October 18, 1999
iF Magazine Editorial:
Like Father, Like Son
Most media commentary comparing former President George H.W. Bush with his son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has focused on the contrasts. There is some logic in that.
George Bush, the elder, was a stellar student-athlete at Andover and Yale. George Bush, the younger, was a mediocre performer, at best.
The elder volunteered for combat in World War II, flew missions off aircraft carriers and parachuted from a burning plane. During the Vietnam War, the younger Bush slipped past other applicants to snare a treasured spot in the Texas National Guard.
Though both enjoyed privileged backgrounds -- coming from blue-blood Yankee stock -- the elder George Bush struck out for Texas after college and ran a moderately successful oil business. He entered politics, won a House seat and built a sparkling resumé of high-profile posts, including U.N. ambassador and CIA director.
The younger Bush partied through his 20s and 30s. He could be surly when drunk and apparently abused cocaine (though he won't exactly admit it). He also lost investment money forked over by his father's friends.
But not all the contrasts with his father are unfavorable for the Texas governor. Journalists who travel with the younger Bush marvel at his ease with crowds, his common touch, his unwavering "compassionate conservative" mantra, and even his charisma.
The elder Bush always seemed frenetic when meeting voters, prone to clumsy phrasing -- "Message: I care" -- and lacking that "vision thing."
Beyond the father-son differences, however, are striking similarities that are shaping Campaign 2000 and could be hallmarks of a Bush II presidency.
Despite their kinder, gentler and compassionate language, both Bushes have demonstrated a ruthless streak in playing politics. Indeed, the younger Bush learned the secrets of hardball politics at his father's knee in the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns.
Bush, the senior, was always looking for the "silver bullet" that could take out an opponent, whether fairly or not. [For details on Bushs campaign style, see Bush Family Politics.]
So, it's not surprising that just as the senior Bush baited Democrat Michael Dukakis as too lenient with black convict Willie Horton, the younger Bush skewered Texas Gov. Ann Richards as soft on crime in their match-up in 1994.
But first and foremost, both Bushes understand the value of connections. The family excels at cultivating powerful friends and building strong personal alliances.
Both Bushes learned those advantages early, entering the secretive Skull and Bones society at Yale, mixing with influential politicos and moving in well-heeled business circles. Both are comfortable in clubrooms, "smoke-filled rooms" and corporate boardrooms.
Since leaving office, President Bush has continued to strengthen those contacts and put them to use on behalf of his oldest sons political ambitions.
Sometimes, that means rubbing shoulders with the great and mighty at the Bohemian Grove or some other exclusive club. Or it can be speaking on behalf of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon who funds the right-wing Washington Times. [See Robert Parrys Lost History.]
The elder Bush knows that connections can be priceless when trouble strikes. Bush's friends -- in politics and the media -- shielded him when he was caught up in government scandals during the Reagan-Bush era: from Iran-contra to Iraqgate, from the October Surprise caper in 1980 to the Passportgate shenanigans in 1992.
Whenever the chips were down, Bush could issue denials and count on his allies to pull him through. The connections guaranteed him a very large benefit of the doubt.
So, while lesser mortals were dragged before grand juries and saw their words parsed for possible perjury, Bush could refuse to answer questions, offer implausible excuses, demand to be cleared of suspicions or simply walk away with his reputation for integrity intact.
Most brazenly, Bush rebuffed Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's request for an interview in early 1993, after Bush had pardoned six Iran-contra defendants to kill that long-running criminal investigation. Bush's refusal to cooperate drew barely a mention in the news media.
Through his business and political career, the younger George Bush also grasped the power of connections. Money was always available for business ventures as well as campaigns.
Besides money for 2000, Gov. Bush has lined up endorsements from two-thirds of the Republican governors and members of Congress. [NYT, Sept. 5, 1999]
This phalanx of support steadied the Bush campaign in August when he stumbled over questions of past cocaine use. Bush indicated that he could deny using illegal drugs back to his late 20s, but balked at a flat no.
It seemed that he was conceding truth to the cocaine rumors, the sort of common-sense judgment that might follow, say, a husband telling his wife that he could deny having cheated on her since the middle of last month.
Given Bush's support for imprisoning Texans caught possessing cocaine, the mix of potential criminality and hypocrisy might have sunk lesser campaigns. But not Bushs juggernaut.
Instead of demanding a straight answer from Bush, conservative ethics specialists, such as William Bennett, argued that there was no independent evidence of cocaine use and that the "liberal media" was at fault for asking the pesky questions in the first place.
Like a summer storm, the cocaine controversy quickly passed. By late summer, the governor again was enjoying the gentle press that had marked the early days of his campaign.
As Gov. Bush could see, the greatest value of connections is that they protect those who have them from the rules that apply to everyone else.