The Saturday Profile: The Bush clan, The family that plays to win

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The Independent Culture
THE MIND boggles. Can it really be ? Will America's new unofficial Royal Father be the inventor of "goofy golf", a serial murderer of the English language, coiner of such gems as "I'm not the most articulate emotionalist", and, incidentally, the President who fell fastest and furthest in all American history? The answer, amazingly, is yes. Step aside Kennedys, Tafts and Rockefellers. The political dynasty to reckon with across the Atlantic these days is named Bush. And its patriarch is none other than George Herbert Walker Bush.

If you are still to be convinced of that, consider a few facts. Before 1998, the last brothers simultaneously to have been state governors were Nelson and Winthrop Rockefeller, a quarter of a century ago. Now George W Bush and Jeb Bush have achieved the feat, in Texas and Florida respectively, the second and fourth largest states in the Union. Not since John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth Presidents, has a son followed a father into the White House. Now, if the polls are to believed, George W - if he chooses to run - is favourite to win the biggest prize of all in 2000. Not since the Kennedys in their pomp has a bloodline been as prominent in American politics, and for so long.

It begins with George's father, Prescott Bush, descendant of thoroughbred Anglo stock which alighted on Massachusetts' shores in the 1650s. He went to Yale and became a banker to great East Coast fortunes before serving two terms as Senator for Connecticut between 1952 and 1962, a pillar of the country-club Republicanism of the Eisenhower era. Prescott was also a marvellous athlete and golfer and - as is now apparent - a political stallion in the Hyperion class. And the ex-President's mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, who died in Bush's November terribilis in 1992, just two weeks after he lost the White House to Bill Clinton, brought her own form to the mix. A leading woman golfer of her day, she was daughter of the George Herbert Walker who donated the cup for which the best British and American amateur golfers compete to this day.

In a sense "amateur" is a word that sums up George Bush; not just as the jet-paced hacker who could complete a round of golf in fewer minutes than shots, but also as a politician. His hyperactive style, his weird way with words, made him seem a goofy Ivy Leaguer who had bumbled Wooster- like into the Oval Office. For him, campaigns and elections were unpleasant interludes which, in a democracy, a gentleman must necessarily endure, if he is to continue his vocation of ruling. For George Bush saw the presidency as a natural mandate - "my turn at the watch", as a member of any decent New England yacht club would say.

But in Bush family politics, if not its golf, amateurism is a sham. All along the way, he had rich and powerful backers. The myth has Bush making it from scratch in the Texas oil industry; the reality was a good dollop of family money speeding the process. George Sr might come across as vacuous, yet supremely likeable, "a classy kind of guy". But when he had to, he could be the meanest old pro.

"The concept of the Dukakis family has my greatest respect," he uttered, memorably, during his successful bid for the White House in 1988. But his campaign was among the nastiest and most mendacious in memory. And while in the domestic affairs, which bored him, he might have given a whole new meaning to the phrase laissez-faire, he was a true professional on the world stage. President George Bush will be remembered for the Gulf War; but his sensitive (some would say oversensitive) handling of the decline and fall of the Soviet Union may prove his real contribution to this century's history. If Communism died with barely a drop of blood spilt, part of the credit belongs to him. So the Bush legacy was born; but not - to use the words spoken by a real king half a century before in utterly different circumstances - without the help of the woman he loved.

Like many a budding dynasty, the Bush one is a crypto-matriarchy. Obviously, if your father is President, you look at life a little differently. But at least as important an influence on George W and Jeb remains their mother. Barbara Bush was born Barbara Pierce, daughter of a wealthy New York businessman who instilled in his own offspring an admirable sense of noblesse oblige. And in public at least, Barbara came over - and still does - as the caring, gentler Bush.

Be not deceived, however, by the coiffed silver hair, the twinsets and fake pearls, the comforting bosom. "Barbs" may have been, in her own words, "a nester", guardian of homespun normality for her peripatetic, hyperactive husband, and coy literary partner of the famous Millie, the Bushes' White House dog. In fact, Barbara is a lady of steel and, as a descendant of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President, can claim some pedigree in her own right. She has a strong will and clear views. She is a mistress of the withering look, and also owns a withering tongue, (a characteristic inherited - until he learnt to bite it - by George W). In her own way, she was as influential a first lady as Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton, and for her aspiring progeny, a platform asset to rival Dad.

