On the afternoon of March 30, 1981, Vice President George Bush was flying high over Texas. He had just finished making a speech at a cattle raisers’ convention in Fort Worth and was en route to Austin to address a joint session of the Texas Legislature. At about 2:40 p.m., his press secretary telephoned him aboard Air Force Two to report that President Reagan had been shot at outside a Washington hotel but not injured. Half an hour later Bush got a second call: Reagan had been wounded but had walked into the hospital under his own power.
The old line about the vice president’s being a heartbeat away from the presidency was, with Reagan in surgery, uncomfortably apt, but what was noteworthy about Bush’s behavior was the absence of any hint of eagerness about assuming the job every vice president wants so badly. House majority leader Jim Wright of Fort Worth, who was traveling with the vice-presidential party, remembers that Bush reacted with complete disbelief that anyone could “work up a feeling of sufficient malice for President Reagan to want him dead.” In keeping with standard national security procedure, a military aide aboard Bush’s plane carried a plastic American Tourister briefcase-the “football”-that contained a duplicate set of the secret codes essential to U.S. defense. Bush saw no need to open the football — effectively taking over as America’s commander in chief, until he had been able to determine the true extent of President Reagan’s injuries.
By the time Air Force Two touched down in Washington, Bush had already rejected the advice of Secret Service agents that he helicopter directly to the White House lawn. Instead, he ordered the chopper pilot to fly him to the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory, and he traveled the remaining distance to the White House by motorcade. He was accompanied in the motorcade not by White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, an old friend of his (that would have started talk of a power grab), but by presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, Baker’s archrival. Later that evening, when it became clear that President Reagan would indeed survive, Bush issued a succinct but reassuring statement: “The president is still in charge. There has been no mechanism put in place to transfer authority.”
For the next twelve days Ronald Reagan remained in the hospital, and George Bush ran the country—very modestly. He presided over Cabinet meetings in Reagan’s absence, but he refused to sit in the president’s chair. He greeted foreign dignitaries, met with congressional leaders, and supervised the White House staff. But he did not sign any treaties, initiate any legislation, or order any change in personnel. The thrust of his every action was to keep the president informed of what was happening, not to assume the powers or prerogatives of the presidency. As one Reagan loyalist told a reporter afterward, “He had the perfect touch. In the moments after the shooting, you know the situation was not exactly harmonious among some of the rest of the people in the administration. But Bush came through like a star.”
George Bush has had few opportunities for stardom in the two years since the assassination attempt. Under the Constitution, the vice president’s one and only official duty is to preside over the Senate. As president of the Senate, he supposedly serves as a counterpart to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. But unlike the Speaker, who not only has full voting powers but also determines the House legislative agenda, the vice president does not usually participate in the daily operation of the Senate and can vote only on the rare occasions when there is a tie. Bush has been called to the Senate chamber in anticipation of such deadlocks fewer than twenty times, and not one of them ever materialized. In his two and a half years in office, Vice President Bush has yet to cast a single vote.
The vice president’s constitutionally limited ability to affect government and the legislative process has led many of Bush’s predecessors—and most of the general public—to perceive the office as an inconsequential sinecure. John Nance Garner, the ornery and clever infighter from Uvalde, said being vice president wasn’t worth “a warm bucket of spit.” Lyndon Johnson called it “the worst job in government.” Spiro Agnew said he often felt he might just as well have stayed in Baltimore. Nelson Rockefeller claimed that the only change he made in his life after becoming vice president was to read the obituary page first thing every morning to see if it contained the name of his boss. But George Bush doesn’t complain.
In a recent interview aboard Air Force Two, after declaring that President Reagan would seek reelection, Bush said he no longer harbored the burning ambition for the Oval Office that had propelled his dogged presidential campaign in 1980. “I’m not one of those who felt from the day he was born he was going to be president,” Bush said. “I also feel less of a churning, less of a restlessness about it all. I mean, che sara, sara. Do your best. If you’re interested politically, do the right things politically, or don’t do things that could be bad politically. But don’t be uptight about it. In this job, the best politics is no politics. That doesn’t mean you don’t have private thoughts. But I don’t consider it of first importance. You could add an ‘I don’t care,’ but I guess I do. I don’t know.”
As vice president — and during all of his political career—George Bush has had an image problem. Yes, he’s loyal; yes, he’s a good soldier; yes, he’s a man of character. But is he tough enough to be president of the United States? The answer is almost always no. Bush has been described as a wimp, a preppie, a cloistered Ivy Leaguer, and a walking watercress sandwich. Although his performance as vice president has won high praise even from his critics on the right, he is still widely regarded as the perfect —and perpetual-number two man. Democratic pollster Peter Hart says Bush has the soul of a vice president.
But George Bush can’t be dismissed so simply. No vice president can. Of the fifteen presidents in this century, six were previously vice presidents. And for Bush the standard vice- presidential odds would seem to be considerably increased: nobody has been vice president to a 72-year-old president before. As Bush himself puts it, “I’d say I have a lot better shot than some in this country of two hundred fifty million people.”
Besides all that, wimps don’t keep coming back for more the way Bush has. After twice losing U.S. Senate races in Texas, in 1964 and 1970, Bush appeared to be finished in elective politics. He then spent more than five years toiling at various thankless jobs —ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Republican party during Watergate, special envoy to China, chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite warnings from family and friends not to take those posts, Bush accepted each one—and always managed to land on his feet, not only unscathed but politically rejuvenated. In the 1980 presidential primaries, he came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses and establish himself as the most serious challenger to Reagan.
What motivates this man who undoubtedly has the best actuarial chances of anyone in the country to be the next president? A close look at George Bush reveals that the key to his character is an old-fashioned, almost adolescent concept of heroism.
In Bush’s youth, teenage boys of his social class in the East often read Owen Johnson’s Dink Stover books, a series of boys’ readers that were roughly equivalent to the Hardy Boys books, which came later. Written in the second decade of the century and reprinted right through the forties, the Dink Stover books celebrate the moral crises of a young scholar-athlete as he makes his way through prep school at Lawrenceville and college at Yale. In Stover at Yale, the hero jeopardizes his chances of being tapped for one of the elite senior secret societies by decrying the undemocratic bylaws of the sophomore secret societies. But when Tap Day finally arrives at the end of Stover’s junior year, he is tapped by the most prestigious secret society of all — Skull and Bones—because of the respect he has won for “doing the right thing,” and he winds up a hero. This two-step process —Doing the Right Thing, followed, after appropriate suffering, by Heroic Acclaim-is the basis of George Bush’s vision of the world. It has informed both his career and his beliefs about politics and government.
