Politicians are never sufficiently prepared for the treachery of the snows of New Hampshire. George Bush senior had to learn the hard way. As the president aspiring to a second term, he watched the rise of the ultra-conservative right during the crucial primary in February 1992, heralding his defeat by Bill Clinton in November. Eight years later, George Bush junior would suffer a worse humiliation at the hands of the New Hampshire voters. It was the eve of the primary and “Poppy” thought he was doing the right thing by coming along to help his son; on the stage, in the freezing cold, “W” in boots and jacket was finishing his lacklustre speech, flanked by mum and dad. “Vote for him, he’s my son, he’s a great boy!” shouted the former President of the United States. As an electoral slogan, you could do better. Before giving up the White House, Bill Clinton, the self-made-man, commented on the CV of the new Bush candidate with two killer phrases: “My dad was President and I managed a baseball club.”
The next day, John McCain, the iconoclastic senator, the Vietnam hero who revived politics in America, won the republican primary in New Hampshire. In place of the heir to the Bush dynasty, the electors in the small key-state of New England chose the firebrand. George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, took the blow. To rectify matters at the next primaries, he did what he had learned to do successfully for his father during the 1988 campaign and which had been absent in 1992: court the religious right and strengthen his base. Before the South Carolina primary, without even a hint of shame, he agreed to give a speech at Bob Jones university, the centre of Christian fundamentalism, considered unacceptable by some. And above all, “Poppy” was kept quiet.
Two years later, now firmly installed in the Oval office, George Walker Bush, 43rd President of the United States, confronts once more, over Iraq this time, the ambiguity of his relationship with the 41st, George Herbert Walker Bush. “43” and “41”, as they are nicknamed at the White House, where the shadow of “41” remains strong, not least because of the number of former colleagues inherited by “43” (a net improvement on “Big George” and “Little George”, as the father and son were called in Texas, during the oil boom). The relationship, today, is more balanced and “43” is no longer worried about appearing with “41”, spending the weekend playing golf, fishing or sailing – not forgetting the Sunday morning service – as on 4th August at Kennebunkport, the sacrosanct summer get-together for the Bush clan in Maine. What started as a tragedy became a victory as September 11th, followed by the war in Afghanistan, wiped away all the doubts lingering from the post-election fiasco of November 2000 concerning the legitimacy of George Bush II and established him as a leader in his own right, his popularity curve matching that of George Bush I after the Gulf war.
Yet the political destinies of father and son are set to meet once more. Bush II finds himself facing the man who so marked the presidency of Bush I: Saddam Hussein. Criticised for not having pursued the dictator he had chased out of Kuwait in a lightning war all the way to Baghdad back in 1991, eleven years later, Bush senior looks on as his son is caught in a tug of war between those who encourage him to finish the task his father didn’t see to the end and those who beg him to delay. Will Bush senior be content to watch? Will he give his son advice? Will he try and influence him though his former advisors? Will the two men clash over the opposing positions with “Silver Fox” – Barbara Bush – as the umpire? It’s the best-kept secret in Washington, where, although it’s common knowledge that “41” and “43” talk regularly, almost every day according to some, people are much less talkative about the content of these conversations. “Political psychodrama at the highest level, pure Shakespeare”, states one of the New York Times’s most acerbic right-wing writers, William Safire.
Despite what unites them, the heritage of a large political and financial East Coast family and genuine affection, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are very different politicians. “George W. thought hard about his father’s defeat in 1992 and drew lessons from it. He was determined not to commit the same errors”, stated a Texan observer about the family. Bush II did everything possible to lose the “wimp factor” and the famous silver-spoon image of the Bush family. He was born in New Haven, the domain of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but it was in Texas, where the family moved when he was two years old, that he grew up. “W” cultivated his Texan roots and accent more zealously than his own identity. Bush I symbolised upper America; Bush II would be lower America. Bush I spent his holidays in the cool of swanky Kennebunkport; Bush II moved the White House to Crawford, in the scorching Texan desert, where he held press conferences on a stony path, wearing jeans, a big belt, and Texan boots, with the inevitable White House podium in front of him and the less inevitable pick-up parked behind – with rifles visible in the cab. That’s another difference: Bush I had returned his NRA (National Rifle Association) card after the Oklahoma City bomb attack as a protest against the complacency of the gun lobby towards extreme-right militia. Bush II had authorised his justice minister, John Ashcroft, to make a huge concession to the NRA by interpreting the second amendment of the Constitution as the right to carry a gun.
