Bob and George Go to Washington or The Post-Watergate Scramble

George Bush and Bob Strauss are battling to see whether the Democrats or the Republicans will pick up the nation’s political pieces. Sounds straightforward. Well, it’s not.

Politically, 1974 is shaping up as a momentous year: the President is in hot water, what James Madison called “the decisive engine of impeachment” is being cranked up for the first time in a century, and this fall’s elections promise the greatest congressional shake-up in a generation.

All of which helps account for the cataclysmic rhetoric and hyperbolic journalism currently emanating from Washington. In the midst of all that, though, as ever, arms are being twisted and egos crushed in the backrooms of government, quietly and without fanfare, politics as usual. Chief among the twisters and crushers, as befits the state which produced them, are two Texans. They have been jockeying for position for over a year now; prior to that, they each spent their lives trying to get where they are; in the course of those lives, they have crossed paths often; this year, they lock horns.

In less than a week’s time during December 1972, two Texans were named National Chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Robert Strauss, the Democrat, was a lifelong friend of John Connally—law school classmate, hunting sidekick, co-tenant of a lakeside cottage—yet lost the former governor to the GOP soon after taking office. Republican George Bush—who generously traded to the Democrats one of his own schoolmates, fraternity brother (Skull & Bones) and New York Mayor John Lindsay—graciously welcomed Connally, who had been largely responsible (in Bush’s estimation) for Bush’s defeat in the 1970 Senate election. The winner of that race, Connally protege Lloyd Bentsen, had been Bush’s occasional tennis foe and confederate in the same country club, as well as the first U.S. Senator to call for the election of Bob Strauss …

This all sounds rather incestuous, doesn’t it?

Politics, as we all know, is a game played by the powerful on a field of irony. And irony, just like politics, makes for curious bedmates… .

The Democrats had lately seen their standard-bearer, one George McGovem, suffer the most lopsided presidential defeat since James Madison ran unopposed. Despite their continued control of Congress and three-fifths of the nation’s statehouses, the party was fractured like anviled glass, filled with confusion and fraternal bitterness.

The GOP, on the other hand, suffered a more original but no less debilitating setback. A Republican president, to be sure, had rolled up the greatest landslide in history, but the party itself emerged with fewer major offices than it started out with. The Committee to Re-elect the President did an admirable job of accomplishing its purpose (perhaps less than admirable in its manner of doing so) but largely at the expense of the Republican National Committee. Kansas Senator Robert Dole, the outgoing chairman, complained that money, energy and manpower had all been siphoned off by CREEP while other GOP candidates were left to fend for themselves, generally without success.

Both parties, then, found themselves in trouble (“in disarray” is the way they say it in Washington) and in need of someone to get them out of it. Both parties turned to Texans.

The TV cables slink across the polished terrazzo floor of the Republican National Headquarters’ banquet room, between the folding chairs and the long line at the coffee urn. Most everyone here already knows what George Bush’s announcement is going to be, but they’ve all come out anyway, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps just to mingle with their fellow journalists. They all shut politely up, though, when Bush comes striding across the room, directly up to the podium, to say what they all knew he would say:

“I have made a final decision. I will remain as chairman of the Republican National Committee. I will not be a candidate for governor of Texas in 1974. … ”

He has what political oddsmakers like to call “magnetism,” that being a kind of aura about him that falls just a notch below actual “charisma.” He gives the impression of being taller than he is, which is tall enough anyway, his features not so much handsome as strong, his gestures emphatic yet relaxed (not nervously exaggerated, like Nixon’s), his voice firm and authoritative, sentences crisply articulate. He seems like a man predestined to stand behind podiums and give speeches.

Yet there are less stately touches: His hair keeps falling in his face, he laughs easily, is casually witty, self-mocking. That’s something politicians carefully cultivate, that seeming naturalness (the easier for us stumbling voters to identify with them, but on Bush it still seems, well, natural.

As they say in Vegas: He’s a Class Act.

After his short statement come the questions, why this, why that, some of them stupid and garbled, some of them sharp and needling. Bush works well with the press, gives candid answers, witty answers, tolerant answers, never indignant and rarely evasive, his patience letting the questions drag out far longer than most politicians would allow.

One question keeps coming back, nagging again and again, always worded differently and always politely: Wasn’t your decision not to run prompted at least partly by a fear of Watergate backlash against Republican candidates?

No, says George Bush, Watergate had nothing to do with my decision; it’s a federal issue, not a state issue, it wouldn’t have affected a gubernatorial race. He admits there’s some difference of opinion on this but, well, he’s got these polls and everything, he can show you.

Indirectly, though, he admits that Watergate shaped his decision: “I mean, it just would’ve looked bad. It was a real no-win situation, they would’ve blamed it on Watergate whether I stayed or left. But after Elliot [Richardson] and Bill [Ruckelshaus] quit like that, it would’ve looked like I was abandoning ship or something. I just can’t leave while all this crap is going on.”

He doesn’t say that, however, to the Washington press corps. He says it, instead, back in his office, sitting around drinking coffee with a trio of Texas reporters who knew him and covered him back when he was a congressman from Houston. It’s a “background” session,

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