Bush came by his view of the world through inheritance—that is, through his father, Prescott S. Bush, Sr. Most men approaching their sixtieth year have arrived at a considered view of the strengths and weaknesses of their once-almighty fathers. Not George Bush. The vice president still considers the patriarch of the Bush clan—a Dink Stover-style Yalie who was tapped for Skull and Bones and later for the U.S. Senate—to be a hero of the highest order. Prescott Bush was the man who did everything and did it honorably and well. George Bush’s life has been a struggle to live up to his father’s example without destroying-or even questioning-the great man’s myth.
Thank You, Father, Very Much
When George Herbert Walker Bush drove his battered red Studebaker into Odessa in the summer of 1948, the town’s population, though constantly increasing with newly arrived oil-field hands, was still under 30,000. There were only two local radio stations, no TV, and not much that could pass for culture besides the Odessa Chuck Wagon Gang’s occasional barbecues and an assortment of bars with names like the Tumbleweed, the Silver Saddle, and the Oasis.
George Bush, then 24, had graduated from Yale just a week before he showed up in Odessa to learn the oil business. He was a lean and lanky six feet two, with crystal-blue eyes, neatly combed brown hair, and the kind of clean-cut, delicately handsome features that seemed to sing out “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He was the son of a wealthy and social Eastern establishment family and also accomplished in his own right: a World War II pilot decorated for heroism, a Phi Beta Kappa student, the captain of a championship college baseball team. He was married to the daughter of a prominent family from Rye, New York, and he was the father of a two- year-old son.
By the time his wife and son arrived from the East, Bush had established the family’s first Texas residence in a frame duplex on East Seventh Street, a few blocks from the oil-field equipment warehouse where he was going to work. The Bushes had the only car and icebox in their neighborhood, and the only bathroom on the street. They had to share their toilet with the other tenants of the duplex, “two ladies,” as Barbara Bush says, “of interesting occupations and one child.”
What drove George Bush to this ghetto for West Texas oil-field trash was not the allure of instant riches, which was Odessa’s great temptation to most people; it was his father. At six four and 220 pounds, Prescott Bush was charming, dark-haired, and extraordinarily handsome, with a presence often compared to that of Gary Cooper. Born to a middle-class Ohio family, he had graduated from Yale in 1917. He played the piano, sang with the Whiffenpoofs, and lettered in golf and baseball. He went on to become an accomplished tennis player, a partner in the Wall Street firm of Brown Brothers Harriman, and the moderator (the equivalent of an unpaid mayor) of Greenwich, Connecticut, town meetings. “My father was very strong,” George Bush recalls. “He was so strong and so big and kind of overpowering — loving but overpowering.” Aware of his advantages and those his children would inherit, Pres Bush taught his off spring the importance of public service, the desire — indeed, the duty —to “put something back in.” But he did not do his teaching in long lectures in his study or at the dinner table. He was too busy for that. Instead he taught by example, by doing. “I just watched him with admiration,” George remembers. “When everybody else was going off to have two martinis before dinner, he’d be down there as chairman of the town meeting.”
George’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was an equally impressive person. She came from a St. Louis investment banking family that had established the Walker Cup prize for amateur golf, but she had made her own name as a tennis champion. She was an old- fashioned lady who wore white gloves, referred to her shoes as slippers, and worshiped in the Episcopal church. But she could beat younger women, like her daughter-in-law, at paddleball, playing either right-handed or left-handed. Like her husband, Dorothy Bush was both highly principled and very, very competitive.
George caught the family’s competitive spirit and zest for achievement at an early age. Born in Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924, he was the second-oldest male child in the family, but he quickly became the undisputed star. Whereas his older brother, Prescott Junior, suffered from weak eyesight and gimpy knees, George seemed to have inherited all his father’s natural gifts save the ability to sing and play the piano. After the family moved to Connecticut, George attended the Greenwich Country Day School and the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he excelled in both sports and studies. What he now describes as a privileged life included being chauffeured to school, attending cotillions for the suburban scions of Rye and Greenwich, and vacationing in Maine. But upon graduating from Andover in 1942, he postponed college to enlist, and at eighteen he became the Navy’s youngest ensign.
In a 1944 attack on the Bonin Islands that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross his plane was hit by enemy fire at the start of a bombing run. Instead of retreating, Bush completed the run, then bailed out over open water and was picked up by an American submarine. He returned stateside for more flight training and was preparing to go back into combat when the atomic bomb ended the war.
Bush got married in January 1945 during what he expected to be only a brief furlough. He and his bride, Barbara Pierce, a student at Smith College and the daughter of the president of the McCall Corporation, had met at a Rye-Greenwich dance a few years before the war. George had seen her dancing with a friend of his and, as Barbara recalls, “very nicely went up to someone and asked him to introduce us.” Although Barbara attended George’s prep school graduation, she did not see much of her husband-to-be until after he came back to the States. “We were very young,” she says. “I was only nineteen, and he was twenty. He just looked like a little baby. But it was wartime. A lot of other couples were getting married at a young age. The war just did that.”
Bush got his discharge as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the fall of 1945 and immediately entered Yale. The couple’s first child, George Walker Bush, was born the following summer. The proud father’s college classmates nicknamed him Poppy, which had been his maternal grandfather’s nickname at Yale. Bush went on to become a Phi Beta Kappa economics major, and like Dink Stover and Pres Bush, he was tapped for Skull and Bones. But he was proudest of his accomplishments as a jock. In addition to playing varsity soccer, he was captain of the* varsity baseball team his senior year, and as a weak-hitting but sharp-fielding first baseman, he helped Yale win two NCAA Eastern Division championships.
The turning point in George Bush’s life came in the spring of his senior year. He could have pursued a conventionally attractive career in the East. His father’s partners even had Brown Brothers Harriman’s nepotism rule waived so that George could join the firm. But, says Barbara Bush, George wanted to “do something he could touch.” The couple briefly considered going into farming, and George weighed several job offers from the big corporations that routinely interviewed Yale seniors, but the company that made the best impression, Procter & Gamble, turned him down. “I’ll never forget it,” Bush recalls. “I’ve had an I’ll-show- those-guys attitude ever since.”
Then Pres Bush, who served on the board of Dresser Industries, introduced his son to Dresser’s president, Neil Mallon of Dallas. Mallon offered George a job in West Texas at the company’s oil-field-equipment subsidiary, and he accepted. “If I were a psychoanalyzer, I might conclude that I was trying to, not compete with my father, but do something on my own,” Bush says today. “My stay in Texas was no Horatio Alger thing, but moving from New Haven to Odessa just about the day I graduated was quite a shift in lifestyle.”
