Nice Guys Finish Last

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

August 1992By Comments

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 the movers could stay the night: He insisted! Don Rhodes was a volunteer on his campaign in Houston. Rhodes had a hearing problem, and people thought he was strange, maybe slow-witted. (He wasn’t.) Bush not only took him along for the Washington staff—he moved Don into his house. He fussed over visitors to his office, posing for pictures, leading tours of the Capitol, making sure they got to see everything in Washington. And wasn’t it great how it worked out? Bush inherited a couple of staff ladies from the Texas Democrat who used to represent his part of Houston—so of course they knew the crowd in LBJ’s White House. They’d call up and get special tours—not just of the state rooms, but of the Family Quarters. (That picture of George Hamilton on Lynda Bird’s night table!) Well, you put that together with a ride on Bush’s boat (George just had to show them how the city looked from the Potomac) and Bar’s picnic (with the pâté, wine, and salad) and … no wonder he was unopposed!

In fact, that was one reason he could cast his vote on the 1968 open-housing bill: Bush knew he would face no opponent in November. Still, there’d be a howl of protest. In the gym, Sonny Montgomery told him, “Your district ain’t gonna like this.” Bush didn’t need analysis from Sonny. For God’s sake, some of Bush’s voters wouldn’t ride in a car that a Negro had sat in, play the same golf course. Bush agonized for weeks.

What stuck in his mind was Vietnam: those soldiers, black soldiers, in the jungle, in the uniform of their country. How could he let them come back to a nation where they couldn’t live where they chose? He could not. He couldn’t let politics change the way he was.

So he voted for the bill. He meant to take the heat.

But this wasn’t heat. This was ugly. First the calls—les gals had to hear them:

“You tell Bush we don’ need no Connecticut Nigra-lovers.”

“Are you half nigger-blood too?”

Then the letters—thousands of letters. Don Rhodes was up all night trying to get out answers. But how could Bush answer?

“It’s Communist says who I can sell my house to.”

“I know niggers are running the government.”

The threats menaced his staff and his family. One letter mentioned his children by name. After a week, Bush looked like he’d aged ten years. His face sagged. There was no excitement in his words or walk. He went back to Houston—and that was worse. The office felt like the Alamo. The ladies tried to cheer him: “They’re just kooks,” Sarah Gee, one of his assistants, said.

“They aren’t thinking.”

“Everybody else is for you.”

Bush just sat at his desk, staring at the wall. Sarah saw the look of the bereaved. She didn’t even know why she said it—it just came out: “Oh, George, I’m sorry.”

Bob Mosbacher called, said the money men were up in arms. “You want me to try to get ’em together, talk to them?”

Bush’s voice was weary: “No, I gotta do it myself.”

So he did. He got 25 big givers into a room. Bush had the air of a man who had been beat up. “I know we agree on so much,” he told them. He didn’t ask them to support his vote—just to keep in mind the other votes. It was almost pleading. “If you can’t support me anymore—well, I hope I can still have your friendship.”

He did feel he was beaten—not this time (no, it was too late to lose reelection), but what about the next time? What about the Senate? All the great doings, the big plans ahead? In fact, his loss went deeper than elections: It had to do with the choices he had made for twenty years, his feeling that he could speak for Texas. Was he wrong? God! What if it was all wrong?

He wrote to a friend: “I never dreamed the reaction would be so violent. Seething hatred—the epithets—the real chickenshit stuff in spades—to our [office] girls: ‘You must be a nigger or a Chinaman’—and on and on—and the country club crowd disowning and denouncing me… .”

“Tonight [I was on] this plane and this older lady came up to me. She said, ‘I’m a conservative Democrat from this district, but I’m proud, and will always vote for you now’—and her accent was Texan (not Connecticut) and suddenly somehow I felt that maybe it would all be OK—and I started to cry—with the poor lady embarrassed to death—I couldn’t say a word to her.”

He would always remember the moment when he knew it was going to turn out all right. He was at a town meeting. The crowd booed him and muttered his name with a menacing hiss as he was introduced.

