A man caught be­tween worlds

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL

At the be­gin­ning of his long and well-lived life, Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush, who in pol­i­tics was al­ways pro­saic, ac­quired, by way of a grand­fa­ther, the name of a Bri­tish poet and priest (Ge­orge Her­bert, 1593-1633). He ac­quired much else from fam­ily in­her­i­tance.

The fu­ture 41st pres­i­dent was de­scended from a gov­er­nor of the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of Cleve­land — from fi­nancier Ge­orge Her­bert Walker, whose name is on golf’s Walker Cup — and from a U.S. se­na­tor: his fa­ther Prescott, of Brown Broth­ers Har­ri­man, the Wall Street in­vest­ment house whose part­ners in­cluded Robert A. Lovett, a fu­ture sec­re­tary of de­fense.

This was the world from which Bush came into a life whose tra­jec­tory of­ten left him caught be­tween the worlds of the old East Coast Re­pub­li­can­ism of banks, rail­roads and good works of no­blesse oblige, and the New Right Re­pub­li­can­ism of the Sun Belt. He had an easy so­cial grace im­parted by Green­wich Coun­try Day School, An­dover and Yale, yet seemed for­ever un­easy about where he was and how he got there.

Re­ject­ing fam­ily en­treaties that he go to Yale be­fore go­ing to war, he en­listed on his 18th birth­day and promptly be­came the Navy’s sec­ondy­oungest com­mis­sioned avi­a­tor, com­pil­ing 126 car­rier land­ings and 58 mis­sions. Af­ter Yale, he spurned a Wall Street ca­reer, and with his wife — the for­mer Bar­bara Pierce, a de­scen­dant of the 14th pres­i­dent, Franklin Pierce — headed in his Stude­baker for the West Texas oil patch. But he took Wall Street with him in the form of con­nec­tions and cap­i­tal that helped launch the Bush-Over­bey Oil De­vel­op­ment Co.

Busi­ness suc­cess brought him to Houston; bore­dom with busi­ness brought him to pol­i­tics. He was 39 when he an­nounced he would seek the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion to op­pose Sen. Ralph Yar­bor­ough in 1964, the year Barry Gold­wa­ter, har­bin­ger of the Repub­li­cans’ fu­ture, would be at the top of the ticket.

Bush took on the col­oration of Texas’s first gen­er­a­tion of Re­pub­li­can­ism. He en­dorsed right-to-work laws and de­nounced Medi­care — it was com­ing in 1965 — as “so­cial­is­tic.” He op­posed the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it would “make the Depart­ment of Jus­tice the most pow­er­ful po­lice force in the na­tion.” He said the bill’s pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tions pro­vi­sions were un­con­sti­tu­tional, and whereas the law might “pro­tect 14 per­cent of the peo­ple,” he was equally concerned about “the other 86 per­cent.”

While Bush crit­i­cized Wal­ter Reuther of the United Auto Work­ers be­cause he had “do­nated $50 to the mil­i­tant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Bush’s cam­paign sup­port­ers sang, “The sun’s go­ing to shine in the Se­nate some­day/Ge­orge Bush is go­ing to chase them lib­er­als away.” He lost.

And he re­pented and re­vised him­self. Run­ning suc­cess­fully for Con­gress in 1965-66, he en­dorsed Lyn­don B. John­son’s Great So­ci­ety agenda as mean­ing “a bet­ter life for all.”

Richard Nixon con­sid­ered Bush as a run­ning mate in 1968 but chose Spiro Agnew. In 1970, Bush’s plans for a re­match with Yar­bor­ough crashed when Lloyd Bentsen de­feated Yar­bor­ough in the Demo­cratic pri­mary. So Bush ran to Bentsen’s left — e.g., sup­port­ing gun con­trol — and again lost. He was 46, twice de­feated, and his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, if any, de­pended on the pa­tron­age of oth­ers, be­gin­ning with Nixon, who made him am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions and then chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee when the job in­volved de­fend­ing Nixon against Water­gate ac­cu­sa­tions, which Bush du­ti­fully did. Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford con­sid­ered Bush as his vice pres­i­dent but chose Nel­son Rock­e­feller. Bush be­came chief en­voy to China when Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger’s close at­ten­tion to that coun­try made the en­voy’s job merely cer­e­mo­nial. Then, by be­com­ing CIA di­rec­tor, Bush re­moved him­self from con­sid­er­a­tion as Ford’s 1976 run­ning mate.

Seek­ing the 1980 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, Bush ran as the mod­er­ate al­ter­na­tive to Ron­ald Rea­gan, who nev­er­the­less then po­si­tioned Bush, as his vice pres­i­dent, for a 1988 can­di­dacy. An­nounc­ing it, Bush said: “I am not a mys­tic, and I do not yearn to lead a cru­sade.” Hav­ing lost to Bob Dole in Iowa, Bush saved his can­di­dacy by win­ning New Hamp­shire with yet more role play­ing — driv­ing an 18wheeler around a truck stop’s park­ing lot.

Ge­orge H.W. Bush was caught be­tween worlds. As pres­i­dent, he could be him­self at last. He was, by then, an Eisen­hower Repub­li­can, whose pru­dence was dis­played first when the Berlin Wall came down, next when Sad­dam Hus­sein in­vaded Kuwait, and Bush, when ex­pelling him, stopped short of in­vad­ing Iraq. Pre­sid­ing over the or­derly end of the Cold War and the vast coali­tion for Desert Storm, Bush earned the last­ing ad­mi­ra­tion of a dis­cern­ing pos­ter­ity, a judg­ment more im­por­tant than the one ren­dered by the undis­cern­ing elec­torate that in 1992 lim­ited him to one term. [email protected]­post.com

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.