A searching look at the vice president’s most persistent political liability
At the Greenwich Country Day School in the 1930s, boasting and strutting were anathema, the boorish behavior of parvenus and cheap politicians. To instill modesty and self-discipline, the school graded its privileged young charges not only in math and history, but in a category called “Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention.” For young “Poppy” Bush, the lesson was reinforced at home. “How’d we do in ‘Claims no more’?” was Wall Street investment banker Prescott S. Bush’s invariable first question when his son raced home with his report card. “He gave us hell if we were claiming more than our fair share,” George Bush recalls today.
Enviable hand-to-eye coordination made Bush a deft fielder on the Andover and Yale baseball teams. But he had trouble starting as a pitcher. In his first Yale season, Bush was batting an anemic .167. One evening a Yale groundskeeper slipped a note under his apartment door. “Dear Sir,” the message began with all deference, “I am convinced the reason you are not getting more hits is because you do not take a real cut at the ball.” His Yale teammates didn’t much care. Impressed with his competitive team spirit and personal modesty, they elected Bush captain, anyway.
Bush is a familiar figure on television screens, standing behind the president in Rose Garden ceremonies and brightly greeting foreign potentates at airports. But the strapping 6-foot-2, 195-pound vice president often finds that voters meeting him in person are surprised to discover how tall he is. “‘We thought you were a little short guy,’ they tell me. I hear it over and over and over again,” sighs Bush. Says son Jeb Bush, “I’ve made money betting people my dad is taller than Ronald Reagan.”
Over the next year, the boy who excelled at Claims no more must command the nation’s time and attention. The young ballplayer who had trouble stepping into pitches must show that he can hit political hardballs. The public servant whom voters perceive as shorter than he is must show that he stands tall enough to be president of the United States.
Bush, who formally declares his candidacy this week, enters the nomination fight with enviable advantages — high name recognition and stronger voter ratings for experience and competence. Other candidates can spend an entire primary season trying to match those assets. Yet Bush suffers from a potentially crippling handicap — a perception that he isn’t strong enough or tough enough for the challenges of the Oval Office. That he is, in a single mean word, a wimp.
‘A problem’: The epithet has made its way from the high-school locker room into everyday jargon and stuck like graffiti on Bush. What’s come to be known as the vice president’s “wimp factor” is a problem, concedes Bush pollster Robert Teeter, “because it is written and talked about so much.” A NEWSWEEK Poll shows that Bush is the clear front runner for the Republican nomination, but that 51 per cent of the electorate believes his image poses problems for his candidacy. Bush reveals his self-consciousness about the label by trying to make clunky jokes about it. When Sen. James Exon of Nebraska urged him to support reduced funding for Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative last month, Bush sent the senator a jocular sort of defiance: “I’m the pit bull of SDI, you Ivy League wimp!” (Exon went to the University of Omaha.)
Adding muscle to Bush’s image won’t be easy. “Fairly or unfairly, voters have a deep-rooted perception of him as a guy who takes direction, who’s not a leader,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Bush’s campaign aides are trying to emphasize his physical vigor. The Secret Service was told to stand down last month in Iowa so Bush could be seen jogging with high-school kids and playing basketball with some 10-year-olds. During a recent trip to Poland, Bush took every opportunity to show his backbone. He talked tough to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and met in a public and defiant way with Lech Walesa, leader of the banned Solidarity union. A camera crew from the Bush campaign was there to record it all. But Bush refuses to publicly cross President Reagan — the one step that would more dramatically establish the vice president as his own man.
The label has left Bush’s friends and family pained and perplexed. “He’s been reduced to a cartoon,” fumes son Jeb. (Literally. Last week the “Doonesbury” strip portrayed voters matter-of-factly describing Bush as a wimp.) In campaign that is supposedly putting a premium on character, Bush’s admirers ask, doesn’t it matter that he is a war hero, that he is decentand honorable, that he has bounced back from personal and political adversity?