So he told them that he knew what they thought. He told them that he knew some people called him lib-rull. But it wasn’t conservative or liberal, this vote. It was just fairness. He told them about Vietnam—those soldiers, how could he let them come back? How could you just slam the door in a guy’s face, just ’cause he’s a Negro, or speaks with an accent?

There was no more to say. He was going to sit down in the silence. He turned to thank the moderator and behind him he heard applause, a scattered bit—and then, when he turned, more clapping. Everybody was clapping. And then some stood, in front, and more behind. They were clapping—for him—because he did what he thought was right, and he’d said so. He didn’t think they agreed—still—but they gave him a standing ovation.

God! He could have kissed them all!

That’s how he knew he was going to the Senate, not a doubt. This time, 1970, he would beat old Ralph Yarborough fair and square. He knew it—Texas was changing.

That’s what Bush kept saying. Yarborough was out of touch. The state had passed him by. People didn’t want that New Deal, promise-’em-the-moon kind of government or that kind of senator. They wanted a modern conservative. They wanted George Bush.

This time he’d have his ducks in a row. He’d been around; he had friends everywhere. This time he’d have a professional campaign manager: Marvin Collins, a Republican strategist from Austin, a great guy. He’d have a big budget—two million, for starters. And a Bush friend, John Tower, had taken over the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee; he’d send along whatever he could. And the president would help. President Nixon was on a roll, targeting races all over the country. Nixon said Texas was number one, and he asked Bush to run—personally!

Even LBJ might help. Bush went to see him. The old man certainly wouldn’t lift a finger to help Yarborough. Neither would John Connally. They all hated Ralph. This time Bush wouldn’t have to scrape for issues: He’d had his eye on Yarborough for six years. He had the old snake-oil salesman locked in the cross hairs.

Bush had such big plans for 1970—ads all over the state, and not just in cities but on every dustland radio station. Spanish too! Bush didn’t see why this race, his race, should not mark the realignment of Texas. Why shouldn’t the GOP grab its share of the Mexicans? And Negroes—my God, he ought to get some Negro votes! (Election night, 1968, though he had no contest, he’d grabbed for the tally sheets: He wanted to see those colored precincts. Wouldn’t you know it? Jeez! After all that, two thirds wouldn’t even cross over for him—with no Democrat against him!) But that wouldn’t matter. That would be gravy once he started hammering away at Yarborough, the old guard, the liberal, the tired voice of the past.

Then the unthinkable happened: With a vicious, attacking campaign, a South Texas Democrat, a businessman (and former representative) named Lloyd Bentsen came out of nowhere (actually, he came out of Connally’s hip pocket) and took the senior senator down. Yarborough lost his primary. George Bush lost his target.

Now it was Bush against Bentsen—and all of Bush’s plans were air. George tried to tell folks it was fine, this would be easier, but even his friends couldn’t see it. Bentsen was conservative—just like Bush, when you got down to it—and tough (he proved that against old Ralph). Bentsen could play the veteran card (he was a pilot in the war too) and the business card (he’d made more of a pile than Bush). He had the same congressional experience as Bush. He was just as nasty on Crime ’n’ Commies, a practiced South Texas hand with the Mexicans, a Democrat Texans could live with. So here came Lyndon’s pals from the Pedernales, and here came that greasy John Connally on the tube, making ads for Bentsen. Here came all the courthouse Dems, the yellow-dog Dems, and the better-dead-than-red Dems. Bentsen brought them back from the grave. Worse still, here came a ballot issue to allow sale of liquor by the drink. So thousands of rural Baptists would turn out against demon rum—and on the way, they’d likely vote the standard Democrat ticket.

And Bush? Well, he had the Republicans, but there still weren’t many of those. (The electorate was at least four-to-one Democratic.) He had his friends in the business, his constituents in Houston. His manager, Marvin Collins, tried to cook a deal with the liberal Democrats (who hated Bentsen for what he’d done to Yarborough) and nurtured a noisy group of Democrats for Bush. Bush still had high hopes for the Negro vote. He’d gone to the wall for those people!

