Nice Guys Finish Last

How young George Bush learned the importance of negative campaigning the hard way.

George Bush knew he was headed for the Senate. That’s where he belonged, like his dad. He had no doubt. He could have held his House seat forever, like a birthright: That new district, Houston’s seventh, had been birthed for him. After one term, he was unopposed.

And he was a certified star: There were forty new Republicans elected to that Congress, in the rebound after the Goldwater debacle. Bush was chosen as president of the freshman class. For the first time in decades, a GOP freshman got a seat on Ways and Means. (Prescott Bush, a former Connecticut senator, had called on old friends for his son.) From the start, everybody knew about this bright, handsome young Republican from Houston—a chink, at last, in the solid South. George Bush was the party’s bold breeze of the future.

He was invited to address GOP luncheons and breakfasts of bigwigs. He’d talk about the revival of the two-party system, change on the southern wind. What a hopeful vision! He wore that excitement like a suit coat thrown over one shoulder, as he strode down the hallways with a greeting and a grin. He was having such a good time.

It wasn’t legislating that ran his motor: He wasn’t one of those annoying first-termers who think they’ve got to make floor speeches and pepper the House with bills. The only bills he pushed were aid for birth control (always an interest of his father’s, maybe unfinished business for the old man) and a short-lived proposal on congressional ethics. (This pup published his tax returns!) Most of his work he did in committee, as a quiet, respectful student of the chairman, Wilbur Mills. (Mills loved him. After the kid filed that birth-control bill, Mills always called him Rubbers.) When the bells rang, Bush would hustle to the oor, check in. But on routine days, he could leave with his new friend, the Mississippi Democrat Sonny Montgomery, for a do-or-die dollar-a-game paddleball match in the House gym.

It was the life itself that Bush found bracing—all the doing, new friends. He was in such demand! There wasn’t ten minutes to sit around: He had committee, he had lunch, a meeting at Interior. He’d grab his coat and bolt for his office door, calling over his shoulder to his secretary, Aleene Smith, who’d come with him from Houston: “Allie! See what Mr. Holburn needs, will you—he’s on the phone!” He’d run through the afternoon, with that lock of hair falling onto his forehead and the ladies of his office clucking, through their smiles, “Mr. Bush! Tuck in your shirttail!”

(In Houston—it was Houston every other weekend, no matter the effort required—the office ladies adored George Bush. Sometimes, if things got slow, Bush would exit his inner office in a flying ballet leap, just to make les gals giggle. Late one day, a little woman came by. She was a mousy sort, no makeup, poor dress—probably a hard-luck case. She wanted to see Mr. Bush. But the ladies had no time to tell him before he flew into the office in a twisting tour jeté. Then he saw the woman. He froze—on the ball of one foot, with his arms outstretched—and blushed crimson to the roots of his hair.)

No wonder they loved him and talked about the way he was—how a man like that could be so nice. He’d pick up the phone himself if it rang more than twice, and he’d listen to some voter’s tale of woe. (“No,” he’d say into the phone. “No, that doesn’t sound right at all. We’ll look into it, right away. No! Thank you for calling!”) Same with the mail: answers by return post. Aleene would cram his battered briefcase every night; there might be thirty or forty letters typed up. He’d sign every one and add a couple of lines in his lefty scrawl. The Capitol postman told Aleene that Bush got more mail than anyone else in the Longworth Building. (That’s because he sent more. One Houston lady wrote him a letter. So he wrote her back. So she wrote to thank him for his response. So he wrote her back, thanking her for her thank-you note. Finally, she sent him a letter that said: “You remind me of my aunt, Mrs. Ponder. She just won’t stay written to.”)

This wasn’t exactly politics with Bush; more like life. The day his moving van arrived in Washington, it was a terrible snow. George sent Barbara off to Sears, through the storm, to buy sheets so

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...