IN LATE 1988, JUST AFTER HIS FATHER WON the White House, George W. Bush asked a campaign staffer, “What’s gonna happen to me?” It’s not that he was selfish (“What’s gonna happen to me?”). Rather, he was curious, and maybe a little concerned, about how being the president’s son would affect his life (“What’s gonna happen to me?”). The staffer, Doug Wead, offered to research what had become of other first kin, and a few weeks later he produced a 44-page report, “All the President’s Children.” The findings, Wead says, were “very depressing,” including higher-than-average rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide. There were also a number of odd coincidences, including one that might have interested Junior, as George W. was known at the time to his dismay. Both his dad and Franklin Roosevelt had four sons, a daughter, and a sixth child who had died as an infant. Both had a son who was elected to office in Florida (Jeb Bush was then the Sunshine State’s Secretary of Commerce). Both had a son who struck out for the West (Neil Bush was living in Colorado). Then there was Roosevelt’s namesake son, who had returned to his home state to run for governor—and lost. “I do remember Junior looking at that and groaning, ‘Oh, great,’” Wead recalls.
More than ten years later, the two-term governor of Texas can safely say that he’s broken the Roosevelt curse. But if the pessimistic parallels in Wead’s report proved false, its general conclusion was indisputable: Once you’re the son of the leader of the free world, nothing is ever the same. In Bush’s case, what changed was his view of politics and of Washington, D.C., a city he came to loathe and still does, even as he embarks on a campaign to return there. “He didn’t like it when he was here,” says family confidante Mary Matalin, who hosts a weekly show on the America’s Voice cable network. “This is a very insular, phony place. The same people go to the same parties, and they think whatever they’re talking about is what’s important.”
What they’re talking about, of course, is themselves: How they’re getting ahead, who they’re stepping on in the process, and how they’ll do it all over again tomorrow. It’s a culture of self-glorification, of loyalty to one’s own interests above all others—and for George W. Bush, the lesson of the seventeen months he spent inside the Beltway working on his father’s presidential campaign and transition, and of four years peering in from the outside, was that no sin is greater than disloyalty. “He understood walking the plank,” says Samuel K. Skinner, one of three chiefs of staff in the Bush White House and now a co-chairman of the Chicago law firm Hopkins and Sutter. “He believed that if a guy brought you to the dance, you went home with him. You didn’t leak to the media, you didn’t waver, and you didn’t feather your own nest.” Above all, you didn’t feather it at the expense of his father.
“I REMEMBER THINKING WHEN I MET George W. in 1987 that he could have gone either way: in the words of Lee Atwater, chump or champ,” says Janet Mullins, who was the political director of Bush pere’s first presidential bid and later served as Assistant Secretary of State. He was, it is clear, at a turning point when he arrived in Washington in July of that year. No longer drinking, only marginally successful in the oil business, the 41-year-old was looking for something productive to occupy his time.
He found it in baby-sitting Atwater, a fast-talking, smart-alecky, down-home-drawling purveyor of political spin—the James Carville of his day before his untimely death in 1991. Atwater had been tapped by the Bushies in the mid-eighties to design and ultimately run what would be the 1988 campaign. While monumentally talented, he was also an incredible egomaniac; worse, he worked with consultants who had ties to potential Bush rivals for the GOP nomination. George W. wasn’t sure his father would be well served by such a fellow. “I said, ‘How can we trust you?’” he told Texas Monthly in 1994. “And Atwater, who was doing this shuck and jive act, stopped and said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said, ‘I’m damn serious, pal. In our family, if you go to war, we want you completely on our side. We love George Bush, and by God, you’d better bust your ass for him.’”
Atwater responded with the suggestion that changed Junior’s life: If you’re worried, join the team and keep an eye on me. Junior took him up on it, and for the first time, he was drawn into the heady world of high-stakes politics. The job carved out for him—unofficially, as he had no title—put him in the thick of every aspect of the campaign, monitoring not just Atwater’s activities but everyone’s. “He was his father’s personal representative in the organization,” explains Chase Untermeyer, an old family friend who was the director of personnel in the Bush White House and today is the director of governmental affairs for Houston-based Compaq Computer Corporation. In specific terms, Junior’s responsibilities as internal surrogate had him relaying information about how things were going and what needed to be done. “Endless people told me, ‘Tell your dad to be himself,’” he recalled recently, “but there was more than that: ‘Tell your dad this.’ Congressmen would say, ‘You’ve got to let your dad know this.’ In a campaign as big as the presidency there’s a need to have someone around who’s viewed as close to the candidate, to give an outlet to people so they can feel attached and part of the process.” The reverse was also true: Oftentimes he carried messages back from his dad. “If the vice president wasn’t happy with any member of the campaign staff, George W. was the guy he sent in,” Mullins says. He was also a sounding board for staffers who were