Granted, George Bush’s move to Texas was unorthodox, but it was also consistent with the Dink Stover ethic. It was a break with tradition, a departure from the preordained path through life, and it carried the risks of failure and social ostracism and also the possibility of triumph. Although going into the oil business instead of investment banking did not connote oedipal violence, leaving the East was a sign of leaving the nest, of an escape from the shadow of his father. But it wasn’t a breaking off of relations. After all, his father had gotten him the job.
George spent his first few months in Odessa as a sales trainee. In addition to peddling drilling equipment in the oil patch, he painted pipe and swept out the warehouse. Dresser then transferred him to California, where he covered the oil fields around Bakersfield, Ventura, Compton, and Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier. He and Barbara also had a second child, a girl whom they named Robin.
In 1949 the Bushes moved back to Texas and bought a house in a GI-bill subdivision of Midland known as Easter Egg Row. The neighborhood got its name from its tiny, box-shaped houses, which were painted in a rainbow of bright colors in an effort to give them individual identities. Although owning a home on Easter Egg Row beat sharing a toilet with other tenants, the Bushes’ new neighborhood certainly wasn’t Greenwich. Sand piled up against the houses like snow, in drifts two and three feet high, and blew in through the windows, the doorjambs, and the cracks in the siding. “People were always having to scrape sand off their chairs and dinner tables,” recalls a former resident.
The Bushes quickly discovered that they shared the difficulties of West Texas desert life with a whole generation of young newcomers very much like themselves. Part of this crowd consisted of Southerners and Midwesterners, people from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and other, more populous regions of Texas. But a surprising number came from back East and were known generically as Yalies. “The people from the East and the people from Texas or Oklahoma all seemed to have two things in common,” recalls Bush’s Texas-born former neighbor and partner John Overbey. “They all had a chance to be stockbrokers or investment bankers. And they all wanted to learn the oil business instead.”
No one was more representative of the newcomers than the Liedtke brothers, Hugh and Bill, who had come down from Tulsa. Their father was legal counsel for Gulf Oil in Tulsa. Both brothers were graduates of Amherst College, with law degrees from the University of Texas. Hugh, the older of the two, also had an M.B.A. from Harvard. The Liedtkes opened a law firm shortly after arriving in Midland, but they devoted most of their time to forming oil partnerships.
The Bushes and the Liedtkes quickly became friends, partly because, as Hugh puts it, “there wasn’t a damn thing to do out there except be friends.” In a town whose second-rate movie house was the foremost cultural institution, entertainment consisted mostly of going over to friends’ houses to cook steaks in the sandstorm, have a few drinks, and talk about the oil business or their infant children. They played touch football games on Sundays and exercised together in the local gym before work in the morning.
Gradually they shed at least the outer trappings of the East. Barbara Bush recalls that one morning shortly after moving to Midland George decided to go for a jog down the highway in a pair of Bermuda shorts. He returned to the house blushing and embarrassed after having been whistled at and catcalled off the road by passing West Texas truck drivers. He put away his Bermudas, along with his pin-striped suits, and began wearing the khaki pants and open-collared shirts favored by local businessmen.
After Bush had finished a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship with Dresser, he and John Overbey, an oil and gas lease broker, decided to go into business for themselves. In 1951 they formed the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company. Their idea was to buy the mineral rights to land next to or near properties that were about to be drilled on. If a well were to come in on one of those properties, their own leases would skyrocket in value. The money for the venture came from Bush’s maternal uncle George Herbert Walker, Jr. Uncle Herbie, as George called him, was the head of the investment banking firm of G. H. Walker & Company, and while he did not have the physical stature or the awesome talents of Pres Bush, young George regarded him as a surrogate father. Uncle Herbie attended his nephew’s college baseball games, played golf with him, and even vacationed with George and Barbara every year for the first twenty years of their marriage. The $300,000 capital he provided came from the designated high-risk portion of assets he invested for a group of large British trust funds.
One of the few embellishments Bush has allowed in his life story is the notion that he built himself a business from scratch. In fact, he did it with family money—including money from his father. John Overbey says Prescott Bush put about $50,000 into Bush-Overbey. But it is significant that most of Bush’s start-up funds came not from his father but from his mother’s side of the family, which must have made it seem to him like starting from scratch.
Bush-Overbey proved to be a moderately successful enterprise—it earned a profit from the first year on—but both partners decided they could do much better by joining forces with the Liedtke brothers. Bush-Overbey represented the foreign and Eastern clients of Uncle Herbie’s investment banking firm, and the Liedtke brothers had raised their money from friends back in Tulsa. In 1953 each group contributed $500,000 to the formation of the Zapata Petroleum Corporation, named for the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. They spent all of their start-up money on a single oil field, which ultimately produced 130 successful wells. Bush and Overbey soon had the means to move from Easter Egg Row to better Midland neighborhoods.
With the biggest oil drilling boom in American history going on all around them, three of the four Zapata founders concluded that the next logical step was the formation of a drilling company. The fourth, John Overbey, politely dropped out. Bush and the Liedtkes purchased seven onshore drilling rigs and then decided to take an even greater plunge, into the new and much riskier business of offshore drilling. In 1955 the Zapata Off- Shore Company offered $1.5 million worth of its stock to the public. It had built three rigs when, thanks to some big oil finds in the Middle East, the Texas boom suddenly went bust.
George Bush began spending most of his time scurrying around the country “stretching paper”—making new financing arrangements—with the pension funds and endowments that were Zapata Off- Shore’s lenders. In almost every instance, these financial institutions wanted part of the company’s equity in exchange for extending repayment schedules. But Bush held firm. When the dust cleared, he had managed a refinancing plan without giving up a single share of stock to the company’s creditors. Back in Texas, he demonstrated equal firmness in attending to the unpleasant task of cutting back Zapata Off-Shore’s staff. “When you talk about being tough-minded in business,” says Hugh Liedtke, “the examples are a little harder to illustrate than in a political situation where you can declare war or not declare war. I’ve seen Bush let people go, terminate them, even though they were his personal friends. But he did it because it had to be done. And the remarkable thing was, he did it in such a way that he was still friends with them later.”
Bush had also had to cope with family tragedy. His four-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953. Already active in the YMCA, the Episcopal church, and the chamber of commerce, Bush became chairman of the Midland Cancer Crusade and increased his involvement in community affairs.
