W. and Jeb then follows Hillary and young Chelsea awaits her turn at the family inheritance. The occasional rebellion from the Kennedy or Cuomo and Bayh clans among the Democrats would fit neatly into the 15th-century English pattern. (The grand Republican bloodlines of Tafts and Lodges seem to be exhausted; perhaps the rich mix of Kennedy and Schwarzenegger genes may yet give the GOP a rival to the Bush dynasty.)

The Schweizers conclude,

"In a world where political fundraising drives media coverage, which in turn drives national attention, even popular figures in the GOP cannot help but feel that they are a small merchant shop up against Wal-Mart."

It is an arresting and thoughtful metaphor, except that the essence of Wal-Mart is to be everywhere and to appeal to mass markets, whereas the Bushes have proved a somewhat divisive breed. Bush 41 managed to split the Republican Party; Bush 43 has proved to be a remarkably polarizing president. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute cites polls that suggest Bush has broken all records in splitting the country: among Republican voters, 91 percent approve of Bush's performance, but only 17 percent of Democrats. The resulting "polarization index" of 74 percent is the widest since such polls began.

The last two books reviewed here suggest that the Bush family may yet pay a price for its ability to forge friendships outside the realm. Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud starts with the now-familiar story of the Bin Laden family being rushed out the country immediately after the September 11 attacks, when other aircraft were grounded. He goes on in considerable and often wearisome detail to describe the family connections with oil and the Arabs, from the 1960s, when Bush 41's Zapata company built Kuwait's first offshore oil well, to the 1990s when Bush 43's Harken company escaped its difficulties with investments that seem to have been connected to the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and then the tiny Harken was able to beat the giant Amoco corporation to win exclusive offshore drilling rights in Bahrain.

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