In private conversation, Bush can be charming and funny. In correspondence with his children, he expresses his feeling so movingly that two of his grown sons grew tearful in interviews as they recalled letters from their father. In public life, he has sought — and been accorded — the gravest responsibilities. Why, then, is he so cruelly mocked? The reasons are both stylistic and substantive. Television, the medium that makes Ronald Reagan larger than life, diminishes George Bush. He does not project self-confidence, wit or warmth to television viewers. He comes across instead to many of them as stiff or silly. Even his most devout backers can sense his unease on the tube. “I die for him when he gives a speech. I want it to be right, and I know he’s just not comfortable with it,” says lifelong friend Betsy Heminway. Bush concedes he has a communications problem. “I know what I can do,” he says, “I know what I believe. The only question now is communicating.”
Beneath such surface qualms lie deeper doubts. What does Bush really stand for? His two decades in government have produced an impressive resume — congressman, U.N. ambassador, Republican Party chief, China envoy, CIA director, vice president. But his imprint on all those jobs is indistinct, even his friends admit, and he seems to have avoided the great social and political controversies of a quarter century. In short, Bush is by and large a politician without a political identity.
Civic duty: This lack of identity is explained in part by his political origins, in part by his survival instincts. He has moved to enter politics more by the service tradition of his family and social class than by passion for any cause or an idea. “In the beginning, I don’t think politics for George was any more than raising money for the Y,” says his wife, Barbara. “It was your civic duty.” Bush inherited the tory paternalism of his father, Prescott, a longtime Greenwich town moderator and, for 10 years, a U.S. senator. Bush’s native political tribe — the Eastern-establishment wing of the GOP — is nearly extinct today. Lacking any natural base, Bush has rather uncomfortably embraced the Reaganism of the 1980s. But no matter how hard he tries to sound like a member of the red-meat right, he seems like an Episcopalian, which he is, at a fundamentalist tent meeting. Stylistically, too, Bush’s gee-whiz language and enthusiasms seem out of place in the elbows-out self-promotion of American politics. “You can’t . . . do things you don’t feel comfortable with,” he explains. Says his sister Nancy Bush Ellis: “George is absolutely the product of his upbringing.”
That upbringing was as different from the world of modern politics as a John Cheever short story is from “Saturday Night Live.” At their rambling nine-bedroom house in Greenwich and grandfather Walker’s sprawling “summer cottage” in Kennebunkport, Maine, the five Bush children basked in parental love and servant-tended privilege. But life’s physical comfort was balanced by strict standards of conduct and character. Prescott and his wife, Dorothy Walker Bush, sought to breed in their children the old-fashioned Wasp virtues of integrity, fairness and sportsmanship.
If a Bush child burst into the house to say he’s hit a home run that day, Dorothy Bush would sweetly reply, “How did the team do, dear?” You were supposed to announce the team won, recalls George’s younger brother Jonathan, “and hope that someone would ask, ‘Well, did you get any hits?'” Talking about yourself — your accomplishments or deepest feelings — was frowned upon as self-absorption and poor taste and drew from Dorothy Bush the admonishment, “I don’t want to hear any more about the Great I Am.” Says George Bush today, “It stuck.” Dorothy Bush is still, at 86, venerated by her children and hasn’t given up her lifelong efforts to instill modesty. She recently telephoned her middle-aged son to say, “You’re talking about yourself too much, George.” Bush tried to explain that voters want to know about candidates. “Well, I understand that,” she responded. “But try to restrain yourself.” Bush knows his restraint can be an impediment. “The fact that some people in the country don’t understand me yet is just a challenge, one more challenge over the horizon.”
Though Prescott and Dorothy Bush were deeply religious, they didn’t talk about their faith. Says older brother Prescott Bush Jr., “God just was.” George and Barbara Bush today says prayers aloud together each night, but the candidate is ill at ease when asked about his faith by a voter. Sex was another unmentionable. (Prescott Bush Sr. once admonished Pres Jr.: “You never say a lady is pregnant; you say she’s expecting a baby.” Dorothy Bush delicately described friends in baby-bearing condition by the French term enceinte.) Candidate Bush today is visibly ill at ease when the political debate shifts to abortion, AIDS or birth control.