By early 1959, with U.S. drilling activity only partially recovered from the bust, an East-West split developed within the Zapata ranks. The Liedtke brothers and their Oklahoma investors wanted to concentrate on exploring for oil and gas, but Bush believed that there was still a great future in contracting out offshore rigs. Sources close to the principals say that a personality conflict between Uncle Herbie, who had provided the investors for Bush’s half of the original partnership, and Hugh Liedtke, who even then had his sights set on running a major oil company, widened the rift.
So Bush and the Liedtkes negotiated a complex but amicable parting. A series of stock swaps left the Liedtkes in control of the original Zapata Petroleum Corporation, whose annual revenues had grown to about $1 million. Bush and Uncle Herbie’s clients wound up with controlling interest in the $4.5-million-a-year Zapata Off-Shore Company. At a market value of about $10 per share, Bush’s personal holdings in Zapata Off-Shore were worth about $600,000. He wasn’t yet a full- fledged self-made millionaire, but for a 3 5-year-old Yalie who had learned the oil business from scratch, he was doing very well. He decided he could do even better if he moved his company and his family to the city where the offshore action was: Houston.
“It’s the Right Thing to Do”
George Bush seemed destined to run for something almost from the moment he arrived in Houston. His father had run for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut in 1950, lost, been elected in 1952, and then reelected in 1956. When Pres Bush set an example, it was never lost on his son. But Bush quickly learned that the local Republican party was split. On one side were the forebears of the New Right, the conservatives, and on the other were the moderates, who were often internationalists and were associated with the northeastern, Rockefeller wing of the party. Since Bush, despite his ten years in Texas, naturally fell into the second category, the conservatives were not kindly disposed toward him.
The Republicans of Harris County had their big shoot-out over the 1962 county chairman race. The conservatives were led by State Senator Walter Mengden, and the moderates rallied behind James A. Bertron, who was the incumbent county chairman. The conservatives accused the moderates of being too liberal. However, Bertron and his moderates eventually won out. The following year Bertron resigned to move to Florida and was succeeded by George Bush.
Bush entered Texas politics like a reluctant debutante. He had not been especially active in the 1960 presidential campaign, the 1962 midterm elections, or the 1962 county chairman fight. This apparent lack of interest concerned both his father and his Houston friends. In 1961, shortly after John Tower won a special election to the U.S. Senate, Senator Prescott Bush pulled James Bertron aside at a Washington fundraiser and asked him, “Jimmy, when are you going to get George involved?” “Senator, I’m trying,” Bertron replied. “We’re all trying.”
When first offered the Harris County party chairman’s job, Bush politely begged off. But Bertron and other local party leaders insisted. While Bush’s ingrained sense of public duty was probably what finally prevailed upon him to accept the job, the timing was also significant. In 1962 Senator Prescott Bush completed his second term and chose not to run for reelection because of poor health. George Bush took over as Harris County party chairman in 1963.
Before Bush had served a full year, he decided to resign to run for the U.S. Senate against liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough. He first had to beat former gubernatorial candidate Jack Cox in the Republican primary. After winning that race (which was more a popularity contest than an ideological slugfest) Bush entered the general election with an indisputably conservative (though not extremist) platform that opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and admitting Red China to the UN. Even so, Bush’s position did not effectively appease the dissident conservatives in the party.
Yarborough won the 1964 race, but he got only 56 per cent of the vote, trailing Johnson’s presidential coattails by 7 per cent. Bush won 1,134,337 votes statewide, which made him the biggest Republican vote-getter in Texas history. He decided to make politics a full-time job. Houston’s growth had prompted the creation of a new congressional district on the affluent West Side that appeared to be brimming with potential Republican voters. In 1966 Bush, then 41, resigned from Zapata Off-Shore, sold all his Zapata stock, and announced his candidacy for the new 7th District’s congressional seat in the 1966 election. The sale netted Bush $1.1 million. But within eighteen months Zapata Off-Shore’s stock zoomed from about $20 a share to $87 a share. By selling out, Bush had, in effect, left at least $3.5 million lying on the table.
Bush says now that what happened to Zapata Off-Shore after he sold out was “kind of ironic” but adds that he has no regrets. “By then I was pretty sure I wanted to be in politics,” he says. “I didn’t have as a goal a stacking-up of money. If you’re going to build something or add to productivity or something like that, I could make a very stimulating case that would be worth doing. But the idea of just going out and making money for the sake of it doesn’t interest me. If I didn’t have any capital at all, I might be viewing that quite differently.” That’s hardly the way the Liedtke brothers or most other Texas oil men think; the ethic of the oil business is that money is a worthwhile goal, if only because it’s how you keep score. What Bush had wanted from the business was something entirely different—the opportunity to prove himself on his own terms, like all his boyhood heroes.
In the 1966 congressional election, the voters of West Houston gave George Bush the kind of landslide victory that Texas Republicans had previously only dreamed about. He beat district attorney Frank Briscoe, a conservative Democrat, with 57 per cent of the vote. Upon arriving in Washington, Congressman Bush became one of the few freshmen ever to gain a seat on the Ways and Means Committee. His knowledge of oil and gas and general economic matters impressed committee chairman Wilbur Mills. So did his support for family planning, which prompted Mills to nickname him Rubbers. But what many still regard as Bush’s toughest and truest test of character was the vote on the open housing provision of the Civil Rights Act.
When the generally quite conservative Bush announced that he intended to vote in favor of the open housing provision, his Houston constituents reacted with a vengeance. His office was deluged with hate mail and anonymous phone calls issuing death threats. The Houston establishment threatened to marshal all its funds to ensure his defeat if he sought reelection in 1968. Bush agonized over the decision for weeks but didn’t change his mind. Bill Liedtke, who had moved to Houston to help his brother launch the giant takeover bid that created Pennzoil, recalls his old friend’s grace under all this pressure with a revealing anecdote. One afternoon in the midst of the open housing controversy, Bush went to Liedtke’s new home in the affluent Memorial area to take a much-needed break. As the two men sat around the swimming pool, Bush summarized his position in a single sentence that could have come right out of Dink Stover: “It’s just the right thing to do.”
After open housing passed in Congress, Bush returned to Houston to meet with an angry group of oilmen and other businessmen at the Ramada Club. According to one friend, the young congressman told his critics, “I did what I thought was right. We agree on most issues. This one we don’t agree on. I hope I still have your support. But if I don’t have your support, I hope I still have your friendship. If I don’t have your friendship, I’m sorry, but I have to vote with my conscience.” In 1968 Bush was reelected to a second term in Congress without opposition.
Immediately upon returning to Washington, he determined to challenge Ralph Yarborough again in the 1970 Senate race. Nixon had almost carried Texas in the 1968 presidential campaign, and Yarborough opposed the war in Viet Nam, which Bush believed most Texas voters supported. Wouldn’t Texas prefer a second Republican senator to Yarborough?