“George W. is simply more conservative than his father, no doubt in part because he is less experienced”, observes Bill Minutaglio, biographer of the current president (First Son, George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, Times Books 1999). This lack of experience is especially noticeable in the military and diplomatic fields: a pilot in the US Navy during the Second World War, the first President Bush was wounded in combat, whilst his son, a pilot in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam war, had never been under fire; later, the former’s activities in the oil business and then the public sector (ambassador to Peking, ambassador to the UN, director of the CIA) kept him in touch with the rest of the world. George W. arrived at the White House having only visited half a dozen countries. But his son saw that what had been his father’s strength, his passion for foreign policy, had also been his downfall, since eighteen months after winning the Gulf war, he lost the election in the wake of an economic crisis. Less intellectual, more pragmatic, Bush II learnt from the experience of Bush I – as seen for example during the visit of his friend Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, last April, to the Crawford ranch – but he isn’t afraid to rub people up the wrong way. Not only has he not developed the special relationship his father had with Gulf regimes, but his unfailing support for Israel for the last two years has enabled him to get close to the American Jewish community in a way few Republican presidents have, under the watchful eye of the religious right, which for now they find to their advantage. And whilst the father had assembled a solid international coalition before launching the Gulf war and made sure to spend time at least looking like he was “consulting the allies”, the son has a reputation for unilateralism.
More populist, less cultivated, more political: he seems more like the heir to Reagan than to Bush. Yet whenever “W” tries to escape the shadow of his father, circumstances hold him back. It is to a friend of Bush I, one of his most loyal, that he owes his salvation when the presidential election turned sour in November 2000. Despatched to Florida by his former boss, James Baker took things in hand and didn’t stop until they were victorious, five weeks later. Dick Cheney for Vice-President? The idea came from Bush I, who was very impressed with him as Secretary for Defence. It is generally thought that Dick Cheney is one of the most powerful vice-presidents in American history. When he entered the White House, Bush II was determined to concentrate on domestic policy: education, restarting the economy by reducing taxes, “compassionate conservatism”: this was shattered on September 11th.
The tragedy enabled him to build the link that was missing with the American people. The connection was made. Directly, between him and the nation, without chaperones, without James Baker or Dick Cheney. Yet, paradoxically, it also put him back on the rails of his father’s presidency. “Trapped by history”, said a family friend. The State of the Union speech given on 29 January 1991 by Bush I halfway through his term, in the middle of the Gulf war, could have been given by Bush II this year: men and women who “bravely fight to bring America, the world and future generations a just and lasting peace”, “indispensable leadership”, an America who takes on “the hard job of freedom”, and “a just and moral cause”. On the stage, Mrs Bush (Barbara, known for her work on literacy – her daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, also known for her work on improving literacy) was seated with Mrs Colin Powell. “We will soon have economic growth”, promised the president. But growth would have to wait until Clinton’s presidency, and the aura of victory in the Gulf would rapidly dissolve with the economic difficulties, controversies over tax increases and criticism over unfinished business in Baghdad. In a striking parallel, George W. Bush is also seeing his popularity drop in the face of accounting fraud scandals, sluggish growth, falling stock-market yields… and the uncertainties of Afghanistan, with Bin Laden still at large.
Saddam Hussein resurfaces. In Washington, dissent is out in the open, which Bush I would never have allowed. On one side are the “hawks”: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld (who was in office under president Nixon and president Ford, not the first Bush presidency), Paul Wolfowitz, the Reaganite Richard Perle, die-hard conservatives. On the other, the “doves”: Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Larry Eagleburger, the first president Bush’s men. So, Bush I against Bush II? “41” against “43”? Nothing so simple. Those who know them “don’t doubt for one second” that the current president still consults his father on world affairs. The recent “dove” appearances in the media, they speculate, could be backed by the father with the son’s agreement. Bill Minutaglio suggests we should not underestimate the father-son relationship in a dynasty as strong as the Bush one. “George W. is not a visionary”, he stresses, “so, at his level, what pushes him is his stature in the family, in relation to his father, in relation to his grandfather [senator Prescott Bush]. It’s an intensely competitive family. He measures himself against his father in everything he does, and always has. He is the eldest son, he looks like his father, he has the same name, he did the same degree, he wanted to be a pilot like him. But, until now, the father has been more successful: more intellectual, richer, serving the country for longer. George W. won’t be happy until he has been re-elected for a second term”, where his father failed. Or, adds the biographer, “when he has overthrown Saddam”.