Touching letters: While the Bush children felt their parents’ love, it was not expressed directly. When his father came to see 18-year-old George off to war, the senior Bush was mute. “He put his arm around me on the platform of Penn Station, and I could tell,” Bush said. “We didn’t need the reassurance of verbal professions of love and affection. It’s just there.” Decades later, George Bush, similarly moved, would be just as inarticulate at his children’s wedding dinners. “It’s easier in a letter to tell somebody what’s in your heart, I think,” Bush explains. Barbara Bush adds, “That’s certainly true in our marriage.” When, as a young bride, she’d yearn for a little more demonstrative language, an uncomfortable Bush would try, but protest: “You shouldn’t have to tell that. You see it. You know it.” Yet when apart, he wrote her touching letters.
Even when politics seems to demand it, Bush has difficulty expressing his deepest feelings. Every morning and night in their bedroom, the Bushes look at a portrait of their beautiful blond daughter Robin who died of leukemia 34 years ago at the age of three. Bush’s handlers have been after him for years to open up in public, to let a little of himself show. But only in the past few months, as the campaign season loomed, could Bush bring himself to talk about his daughter’s death, and then with excruciating discomfort.
At home, Bush was taught that friendship and generosity were admirable qualities. He so frequently offered to share his childhood treats that his siblings dubbed him “Hav Half.” At Andover, he was “well liked without trying,” recalls a schoolmate and, to this day, Bush maintains friendships with literally hundreds of people by each week dashing off a dozen or so handwritten or typed notes of congratulations, condolence or encouragement.
Bush’s solicitude toward others reflects a mix of political self-interest and genuine caring. His network of acquaintances — what one adviser calls “George Bush’s 2,000 closest friends” — formed the basis of his insurgent 1980 campaign. Yet more distant voters —
especially his conservative critics — detect in Bush’s eagerness to be liked a lack of tough-minded leadership. Would Have Half, they ask, be too willing to share with the Russians?
Bush’s political persona was molded as well by a family culture that encouraged competition — but not confrontation. The Bush children were expected to play to win. When friends were invited for tennis with the Bushes, “you quickly understood you were there to play tennis, not fool around,” recalled Mrs. Reginald Coombe, a lifelong friend of Dorothy Bush. The Bushes even competed exuberantly at tiddlywinks, to the amazement of weekend guests at Kennebunkport. But this drive was channeled into sports where there were rules;; it was not to spill over into conversation. Prescott Bush never raised his voice in anger at his children. They never argued with him at the dinner table. Authority figures might be respectfully questioned, but not challenged.
It is one of the puzzles of George Bush that for all his niceness, he is relentlessly ambitious. From the start, he was the striver his competitive family expected him to be. A year ahead of himself at Greenwich Country Day and Andover, he was always small and slight for his class, but he compensated with determination. “From an early age,” says brother Jonathan, “his compass has been on the same heading.” Self-discipline kept him on course. So did emotional self-control. “All my life I’ve worked at channeling my emotions,” Bush writes in his autobiography, “trying not to let anger or frustration influence my thinking.”
An achiever: New ideas, troubling thoughts, were unwanted distractions. Bush’s prep-school and college years were not a time of political or philosophical awakening, but rather of preparing to succeed. During passionate late-night dorm-room arguments about the meaning of life at Andover, roommate George Warren remembers Bush sitting on the sidelines of the group, “making witty asides but never tipping his hand.” Despite his Phi Beta Kappa key at Yale, “George was not an intellectual,” says Yale classmate Warren. “He was more of an achiever.”
Bush did allow himself one mild rebellion after college by refusing to join the long, gray-flanneled line of Yale men heading for Wall Street. Rather than “live in the suburbs and be Pres Bush’s boy,” as he once put it, he struck out for the booming oilfields of west Texas. Barbara Bush recalls he didn’t like his first job as an oil-equipment salesman because of the “glad-handing, hail-fellow-met style” needed for sales, and so shifted to oil-leading trading and finance — where his Wall Street connections served him well. He had little trouble finding investors for his fledgling oil-lease company through his New York investment banker uncle, Herbert Walker. Bush’s partner, John Overbey, still remembers the dizzying whirl of a money-raising trip to the East with George and Uncle Herbie: lunch at New York’s 21 Club, weekends at Kennebuckport where a bracing Sunday dip in the Atlantic off Walker’s Point ended with a servant wrapping you in a large terry towel and handing you a martini.
