George, Washington

What his first stint there taught him about loyalty.

June 1999By Comments

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 “grousing,” Matalin says. “He was an assessor of problems. If they were real, he did something. If they weren’t, he at least made people feel better. He was a general morale booster.”

Above all, he was, in his own words, a “loyalty thermometer”—and when he got hot, watch out. “Political professionals look upon candidates as the baggage they have to carry on their way to being famous,” Untermeyer says. “George W. was there to remind the various prima donnas that their main job was not to make themselves look like geniuses. It was to get George Bush elected.” Wead recounts George W.’s joy at “putting people who thought they were big shots in their place . . . harassing them with wisecracks and booming it out so everyone would hear it.”

George W. worked just as hard at being an external surrogate, someone whose famous name and closeness to the candidate made him a natural to send on the road. As a liaison to special interests, he met with everyone from environmentalists to evangelicals; as an ambassador to elected officials and assorted fat cats, he traveled coast to coast lining up potential backers. “He was used with governors, mayors, members of Congress, influential fundraisers—anyone who needed VIP attention,” Mullins says. “Junior would come in no matter what time I asked, no matter how short the notice was, to pull people together if they might support his father,” Matalin says. “I remember one of those weird trips. It was a hard place to get to and a hard time to go. There were three guys in the middle of Nowheresville, Michigan, and he stayed until we had each one. He never left a room until everyone was satisfied.”

Well, maybe a pressroom. One of the less cheerful aspects of his tenure in Washington was his combative relationship with the media. Though it’s true he played the game smoothly at times—successfully swatting down rumors of his father’s infidelity by volunteering to Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman, “The answer to the big A question is N-O”—he seemed predisposed to regard journalists with suspicion. “I was in charge of screening reporters,” he said in 1994. “These people would come in asking for interviews—some well meaning, some not—and my opening question was, ‘Why you?’ A lot of them just weren’t fair.” His worst fears were realized when another Newsweek reporter, Margaret Warner, wrote the famous “Fighting the Wimp Factor” cover story in October 1987. After it ran, George W. recalled, “Margaret called me on the phone, and I let her have it. I said, ‘This is disgraceful. You spent all this time to write a two-page article, and it had the word wimp in it seven times about George Bush?’ I was furious. I wasn’t yelling, but I was very firm. She blamed it on her editors, and I said, ‘Then you ought to quit. You ought to quit if that’s the kind of journalistic integrity you have.’” Warner, now the chief Washington correspondent of PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, disputes that account. “I agreed that the use of the word ‘wimp’ on the cover seemed unnecessarily cruel,” she says, “but I had no apologies for the story itself. It was a fair look at why Bush had this persistent image problem—that he was, to put it delicately, something less than his own man. The campaign, George W. included, didn’t like to admit it.”

FAST-FORWARD TO NOVEMBER 8, 1988: George H. W. Bush defeats Michael Dukakis. His eldest son and closest adviser could have cashed in with a high-profile job; instead, he checked out—but not before taking the lead in staffing the new administration with people who were, yes, loyal. Shortly after the election, George W. was named by his father to chair what was dubbed the Silent Committee. It comprised about fifteen blood-oath Bushies, from Untermeyer to Jane Kenny, who’d worked in Bush’s congressional office in the late sixties. Their mission, as Untermeyer explains it, was to “make sure that good people who were not pushy in the unattractive Washington way would be remembered.”

But the most loyal would-be applicant of all never got a chance to be so remembered. In December George W. decided against working in the administration or, for that matter, anywhere in Washington. Why live in a city you openly dislike—especially when the possibility of owning a piece of a major league baseball team awaits you back in Dallas? “People were shocked when I said that I wasn’t going to hang around,” he said. “The assumption was that I was up there to be a lobbyist or something. I knew from day one I was leaving the minute the campaign was over.”

Even from a distance, however, his power and influence could be keenly felt, leading one journalist to christen him “the Nancy Reagan of the Bush White House.” Although his days as loyalty thermometer were behind him, he was still in the business of rewarding the good and punishing the bad. “There was this minister we wanted to meet with during the campaign,” Wead says, “but he wouldn’t meet with us. He snubbed us continually. When we won the election, he said he wanted to meet with the president-elect. George W. said, ‘No. That’s not how it works.’”