Even the undisputed patriarch of the Texas Democratic party, former president Lyndon Johnson, sent Bush an encouraging signal. Bush slipped away from Nixon’s inaugural festivities to say goodbye to Johnson as LBJ made his final flight back to Texas aboard Air Force One. Johnson felt so touched by Bush’s gesture that he grabbed the congressman by the lapels and told him, “You come see me down at the ranch.”
Bush took Johnson up on the invitation a few weeks later and, well aware of LBJ’s open hostility toward Yarborough, mentioned that he was thinking of giving up his House seat to run for the Senate. “Boy,” said Johnson, “the difference between the House and the Senate is the difference between chickenshit and chicken salad.”
But the logic of Bush’s campaign was instantly destroyed when a wealthy, little- known conservative Houston businessman named Lloyd Bentsen upset Yarborough in the Democratic primary. In the fall campaign the media portrayed the race as a contest between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The final tally showed Bentsen with 53.4 percent and Bush with 46.6 percent. (A few years later it was reported that during the campaign Bush had accepted a $106,000 cash contribution from a $1.5 million secret account called the Townhouse operation, filled with donations from big Nixon backers like Chicago insurance magnate W. Clement Stone. Bush didn’t report the donation, but he has never been charged with violating campaign finance laws.)
“Boy, You Can’t Turn a President Down”
In 1970, at the age of 46, George Bush suddenly found himself with nothing to do. His oil company was out of his hands. His congressional seat had been passed on to another Republican, Bill Archer. The next Senate race in Texas belonged to the Republican incumbent, John Tower. A bid for the governor’s mansion would have meant taking on another conservative Democrat and so was out of the question. Bush was being labeled a has-been, a loser. Then Richard Nixon came to his rescue. In early 1971 Bush was appointed ambassador to the United Nations.
It was Bush’s first big-time appointive office, and while he assiduously Did the Right Thing, it didn’t seem to produce results, perhaps because he was working for Henry Kissinger. In October, as Kissinger was making his second trip to Peking, a coalition of Third World countries succeeded in bringing to a vote a resolution to admit the People’s Republic of China to the UN and expel Taiwan. Bush, who had been kept completely in the dark about Kissinger’s dealings with China, voted against the resolution on America’s behalf, but it carried anyway, prompting many of its supporters to start dancing in the aisles. Bush returned from the proceedings looking more distraught than his staff had ever seen him. He seemed to take the vote as a personal defeat. He declared it “a day of infamy.”
Being at the UN gave Bush the chance to see his father more often. Whenever Pres Bush dropped by, George would kiss and hug him like a little boy. “I never saw a man show so much affection for his father,” says one member of Bush’s staff. On October 8, 1972, Pres Bush died of cancer. His death came suddenly and almost unexpectedly. Worse, the patriarch of the Bush clan spent his last days at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the same hospital where George’s young daughter, Robin, had died nineteen years earlier.
In January 1973 President Nixon called his UN ambassador to the White House to discuss a new post. Barbara Bush begged George to take anything Nixon might offer except the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Although Nixon had just trounced George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election and Kissinger had declared that peace in Viet Nam was at hand, the Watergate scandal was gathering momentum. Taking charge of the Republican party at that moment looked like a no-win situation.
That was precisely why Nixon asked George Bush, with his squeaky-clean public image and his devotion to team play, to run the RNC. And Bush, a deep believer in the fundamental goodness of the Republican party and in the institution of the presidency, said yes. Taking the RNC job was the Right Thing to Do, even if it was bound to hurt Bush’s career. When Bush told Barbara what had happened, he explained his decision with the words “Boy, you can’t turn a president down.”
On the job, Bush publicly defended Nixon with a vigor so complete that it later came back to haunt him. But friends say that Bush agonized behind the scenes throughout the Watergate saga. One veteran RNC staffer recalls, “The White House staff called him on more than one occasion at the RNC office and said they wanted something done in support of the president but that they wanted it to appear that it had been done at the initiative of the RNC. Bush would say it wasn’t going to be done by the RNC, and he got mad at them for raising the issue. These were matters he took care of himself when he was being criticized in the press for not being tough enough on Nixon. The only reason I knew about it was that I could hear the screaming coming out the door.”
Early in the long series of Watergate investigations, Texas congressman Wright Patman’s House Banking Committee revealed that Bill Liedtke and Robert Mosbacher, another longtime political and oil business friend, had contributed to a $700,000 fund to help finance Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. The money was collected before the April 1972 start date of a new campaign-financing law, so it did not have to be—and was not—publicly reported. Instead, the money was flown to Washington in Penn- zoil’s private plane and deposited at the offices of the Republican party finance committee. Later about $100,000 of it was transferred through Mexico to the bank account of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker. Although neither Liedtke nor Mosbacher nor any of the other contributors ostensibly knew their money would be used to finance the Watergate break-in, the mere connection tarnished both their reputations and Bush’s.
On August 6, 1974, presidential counselor Dean Burch showed Bush the famous “smoking gun”: a transcript of the June 23, 1972, White House conversation in which Nixon personally ordered the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the Watergate break-in. The Right Thing to Do had changed, and the once-supportive Bush pressured Nixon to resign.
When newly sworn-in president Gerald Ford ranked potential vice-presidential candidates, Bush scored highest. But Ford ultimately decided on the older and more experienced Nelson Rockefeller, and he appointed Bush as the nation’s first special envoy to the People’s Republic of China. It wasn’t the world’s most demanding job, but it gave Bush a welcome opportunity to read, to travel, and to resume writing the notes and letters to friends and political acquaintances that won him a reputation as a master of the personal touch.
A year into the job, Ford asked Bush to take another post that nobody else seemed to want: heading the CIA. Wisconsin representative William Steiger cabled Bush in China: “Please do not do this.” But once again Bush found it impossible to say no to the president, even though, as part of the terms of his confirmation, he had to agree to stay out of politics until after the 1976 election. He spent the next year at what he later described as his best job of the decade. He could finally call the shots, and it so happened that his preoccupation with integrity was just what the agency needed. Bush helped write an executive order protecting U.S. citizens from CIA spying, and he worked to restore morale at the agency by improving its public image and protecting its bureaucratic interests.
After Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, he got a thorough briefing from Bush that, according to some press reports, was followed by Bush’s request to stay on at the agency. Bush denies this. “I told him that I thought it would be best if he got somebody else,” he maintains. “Whether I would have done it if he had asked me to, I don’t know.”