Easy manner: But the Bushes also delighted in the rough homey life of Midland, Texas, where the only country-club golf course “was a nine-hole sand trap,” recalls Overbey. The community-minded Bush was friendly to everyone — “the lockeroom boys at the Y, the barber downtown,” said Houston oil executive Bill Liedtke, a partner in Bush’s company, Zapata Petroleum Corp. But the easy manner was somewhat deceptive. Sweating out the ups and downs of the oil business, Bush developed a bleeding ulcer — but cured it, he says, by willing himself not to worry about things he had no control over. Preparing to enter Texas politics, he sold his interest in Zapata Off-Shore Co. just before the late-’60s oil boom. He made a substantial profit but not a killing, at least by Texas standards.
Bush finds it difficult to articulate exactly why he entered politics. Sitting on his Kennebunkport porch with a glass of diet soda one bright morning last summer, he said, “It’s hard to describe . . . I got intrigued with it, I felt fascinated, believe in the country, in its strength, in helping people. You know, all the reasons people go into politics.” He paused. “Challenges and rewards,” he said.
Bush’s political identity was fuzzy from the start. Texas Republicanism in the mid-’60s was caught — as it was nationally — between the moderate Old Guard and the populist, fundamentalist, anticommunist fervor of an emerging hard right. It was a cultural as well as philosophical divide, and Bush gamely tried to accommodate both sides. His roots and inclinations were with the moderates. But his future, he knew, depended on his ability to get on with the right.
Nothing illustrates this tension better than Bush’s handling of civil rights. In 1964 he sought the Republican Senate nomination against conservative rivals by inveighing against the Kennedy administration’s pending 1964 Civil Rights Act. “I’m opposed to the public accommodations section,” a newspaper account at the time quoted him saying. “I still favor the problem being handled by moral persuasion at the local level.” Two years later Bush could not understand why blacks failed to vote for him in a successful bid for Congress. After all, he noted in his autobiography, he ran the campus United Negro College Fund campaign his last year at Yale.
Once elected, Bush voted his conscience by supporting open-housing legislation. Asked to explain the flip-flop, longtime family friend C. Fred Chambers said, “George understands that you have to do politically prudent things to get in a position to do what you want.”
It is difficult to find another moment when he put his career at risk to follow his conscience. A get-along, go-along Republican congressman, Bush was persuaded by President Nixon to defy long odds and run for the Senate in 1970. Asked why he did so, Bush responded quickly: “Upward mobility.” Trounced by conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, he was sidelined in his political career at the age of 46. Bush threw himself on the tender mercies of Richard Nixon, who had promised to take care of him if he lost. Deeply suspicious of Bush’s class and background, Nixon was an ambivalent mentor. Still, Bush jumped at Nixon’s offer of the U.N. ambassadorship, even after a sobering discussion with chief of staff H. R. Haldeman about what the White House was looking for: “Obviously,” as Bush later dryly noted, “someone who didn’t overestimate his role.”
The U.N. ambassadorship lived up to Haldeman’s promise. While Bush thrashed about trying to stave off the expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations — thus protecting a favorite cause of the Republican right — Henry Kissinger and Nixon were quietly undercutting his efforts by their courtship of China. The Bushes spent much of their time entertaining foreign diplomats in their nine-room Waldorf Towers suite. But Bush and the Manhattan glitterati were not a perfect fit. “New York just couldn’t believe George Bush,” said Louis F. Polk, a jet-setting businessman friend. “He wasn’t cool. He wasn’t smooth. He’s like a kid in his enthusiasm.”
The U.N. tour didn’t add any weight to his image and neither did his next job — chairman of the Republican National Committee. He took the job, again at Nixon’s behest, and got caught in the firestorm of Watergate. Desperate to save the party, Bush steadfastly refused to criticize the president and rebuffed friends who believed Nixon was lying. The president, he insisted to Houston friend Baine Kerr at the time, “got me person to person and said, ‘George, I’m telling the truth’.” Bush later confided to his mother that he was devastated when the tapes revealed Nixon had been lying all along. “It tore him apart,” said his friend Robert Macauley, “because lying is not in George Bush’s book.”