After the transition gave way to the inauguration and actual governing, George W. continued to take an interest in who got hired and who didn’t. “Well into this period,” Untermeyer says, “he’d call to say someone on the Silent Committee list was being jerked around by a Cabinet officer. I’d frequently get calls asking that I see someone or not forget someone.” One example is Richard Fisher, an acquaintance of Junior’s from Dallas. During the 1994 U.S. Senate race, first against Democrat Jim Mattox in the primary and then against Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in the general election, Fisher was attacked for having sought a job in the Bush administration—but it was George W., Untermeyer eventually determined, who referred him. There was also catalog baron Roger Horchow, another of Junior’s Dallas acquaintances, who early in 1989 sought—unsuccessfully, it turned out—the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1994 the Houston Chronicle reported that George W. spoke up for Horchow because “he gave money to my father.” Then there were the supplicants Bush reportedly rebuffed, including Craig Fuller, the vice president’s chief of staff, who wanted to serve the new president in the same capacity. According to Richard Ben Cramer’s book about the 1988 campaign, What It Takes, Junior thought Fuller too much the Reaganite and too inattentive to the Bushes. “He wouldn’t return a damn phone call,” Cramer has him complaining. But George W. denied recently that he had it in for Fuller. “Someone’s picking up a bunch of rumors,” he said.

George W. also remained on big-shot patrol during this period. In June 1989 Atwater was photographed by Esquire in gym shorts, his pants down around his ankles. “He said, ‘Man, this is great,’” George W. remembered. “I said, ‘No. This isn’t right at all. You’re not the center of attention. You’re representing a man of dignity and class, and this is an undignified picture. He said”—the governor breaks into an exaggerated Southern accent—“‘Well, y’all mad about that?’ And I said, ‘You need to pick up the phone and call my mother right now and apologize.’” Atwater, no dummy, did.

Occasionally, George W. got to affect staffing and whack big shots—as he did in the case of White House chief of staff John Sununu, whom, it is widely believed, he fired. As governor of New Hampshire, Sununu had delivered the state to Bush in 1988 and was rewarded with the plum job Craig Fuller had wanted. But the hyperintelligent Sununu was a clumsy and arrogant manager who alienated most everyone around him. His enemies in the administration were especially irritated when the stock market nose-dived following a speech in which Bush proposed lowering certain credit-card interest rates, and Sununu’s response was, “The president ad-libbed.” For George W., that was an unforgivable act of disloyalty. “If a grenade is rolling by the Man, you dive on it first,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “The guy violated the cardinal rule.”

When several loyal friends, including Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, refused to work on the 1992 reelection campaign if Sununu had anything to do with it, the elder Bush had to act. “In late ’91 he dispatched Junior to talk to all of us who were concerned about Sununu’s role,” Matalin says. “So W. came to see each one us confidentially. He assessed the situation from each of our perspectives and presented the case to the president with a final judgment”—that is, Sununu had to go.

What happened next doesn’t square with legend, which has George W.—whom Matalin calls “his father’s trusted consigliere”—marching into Sununu’s office with the equivalent of a horse’s head. In fact, his visit with the chief of staff was by all accounts less confrontational. “It was like, ‘Are you hurting my father? Is your presence doing more harm than good?’” recalls Marlin Fitzwater, the president’s spokesman at the time. All George W. will say today is, “The conversations between me and Mr. Sununu are going to be private. I talked to him, and then he and dad reached an agreement.” On December 3, 1991, Sununu resigned.

THAT STORY REVERBERATES MORE THAN SEVEN YEARS LATER: Sununu has signed on as a national co-chairman of Dan Quayle’s presidential campaign. It’s a nice dramatic twist in the overall loyalty play, and it’s made even better by the suggestion of one Bush family ally that it was Sununu who engineered Quayle’s attack on George W.’s “compassionate conservatism.” Not everyone sees revenge as a motive, but some do: “Sununu is exactly that petty and exactly that stupid,” says another loyal Bushie.

Meanwhile, the process of rewarding and punishing continues. As Junior has assembled the team for his own presidential bid, certain members of his father’s inner circle have been conspicuously absent. According to U.S. News and World Report, he told a visitor, “I’m not interested in the people who lost my dad’s election.” Will that kind of attitude serve George W. Bush well now that he’s looking out for his own interests? He seems to have asked himself that very question. “There’s a huge difference,” he acknowledged in April, “between being the loyal son and being the candidate.”

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