That was half the problem. Everybody knew about his open-housing vote—Bentsen made sure of that. And about the time Bush had voted for the U.N. Bentsen brought that up too. In fact, Bentsen ran close enough to the right-field wall that there was no way Bush could get outside of him. Bush was the, uh, lib-rull!

Still, Bush was sure he could pull it out. People liked him. He had so many friends. He was working so hard. Bush still thought he could cast the race as the Democratic past against the future. “We’re on the threshold,” he’d scream at every speech, “of a new decade!” (No one had the heart to tell him that Texans didn’t accent that second syllable. He was working so hard. They didn’t want to hurt him.) If he could just show he was that future, that vigor, that youth. (With those kids rounded up by Rob Mosbacher—his youth coordinator—and by George W. “Junior” Bush—who’d cut away, when he could, from his National Guard flight training—the Bush campaign had the look of a Scout troop.) If only Bush could show, somehow, that Bentsen was just another page from the past . . .

But that was the other half of the problem: Bentsen didn’t seem to have any past—not like Yarborough, not a past they could use. They dug up Bentsen’s votes from Congress, but that was stuff from the forties; no one would give a damn. Oh, there was one guy who came in with a tip, said it would finish Bentsen. Bush sent Aleene to the Agriculture Department in Washington. She sat there all day, writing down the information. But when she brought the poop to Bush, he read the file and just shook his head. He wasn’t going to be that way in politics. No, he could only be what he was.

That’s how the problems started with Nixon. The president got it into his mind that George Bush would not go for the kill. Nixon sent money—more than $100,000 from one of his illegal slush funds—but Bush wouldn’t use it to take Bentsen down. The White House offered to send Tricia Nixon and David Eisenhower—or surrogates who’d throw red meat to the press, the tough guys. How about that Bob Dole? Or Spiro Agnew?

Bush didn’t want them, but when it got to Agnew, he could not say no. The vice president of the United States! So Agnew came, and then Nixon himself. How could Bush say no to the president? In the last days of the campaign, both made blistering partisan speeches—wiping out any hope Bush had with the Democrats.

On election night, family and friends gathered at the old Shamrock Hotel. Bush knew it would be tight—his last polls showed the race even. But he knew he could win: Good things happen to good people. He had to believe. The family was in a suite, upstairs from the big ballroom with the band, balloons, and streamers. George and Bar were on a couch with their children—George’s arms around Doro and Marvin, Bar holding Neil and Jebbie. They turned on the TV . . . and it was over. Twelve minutes into the broadcast, after two years of work ( seven years since he started for that seat), Walter Cronkite said his computers called the race for Bentsen. Doro started crying. Marvin Bush started crying. George Bush hugged them, told them it would be all right. Neil and Jebbie cried in Bar’s arms. The friends started crying. Aleene was sobbing. Sarah Gee started cursing the nuts. Nancy Crouch, a Harris County Republican operative, said she was through with politics. Marvin Collins felt like he’d been hit by a car. He went off to Junior’s apartment, and those two stayed teary till they were too blotto to care.

The one who didn’t cry was George Bush. He went around the suite, telling everyone what a great job they’d done. Then he was on the phone. “Well,” he’d say, “back to the drawing board.” Downstairs, in the ballroom, he conceded, then stayed for an hour, answering anything the press had to ask. Then he was back on the phone—all night. At five in the morning, he pulled out a list of hundreds of people he wanted to thank, and he started from the top. He’d be on the phone for sixteen hours straight. Bar couldn’t sit there and watch, couldn’t bear that, couldn’t chip in, brightly, like she had in ’64: “Well, there’ll be another time.” No, 1970 was different. George Bush had run for the Senate twice and lost. Could there be another time? She went off with her girlfriends to the club—a tennis game, her doubles. But she was standing at the net and kept thinking of George, on his phone, trying to cheer people, telling them they’d done so welland her eyes blurred with tears and she couldn’t even see the ball.

She felt the hand of a friend on her shoulder, and a voice: “Oh, the hell with this, Bar. Let’s go in and have a martini.”

So they did. They may have had several.

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