Not tough: Bush’s image problems caught up with him for the first time when Gerald Ford passed over Bush for the vice presidency in 1974. Ford’s advisers believed Bush was not ready for the “rough challenges of the Oval Office.” Bush once more found himself as envoy to China. “You’ll be bored beyond belief,” Kissinger told him, then set about to make that true. The high-level talking between China and Washington was conducted in Washington. After scarcely a year, Bush once again responded to president’s plea, this time acceding to Ford’s request to take on the directorship of a battered Central Intelligence Agency. The issue was then — as it is now — covert operations, and Bush spent most of his time at the agency trying to mollify angry lawmakers, who nonetheless sharply restricted CIA missions.
Bush very nearly did not become vice president in 1980 because Reagan also doubted his toughness. Yet he ultimately cinched the job precisely because Reagan realized that Bush — unlike first choice Gerald Ford —
would gracefully and gratefully accept the subservience the post demands. Bush did not disappoint him. The candidate who had disdained Reagan’s supply-side “voodoo economics” swiftly reversed field and embraced not only Reagan’s tax policy but also his campaign opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, which were contrary to the ones Bush held. Longtime adviser Pete Teeley thinks Bush still pays a political price from the suddenness of his campaign conversion. Said Teeley: “People said, ‘Wait a minute. Doesn’t this guy have principles of his own?'” Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller thinks his man suffers politically from the inherent limitations of the job itself: “He’s emasculated by the office of vice president.”
Other politicians whose resumes are long on competence and short on stand-alone achievement nonetheless convey an image of toughness in public and on television. Bush has struggled to learn to do the same. He has tried for the past 10 years to master the medium, studying as if it were a foreign language. He has consulted voice and television coaches. He tried changing his glasses and even wearing contact lenses. But one coach, New York communications consultant Lilyan Wilder, suggests Bush’s difficulty is not cosmetic. “The main ingredient in projecting strength is your sense of yourself,” she said. She draws a comparison between the Bush family and the striving Kennedy clan. The Kennedy children were encouraged to speak about themselves, she notes, producing the eloquence of a John and Robert Kennedy. Bush, on the other hand, “was taught not to show emotions, not to let his own feelings dominate,” Wilder said. “When you express a thought in politics — whether it’s about Iran or the budget — you have to feel and show some passion, some involvement.” Bush’s tight, twangy voice is a common problem. Under stress, experts explain, the vocal cords tighten and the voice is higher than normal and lacks power.
Rare defiance: Bush seems particularly uncomfortable when he courts the right-wingers. Close friends were appalled to see him laud fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell and, posthumously, New Hampshire newspaper publisher William Loeb, who had mocked Bush’s very manhood in 1980. Friends say Bush’s fawning over the right didn’t sit well with Barbara Bush, either. Even Bush sometimes seems repelled by such “pragmatic” behavior. Early this year he refused to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference convention that he’s gone to in years past. To an emissary who telephoned to implore him to reconsider, Bush snapped, “F— ’em. I ain’t going. You can’t satisfy those people.” It was a rare moment of defiance for Bush. Yet rather than trumpet it, he explained his absence as a scheduling conflict.
That same ingrained reluctance to confront is likely to mark his 1988 presidential bid. As he runs the campaign gantlet and its debates, Bush will inevitably be called on to challenge his former boss. But he won’t. Instead, say his aides, he will offer such marginal departures from the Reagan agenda as increased federal aid to education. Bush rejects the notion that he has to do anything startlingly new or “gimmicky.” “You can’t live by . . . public perceptions,” says Bush. His son, campaign strategist George Bush Jr., adds, “Dad isn’t about to start pounding his chest.” Despite his ambition, Bush may never overcome his mother’s injunction against the Great I Am. But unless he learns to project his inner strength, voters may overlook his fairness and sense of duty — and see instead a lesser man.