The Bush Restoration

February 23, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: United States

The Bush Restoration

George W. Bush portrayed himself as both his father’s son and his opposite. Jeb may be able to do something similar—present himself as both the next Bush and the new, improved Bush.  

The result was calamitous: a unilateralist foreign policy that “opened what became a chasm between the United States and its European allies,” Mann writes. At home, it led to diminished civil liberties and a degraded rule of law.


ALL THIS history underlies 41 and its attempt to depict the son as the compass-true heir to his father. Bush 43 emphasizes his filial devotions, including his role as “loyalty enforcer” during his father’s 1988 presidential campaign. It was “Junior” who said to the operative Lee Atwater, “How do we know we can trust you?” Jeb, even blunter, told him, “If someone throws a grenade at our dad, we expect you to jump on it.” Atwater’s actual task was not to fall on grenades but to toss them at Michael Dukakis. Atwater’s friend Karl Rove later duplicated the no-prisoners strategy for George W. in 2004, when he targeted liberal critics of the Iraq War and got evangelicals to the polls to vote for state bans on gay marriage.

Rove, like Atwater before him, was prized for his loyalty, the single highest value for the Bushes, and not only at campaign time. “Loyalty, Republicans seemed to agree, was for Bush what ideology had been for Reagan,” Herbert Parmet observed in Lone Star Yankee, his biography of George H. W. Bush. It was for Bush 43 too. “Instead of replacing those in his administration who had become a clear liability, Bush consulted his own loyalty . . . and kept the loyalists on board,” Robert Draper wrote in Dead Certain, his account of the younger Bush’s presidency. The less loyal, like Colin Powell, were sidelined, or, like the economist Lawrence Lindsay, who dared to warn that the Iraq invasion might come at a steep economic cost, were harried from office. George W. Bush saves his most emphatic statement about loyalty for the end of his book:

When I was considering options for my vice presidential nominee, I called to ask [Bush Sr.’s] advice about his former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Without hesitating, he said, “Dick would be a great choice. He would give you candid and solid advice. And you’d never have to worry about him going behind your back.”

Loyalty mattered to the family so greatly, in part, because its political dynasty was nourished in the alien soil of the Southwest, far from its natural East Coast habitat. We forget just how entrenched the Bushes are in the American establishment—more than the Kennedys, nearly equal to the Roosevelts. Samuel P. Bush, great-grandfather to George W. and Jeb, “was a steel and railroad executive who became the first president of the United States Chamber of Commerce,” John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in The Right Nation. The other great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was “the co-founder of W. A. Harriman, Wall Street’s oldest private investment bank. Walker’s stature was summed up by his twin Manhattan addresses: his office at One Wall Street and his home at One Sutton Place.” Next was Prescott Bush, who in the boom period of the 1920s married a Walker daughter, Dorothy, and joined the Harriman firm. Elected to the Senate in 1952, he became a model Eisenhower Republican.

Historically, the first families throve within the tight orbit of the old northeastern politics: the Adamses and Kennedys in Boston; the Roosevelts in Manhattan and Albany. But by the middle decades of the twentieth century that world was growing stale. Prescott Bush’s son George H. W. Bush sensed this, ahead of many others. So often mocked—for a time he joined in the laughter—for lacking “the vision thing,” he achieved one master visionary stroke, when he left behind the stock exchange and exurban Greenwich for the go-getting arcadia of West Texas. “By driving his red Studebaker away from the opportunities waiting on Wall Street,” Bush 43 writes, his father “defied convention, took a risk, and followed his independent instincts.” But he maintained strong ties back home. When he was ready to start his own oil company, in 1951, “Dad frequently traveled to the East Coast to look for money,” Bush writes:

Several of the company’s first major backers were family members or friends, including his father and his uncle George Herbert Walker, Jr., who was eager to take a bet on his favorite nephew. He also raised money from people like Eugene Meyer, then the President of the Washington Post newspaper corporation.

A year later, when Bush’s partner left the firm, “once again, my father turned to his Uncle Herbie and his Wall Street friends. . . . He lined up a half million dollars in capital.”

Bush’s East Coast pedigree set him apart from other Sun Belt figures when he decided to enter politics after moving from Midland, Texas, to the flush Houston “oil patch” in 1959. At the time the city was a hotbed of extremism, “one of the major strongholds” of the John Birch Society, as Parmet writes. The local chapter had only fifteen members in 1961, but Robert Welch, the Birch founder and leader, singled out

Los Angeles and Houston as his two strongest cities, which was not surprising given that the volatile climate of the latter also made it home to other such fringe groups as the Christian Crusade, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, Freedom in Action, and such extremists also controlled the Committee for Sound American Education, which dominated Houston’s school board throughout the decade.

In 1962, Bush was recruited to become the GOP county chairman, on the assumption that as the son of Prescott Bush, the Connecticut senator who had criticized Joe McCarthy, he would chase out the kooks. Instead he courted them because, as he later said, “We all shared basic conservative views.” At the time, those views were segregationist. In his first campaign, for the Senate in 1964, Bush denounced the Civil Rights Act, just as Barry Goldwater did. Bush lost—to the Democratic incumbent, Ralph Yarborough, who had supported the legislation—but he was now an early favorite of National Review. It was only later, when the party base shifted to the center in reaction to Goldwater’s defeat and the initial enthusiasm for the Great Society, that Bush moved too. This is why some, including Parmet and the historian Timothy Naftali, say Bush is best understood not as a belated version of old-school GOP moderation but as an artificer of the new party, a comrade in arms of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.


HIS FIRST patron was Nixon, whose journey was the reverse of Bush’s—from Orange County to the East and into the heart of the GOP establishment, still based in New York, when Nixon entered politics in the 1940s. Nixon, too, was a bridging figure. And his patronage was crucial to Bush, who was being held back by Texas’s still-dominant Democratic Party. He was elected twice to the House, but the victories were bracketed by two failed Senate campaigns, first in 1964 and then again in 1970. Under normal circumstances his career would have been finished, but party chieftains liked him. “Nixon rescued Bush’s political career from the scrap heap,” Quinn Hillyer wrote in National Review last year:

First Nixon appointed Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations (the Washington Star wrote that Bush’s appointment represented a “major downgrading” of the position), then sent him to head the RNC, and later let it be known he thought Bush might be vice-presidential material when Nixon left office. The simple reality is that people who serve just two terms in the House and then lose Senate races do not usually end up with a series of high-level executive appointments. Without Nixon’s sponsorship, Bush surely would not have been within sniffing distance of a presidential run in 1980, and the vice presidency under Reagan would have been a pipe dream.

Bush 43 similarly discusses his father’s early career in deflating terms. “None of the jobs he had held in the 1970s were viewed as a springboard to political success,” he writes. “Not only is my father the only President to have held all four of those jobs [ambassador to the United Nations, Republican Party chairman, liaison officer in China and director of the CIA], he is the only president to have held any of those four jobs.” The reason is that each was essentially a patronage reward, given to a trusted insider and proven loyalist. Bush was the consummate “good soldier,” as Parmet writes. Watergate put his loyalty to the test. He made every extenuation he could, but was disillusioned by the White House tapes. While others were disturbed by Nixon’s rants against his many “enemies,” real and imagined, Bush was shocked, his son reports, by “the harsh and amoral way in which [Nixon] spoke about his supposed friends.” He adds, “One of the supposed friends was George Bush. Nixon had called Dad a ‘worrywart’ and complained that he hadn’t used the RNC aggressively enough to defend him.” Given the full range of Nixonian insult, this seems rather mild. But the code of loyalty is strict, and extends up as well as down.