Just ask her eldest son how he became Texas governor. Now George W ("Junior" as he once was - but is no longer - called) is a real Texan. Like his father, he went to Yale, and shares that disarming smile. But he's spent most of his life in the Lone Star state, where a reputation for a hell- raising, hard-drinking past is no handicap. He drawls the appropriate vowels and owns a slice of the Texas Rangers baseball team. In 1994, however, he faced a formidable foe in the incumbent and much loved Governor Ann Richards, salt of the Texan earth and Bush-baiter par excellence. Author of the immortal jibe that Bush Sr had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth", she would bring the house down by referring to the son as "Shrub". But Richards both underestimated her opponent and reckoned without the rival grandmother-power of Barbara Bush. Her sting was drawn and George W won a remarkable victory.

In truth, although the governorship was his first office, the son was no political amateur. At the White House, he was the President's private enforcer, the man who broke the bad news to aides his father could not bring himself to sack in person. Crucially, he learnt too that a presidency without a theme is a presidency doomed. Hence the message of "compassionate conservatism", which swept him to re-election this week, and may carry him to the White House in two years' time.

Arguably, however, the most skilful politician of the Bushbabies is the next Governor of Florida. Like dad, John B ("Jeb") Bush is not one for the "vision thing". Most unlike his dad, he once described himself when young as a "cynical little turd", who smoked pot and inhaled. Unlike his brothers, he did not follow their father into the oil business. Jeb went to university in Texas, not Yale, married a Mexican girl at the age of 17, and then became a Roman Catholic. He lived in Venezuela, becoming fluent in Spanish, before settling in Miami. There, he proved he was, after all, a real Bush by making a quick few million in business and throwing himself into politics.

The first rung was a spell as state secretary of commerce, followed by a tilt at the governorship in 1994, when he was barely 41. Unpolished, and a little too keen on the electric chair even for Floridians' bloodthirsty instincts, Jeb lost to the folksy and wily incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles. This time, however, he made no mistake.

Barbara Bush re-emerged to tout her boy, "this most energetic, attractive and wonderful man". The boy did his bit by softening his line on crime and welfare, touting himself as "loving and thoughtful". No less important, his Hispanic connections gave him a direct line to the largest minority in Florida, soon to be the largest in the country. Like George W (and Bill Clinton too, for that matter), he is emblematic of a changing America where power is slipping from the centre, and the road to the top lies not through Congress but through big state governors' mansions.

Herein lies the historic significance of America's new political royalty. The Bushes may not have the glamour of former occupants of this role. But what are the alternatives? The Tafts and Rockefellers are in eclipse. Al Gore, albeit son of a senator and George W's possible opponent in 2000, doesn't set the pulse racing. Even the Kennedys are petering out, a lineage these days containing as many fools as princes.

Admittedly, the Bushes boast one of those too: George W's and Jeb's younger brother Neil, thrust to brief notoriety by the savings and loan scandal of the late Eighties. His surname earned him a directorship in Silverado, a bank that fed off the rip-roaring Denver boom of those years. The bank ended up losing $1bn, including a $100m loan approved by Neil, some of which, it transpired, went to business associates. Neil was reprimanded and fined $50,000; and the Bush reputation for straight dealing was badly tarnished.

But the family has met the two prime requirements of dynasty-building. Like their much-mocked father, George W and Jeb have proved there is more to them than a name. Indeed, they have sketched policies that could be their party's salvation in two years time. Second, adaptability is the key to political longevity. In its passage from crusty Yankeedom to the mightiest citadels of the Sun Belt, the Bush tribe has ridden the waves of American social change. Old Prescott, who died in 1972, would have been proud of them, but King George's comments are unrecorded. As he noted early in his presidency, back in 1989, "Fluency in English is something I'm often not accused of". But as the family continues to rise, who cares?

Story of a Dynasty

Origins: Born November 1952, with the election of Prescott Bush to the US Senate

Influences: (early) old money,

redoubtable East Coast ladies, baseball; (later) oil money, Texas, baseball

Education: Yale University, University of Texas

Career: Over three generations, virtually every high office it is possible to achieve in the United States, including congressman, senator, governor, director of the CIA, Ambassador, Vice-President and President

Favourite reading: Baseball Weekly, Golf Illustrated

Favourite clothes: Preppy suits, white shirts and striped ties. presidential windcheaters

Jeb Bush on himself: "I'm an odd kind of candidate, a kind of semi- celebrity to six-year-olds."

George W Bush on his parents:

"We inherited a political legacy. But to me, the election of two sons as governors is a great tribute to my mom and dad."

George Bush Sr on his maker:

"I feel a little, I will say, uncomfortable with the elevation of the religion thing."

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