Bush was 52 and once again without a job or an apparent political future. He had never won election to anything bigger than a seat in Congress, and he had been no more than mildly successful at the Washington appointments game. He returned to Houston to accept an executive position with First International Bancshares, joined the lecture circuit, and took a visiting professorship at Rice University. Then he began planning his comeback.
Running for President
In October 1977, Bush made his first trip to China as a private citizen, accompanied by a group that included Washington Post political correspondent David Broder, James Baker, Dean Burch, Hugh Liedtke, and Texas state representative Chase Untermeyer of Houston. On the way back home, Burch recalls, they “stopped in Guam to refuel at about three or four o’clock in the morning. George got out and wrote postcards to all the RNC people in Guam. It was then that I realized he intended to run for president.”
It was not until late fall of 1978 that Bush started mentioning the idea himself. At the time, the Democrats were posting overall gains in the midterm elections, and the Carter administration was not yet in disarray. “I think, looking at the political situation, you would think you didn’t have a chance,” he says today. “But by then I was wholly immersed in the public light, and I had a wealth of experience and I perhaps immodestly felt I could do it. I remember [columnist] Rowland Evans coming down to Houston saying we had no chance at all. Absolutely none. But having thought it out and talked to friends, feeling it wouldn’t be easy but that there was certainly a chance, I just decided we’d do it. Go try.”
One of the first and closest friends Bush discussed his presidential race with was James A. Baker III, the scion of a Houston legal dynasty. In 1970, after the death of Baker’s first wife, Bush had asked him to run the Houston branch of the Bush for Senate campaign to get his mind off the tragedy, and Baker had been involved in politics ever since. In 1975 Bush got Baker the job of Under Secretary of Commerce. In 1976 Baker became Gerald Ford’s chief delegate hunter and campaign manager, and he returned to Texas to run for attorney general in 1978. He was still licking the wounds from his defeat by Mark White when he agreed to manage Bush’s presidential campaign.
Bush announced his candidacy at a Houston press conference on May 1, 1979, and promptly disappeared, or so it seemed. Most stories on the upcoming campaign focused on Ted Kennedy’s potential threat to Jimmy Carter and on the activities of a roster of Republican contenders that included Ronald Reagan, John Connally, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, John Anderson, and even Gerald Ford. But while his competitors played wholesale politics in the mass media,
Bush quietly played retail politics in the small states with the earliest primaries, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, whose caucuses kicked off the election year. In so doing, Bush was playing to his strengths: his charm and good looks, his youthful energy, his astonishing memory for names, his mastery of the personal touch. He and his family went to almost every city and town in the state. Bush called hundreds of Iowans on the phone, wrote letters to volunteers and supporters, jotted thank-you notes to reporters who wrote about him.
A similar person-to-person network fueled the Bush fundraising effort. Most of the campaign’s fundraisers were Bush family members and longtime friends: brothers, sisters, cousins, old business acquaintances, former school chums, former associates from career stops like the RNC and the CIA. Bush eventually collected $22 million, more than any other presidential candidate except Ronald Reagan. And on caucus day in Iowa the results were 31.5 per cent for George Bush, 29.4 per cent for Ronald Reagan, and 15.7 per cent for Howard Baker. John Connally got only 9.3 per cent of the vote.
Bush suddenly jumped from obscurity to the cover of Newsweek. He had trailed Reagan 45 per cent to 6 per cent in polls taken at the beginning of 1980. The week after the Iowa caucuses, the polls showed that the gap had narrowed to only 6 percentage points, 33 to 27. Unfortunately, when the campaign moved on to New Hampshire, the Bush people found that Reagan’s team had done a more thorough job of retail politics than they had—and on top of that, Bush walked right into a Reagan trap.
It happened the night of a TV debate in Nashua, New Hampshire. The local newspaper sponsoring the event had invited only Reagan and Bush. Since Bush now hoped to narrow the Republican campaign to a two-man race, the exclusion of Baker, Dole, Anderson, and the other contenders suited him fine. But after Baker and Dole protested to the Federal Election Commission, the FEC ruled that the candidates — not the newspaper—had to pay for the debate because it constituted an illegal campaign contribution rather than an open forum. Given that Bush had already spent his authorized limit on the New Hampshire primary, the Reagan people had to bear the full cost of the program—and as long as they were paying, they decided to invite everyone.
When Bush entered the gymnasium where the debate was to take place, he was surprised to see Howard Baker, Robert Dole, John Anderson, and Philip Crane waiting in the wings. All four took the stage along with Reagan and Bush. Reagan opened the program by saying he wanted to make a statement, but the moderator cut off his microphone. Reagan, playing the aggrieved good guy with consummate skill, said he had paid for the microphone and should therefore be allowed to speak over it, but the moderator insisted that the other candidates leave the stage. Instead of leaping to his feet and inviting the others to join in, Bush reacted exactly as the Reagan team had expected him to: he just sat there, implicitly taking on the role of the heavy. Baker, Dole, Anderson, and Crane proceeded to steal the show by holding a rump press conference in an adjoining room, during which they accused Bush of unfairly shutting them out and of being afraid to meet them head-on. Bush, of course, wasn’t really afraid. He was just abiding by the rules, but he lacked the wit to see instantly how he would look.
The beginning of the end for Bush came in May. Jim Baker had sent Rich Bond and several other staffers to California with orders to run a low-budget “diversionary” campaign in hopes of tying up Reagan’s assets while Bush struggled to erode Reagan’s growing strength in the East. Then, on Friday, May 23, while Bush was campaigning in New Jersey, Baker apparently caught his own candidate by surprise with the announcement that Bush was withdrawing from the California primary for lack of funds. Bush immediately flew home to Houston to huddle with his family and campaign staff.
When Bush met with Baker, finance chairman Robert Mosbacher, and other staffers the next day, he and his family wanted to stay in the race. But Mosbacher produced figures showing that the Bush campaign was already $1 million in the red, and he expressed little hope of attracting much more money in the face of Reagan’s primary victories. Baker added that Reagan had already amassed nearly enough delegates to assure a first-ballot victory at the Republican convention in Detroit. Even if Bush managed to make inroads in California, Baker argued, he could go to the convention only as a spoiler, which would probably ruin his chances for the vice-presidential nomination. Playing spoiler could also touch off a bitter internecine battle at the convention that would be televised across the nation.
It wasn’t until that last point that Bush began to give in. Finances are not a problem, he argued; we can get the money somewhere if that will secure victory. Bush also dismissed the idea that staying in the race might harm his vice-presidential prospects; he wasn’t running for the number two spot. But when he assessed Reagan’s overwhelming delegate lead, he had to admit that his chances of catching up looked slim at best. The Republicans didn’t need a divisive and ultimately self- defeating fight at the convention. Viewed in that light, withdrawing was another Right Thing to Do. He would make the announcement on Monday.
Exhausted, Bush and his advisers decided to go out for Mexican food. Although Bush had spent nearly two decades in politics and government, he rarely provoked any reaction in public—indeed, he was often not even recognized. But when he walked into the Mexican restaurant that night, the other diners broke into applause. Bush’s chest seemed to swell up like Superman’s. As soon as the applause subsided, Bush told Baker and Mosbacher that he had reconsidered. He was a competitor, not a quitter. He would stay in the race until the end. He had Done the Right Thing by staying in, he had suffered defeats, and now, just like in the script, he was a hero.
Baker and Mosbacher had to spend the rest of the night reconvincing Bush of the case they had argued all day long. Finally he promised that he would not change his mind again. On Monday, May 26, 1980, he called a press conference in Houston to announce his formal withdrawal from the presidential race and his full support for the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.
Politics is at once a romantic pursuit and a practical one. By the time Bush got to the Detroit convention, he was running hard for vice president—never mind what he had been saying a few weeks earlier. Now his biggest problem was that a movement was afoot to pick Gerald Ford as Reagan’s running mate.
Members of the Bush inner circle describe their leader’s reaction to the Ford rumors as a mixture of shock, disbelief, anger, and despair. When he returned to his hotel room after addressing the convention, a mob of reporters was waiting to quiz him about the movement to draft Ford. “Oh, shit,” he muttered uncharacteristically to his small entourage. “Let’s go have a beer. I think I can stop all this political-figure stuff now.”
The Bush party went to the hotel bar and ordered a round of beers, but the reporters followed right behind. Someone offered to pick up a few six-packs around the corner instead, and the group reconvened in the privacy of Bush’s suite. It looked like this was the end of the line: more than a year and a half of hard work down the drain without even a consolation prize. Before long most of his supporters had drifted off to their rooms, and Bush was alone with Barbara, Jim Baker, Dean Burch, and their mutual disappointment. Then the telephone rang. It was Ronald Reagan, calling to ask Bush to be his vice- presidential nominee.
The Perfect Vice President
George Bush began his first term as vice president of the United States by cutting a deal with his boss. He borrowed the particulars from his Democratic predecessor, Walter F. Mondale. In essence, it was a blueprint for the perfect vice presidency: not too
strong, not too weak, never on center stage but never out in the boondocks. The three main points were complete access to the president at all times, complete access to all presidential information, and the freedom to take on special assignments of an important but not all-consuming nature. It seems to be working.
Bush has carte blanche to enter the Oval Office unannounced at any time, day or night, though he often abides by a self- imposed check of the president’s schedule before barging in. Like Mondale, Bush enjoys the privilege of an office in the West Wing of the White House—the true corridor of power-in addition to the traditional vice-presidential offices in the old Executive Office Building and on Capitol Hill. Besides attending all Cabinet meetings, Bush has a private luncheon with the president every Thursday. And like Reagan, Bush receives a regular early- morning briefing on national security matters from the CIA.
In addition to putting Bush in charge of presidential task forces on regulatory relief, the Atlanta child murders, and drug smuggling, Reagan named him head of a new top-level Special Situation Group with specific authority to handle threats to national security—a job that then Secretary of State Alexander Haig wanted badly. At the same time, Bush was able to reject assignments he didn’t want, like playing point man and chief publicist for the ill-fated New Federalism program.
What Bush really spends his time on, though, is representing the administration and the party on the road. In the first two and a half years of his term he has logged 344,364 air miles and visited 48 states, 33 foreign countries, and 3 U.S. possessions. In 1981 he visited British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, French president Francois Mitterrand, and Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, and he undertook a swing through Latin America. Last year Bush interrupted a tour of Africa to attend the funeral of Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev and, along with Secretary of State George Shultz, he met the newly installed Soviet general secretary, Yuri Andropov. This year he toured Europe again to sell to our allies Reagan’s “zero option” plan for bilateral nuclear disarmament in Europe. Within the United States last year he made 155 appearances on behalf of 120 candidates in state and local elections. In the last two years, according to his staff, Bush has raised $16 million from personal appearances before candidate and party groups and $12 million from a special vice-presidential direct-mail effort. All this is classic vice-presidential stuff, but Bush works especially hard at it, and every trip builds up the stack of chips he can cash in later.
Bush is one of the few people in the administration whose general advice to the president will always be listened to and sometimes followed. As chief of the Special Situation Group, he recommended sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland after the crackdown on the Solidarity movement. When the administration’s proposal for selling AW ACS planes to Saudi Arabia ran into unexpectedly staunch opposition, Bush convinced the president of the need to lobby the Senate in person, and he himself also lobbied. After returning from his meeting with Andropov, Bush urged the president to press for approval of the M-X missile program at once. He failed in his attempts to persuade Reagan to support a simple extension of the Voting Rights Act instead of backing a weakened House version. But he successfully persuaded the president to reverse his previous decision to award tax exemptions to schools practicing racial discrimination. In the fall of 1981, after budget director David Stockman’s embarrassingly candid interview with the Atlantic, Bush opposed several White House aides who wanted Stockman’s head to roll. He presented the president with a detailed analysis of the article, then advised Reagan to act fairly and leniently if he felt Stockman could be trusted to carry out the administration’s program despite the reservations he expressed in print.
Out of the same motive—the desire to preserve his reputation and Reagan’s trust-Bush is an ardent anti-leaker, Presidents hate leaks more than anything. White House sources say Bush rarely speaks up in Cabinet meetings, whose substance often filters out to the media. He prefers to offer his views in the privacy of his weekly luncheons with Reagan, and he is extremely proud that there have been no leaks from these luncheon discussions in the 28 months since the inauguration.
Bush has made some mistakes. One of the clumsiest was his 1981 toast praising Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos as a champion of democracy. But the most widely publicized was last year’s denial of ever having called his boss’s views “voodoo economics.” When NBC found a videotape of Bush saying the fateful words during the 1980 Pennsylvania primary, the vice president had to eat crow. Bush blamed the foul-up on press secretary Peter Teeley, now on leave of absence, who wrote the phrase during the campaign and then told Bush that he had never actually used it in a speech.
By the time Reagan delivered his second State of the Union message in January, the Democrats had again dredged up voodoo economics as a rallying cry in their attack on the president. When Bush arrived at the House chamber for the speech, House Speaker Tip O’Neill couldn’t resist needling him: “You really believe it is voodoo economics, don’t you, Mr. Vice President?” Bush could only laugh and reply, “The guy who wrote that’s been fired.”
A more serious problem for Bush has been the turmoil and morale problems on his staff. By the second anniversary of Reagan’s inauguration, 15 upper-level aides on the vice president’s 69-member staff had either moved on to other jobs or announced their intention of doing so. Among those who have stayed are Chief of Staff Daniel J. Murphy, a 61- year-old retired admiral who served under Bush at the CIA, and Jennifer Fitzgerald, a 51-year-old British-born woman who has been with Bush since CIA days and was recently elevated from appointments secretary to executive assistant.
Former Bush staffers describe the highly disciplined Murphy as a good guy, but Fitzgerald gets vituperative reviews. She has been accused of bungling in the 1980 presidential campaign by canceling Bush appearances at factory sites in favor of luncheon club speeches. Critics of her performance say she misrepresents staff scheduling requests and blocks access to her boss. Fitzgerald and current staff members contend that she has been unfairly blamed. Press secretary Shirley Green maintains that the vice president has complete confidence in Fitzgerald and points out that unflattering remarks about her may result from her role as the person who says no to people on her boss’s behalf. Green also points out that the people who have left the vice president’s staff have all gone on to better jobs. A number of the vice president’s close friends worry that “the Jennifer problem”—or the appearance of one—may inhibit Bush’s future political career. “There’s just something about her that makes him feel good,” says one trusted Bush confidant. “I don’t think it’s sexual. I don’t know what it is. But if Bush ever runs for president again, I think he’s going to have to make a change on that score.”
Barbara Bush has also won praise for her performance as second lady. Although members of the vice president’s staff say she can be snappish and judgmental at times, they add that she often retracts such comments upon realizing how they sounded. Known to her husband and friends as Bar, she has a remarkable gift not only for names and faces but also for researching and remembering associated personal facts like the birthdays, family triumphs, and family tragedies of people she has met only once or twice. Her one constant frustration is her gray hair, which makes her look much older than her husband even though she is really a year younger. Irreverent family members refer to her as the Silver Fox. Strangers often come up after one of her husband’s public appearances and tell her how much they enjoyed her son’s speech. It annoys her that she appears to be aging more quickly than her husband. “I hate it,” she says simply.
George Bush, by contrast, seems to have almost no complaints. He even compares his job favorably with running the CIA. “The CIA had ingredients this job doesn’t have-more decision-making as head of a big agency—but this job is closer to the heartbeat of running the country,” Bush says. “I kind of give Mondale and Carter credit for a quantum leap forward in making the vice president a useful person. But I now see Mondale running for president and kind of jumping away from Carter. I couldn’t do that. It’s just not the way one conducts one’s life. There’s no honor in it, no integrity. It’s too selfish. That’s why I have a relaxed view about doing my job. I could no more try to position myself to look good on some issue that might be popular at the moment for future political gain, and in the process turn my back on the president. I just couldn’t do it.”
The Next President?
Could George Bush be president? Lately there have been some positive signs. A Gallup poll of 358 Republicans, released in February, showed Bush to be their leading choice for the 1984 nomination, should Reagan choose not to run. A Newsweek survey by Gallup released in March showed that 57 per cent of all adult voters sampled – Republicans, Democrats, and independents —would not like to see Ronald Reagan seek reelection; those sampled would be more likely to vote for Bush than for Reagan by a margin of 48 to 41.
Bush continues to have what one Republican party official calls “an incurable New Right problem.” Almost the entire leadership of the conservative movement has declared its continuing philosophical opposition to Bush. “George Bush is an establishment, big-business, moderate politician who will go where the pressure is,” says Richard Viguerie. “And the pressure in this country is strongly to the left. If the president gives it to him, if he announces he won’t run with one arm around Bush and one arm around Paul Laxalt, there’s no way to compete with that. But if the race is wide open, Bush couldn’t do it. There are far too many conservative candidates who could compete with him.”
The people to whom Viguerie alludes are men like Congressman Jack Kemp, Senator Jesse Helms, and Senator Paul Laxalt. The more moderate senators Howard Baker and Robert Dole might run too, and Baker, in particular, could tap the frustration of Republican moderates with Bush over his enthusiastic embrace of Reaganism.
After twenty years in politics, Bush is still far easier to place by his class than by his beliefs. He firmly maintains that he could give it all up if the breaks don’t go his way. “As far as I know now, if I don’t stay on this current path, I will get out of politics and stay out of politics,” he says.
“Just as I’ve shifted gears in my life before, I’ll shift them again. I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m lacking interest in what I’m doing. But I just don’t want always to be plotting a political future.”
As Bush predicted, those close to him, including his son the former congressional candidate, say the gentleman doth protest too much. “I think that when the bell rings and the field is wide open, and it’s not a question of President Reagan but of who can best run the country, the competitive juices will start flowing again,” says the younger George Bush.
“I believe George Bush will run for president again,” agrees his old friend and former campaign finance chairman Robert Mosbacher. “He has the fire in his belly.”’
The fire in Bush’s belly is fueled by his father’s legacy. Even as vice president, Bush is still occasionally visited by little old ladies who want to see if the son is as handsome as the father was, and invariably their conclusion is “not quite.” Although Bush now holds the second- highest office in the land, he has yet to win a statewide election (other than a primary) on his own. Prescott Bush won two campaigns for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. George Bush never could beat his father at golf, even when the old man was in his seventies. As yet, George Bush has not beat his father in politics either.
Vice President Bush naturally holds to the line that the Republican nominee for president in 1984 will be Ronald Reagan. So do the latest Washington rumors. Both the president and his wife are said to have taken a liking to life in the nation’s capital and are now reportedly determined to remain in the White House for another four years. Reagan is said to feel a passion about completing his conservative revolution and to think that only he is both conservative enough to do the job and popular enough to be elected.
But when Bush was asked if he thought he’d make it to the Oval Office himself before the year 2000, he gave a revealing reply. “It’ll have to be before then,” he laughed, “or I might not be ambulatory.”
Some quick age and election-year computations suggest that the vice president may be underestimating himself. If Reagan is reelected in 1984, he will be nearly 74 years old on Inauguration Day. On Inauguration Day of the year 2000, Bush will be 75. Between now and then he will have at least three more chances at the presidency—four if Reagan does not run for reelection in 1984. He has been so virtuous as vice president, not to mention previously, that he must believe with every fiber of his being that the job ought to be his-that the nation will tap him and he will march into the White House to general applause, with the ghost of Pres Bush smiling approvingly from on high. That, after all, would be the Right Thing for America to Do.