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Father Knows Best

Newsweek | November 12, 2006
Jon Meacham

George Herbert Walker Bush is a proud father; tears easily come to his eyes when he thinks of his children, all of them, and there is gracious deference in his tone when he talks about the son he calls, with emphasis, "The President." He is not given to boasting about or bragging on his family; he still hears his mother's voice warning him to avoid "the Great I Am," but several times over the past few years the 41st president has mentioned to visitors that the 43rd president has read the Bible in its entirety—not once, the father says, but twice, sticking two fingers in the air. If so, then the incumbent may recall the Song of Moses: "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will show thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee."

Ask thy father, and he will show thee: advice that, at long last, George W. Bush seems to be taking. Last week the president lost both houses of Congress and 16 more Americans died in Iraq, bringing the U.S. death toll to 2,844, with little discernible progress in sight. The war there has now lasted 44 months, the amount of time that elapsed between Pearl Harbor and VJ Day.

In a conference room filled with commemorative shotguns in his Houston offices last Wednesday, the father settled in to watch his son's post-election press conference on TV. Lunching on pizza, Bush Senior listened as George W. Bush said the loss of Congress was a "thumping," promised to "work with" a commission on Iraq chaired by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton, and announced that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was resigning. Within two hours the president was in the Oval Office with Rumsfeld and his replacement: Robert M. Gates, Bush Senior's CIA director and the president of Texas A&M University, the home of Bush 41's presidential library.

In Houston the phones started ringing, and Bush 41 staffers were pulled away from their pizza. Reporters were calling and e-mailing: would 41 talk about 43's shake-up? The answer was no, though two perfunctory statements were issued (one for the College Station Eagle and one, as the former president put it, "for everybody else"). Still, the reality spoke for itself. Dad's team was back—a remarkable course correction in the political life of the son and, quite possibly, in the life of the nation.

The American people, as politicians like to say, spoke last week—and spoke in no uncertain terms. The 2006 vote does not suggest an eagerness for a sharp left turn. It seems, rather, to be a plea for a shift from the hard right of the neoconservatives to the center represented by the old man in Houston. The re-emergence of Iraq Study Group voices such as Baker, Gates and Alan Simpson—all longtime friends of Bush Senior—is not unlike the entrance of Fortinbras at the conclusion of "Hamlet." These are 41's men, and the removal of Rumsfeld—an ancient rival of Bush Senior's from the Ford days—is a move toward the broad middle. The apparent triumph of pragmatism over ideology on Iraq was welcome news, at least to the public. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 67 percent favor Bush Senior's internationalist approach to foreign policy over his son's more unilateral course.

Did 41 help bring Gates to the Pentagon? The White House denies it, but, as a Bush friend told NEWSWEEK, "his fingerprints are all over this." (The friend refused to be identified for fear of alienating the family.) Given the mists of secrecy that envelop the 41-43 relationship, it is striking that the broad Bush circle believes he had a hand in the Rumsfeld succession: as an old CIA director, 41 rarely leaves any clues at all.

What the two Bushes discuss has long been a subject of endless guesswork. "In my experience, the two men spent most of their time talking about family matters, about sports, about fishing," former White House chief of staff Andy Card told NEWSWEEK. "They spoke to each other much more as father and son rather than as president and former president." Still, politics and policy do come up. "It would be wrong to assume that they never discuss Iraq, the state of play in the world and some personalities," Card said. "But it would also be wrong to assume that they discuss these things all the time. They are mutually deferential to one another."

The Bush family psychodrama is the stuff of perennial speculation but little information, since the two people who know the most about it—the father and the son—speak of it so infrequently. Yet its complexity, its blend of love and rivalry, is rich analytical territory. (Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, an unlikely e-mail pal of 41's, has spent so much time contemplating the generational drama that she ultimately published an excellent book on the topic, "Bushworld"; it ran to 544 pages.) In perhaps the most revealing on-the-record remark about their relationship made by either man, the son once told Bob Woodward that his father is "the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

As the war has gone badly and the years have ticked by—2003, 2004, 2005 and now much of 2006—the senior President Bush, the man who managed to capture just 37 percent of the vote in 1992, has grown in stature. Raising taxes and capping domestic spending in 1990, refusing to exceed the United Nations mandate after expelling Saddam from Kuwait, and deftly managing the end of the cold war and the reunification of Germany loom ever larger. Given the midterm reaction to the son's inattention to alliances and to the details of postwar Iraq, it is clear that many Americans are nostalgic for the skills and sensibility the first President Bush brought to the Oval Office—a reversal of historical fortune that has come, sadly for the father, at the expense of his son.

In terms of foreign policy, it is true that 41 was more a realist than an ideologue—the prose to Reagan's cold-war poetry. And it is also true that the son would prefer to be remembered not as a second George Bush but as a second Gipper—a big, transformative president who confronted a mortal threat to the nation with steely soul and soaring words. Hence, it seems, the innate appeal of the neoconservative argument, advanced in part by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney (a 41 figure who got neocon religion after 9/11), to strike Iraq in a noble bid to transform the Middle East.

In classical terms, the tragic figure is someone whose inherent flaws are evident from the beginning. In the wake of September 11, we knew our president's virtues. He was resolute, disdainful of dissent; like his hero Winston Churchill, Bush dismissed critics he believes spin around with "the alacrity of squirrels." But we also knew Bush's vices. Resolution can harden into stubbornness; a refusal to listen to criticism can breed isolation.

Hindsight, of course, is a luxury, and life often appears clearer in retrospect than it does at the time, in the arena. The bet Bush has made in the Middle East is a grand one, and history is made, and people are freed, by grand gambles. The American Founders gambled with Britain in 1776; Churchill gambled with Germany in 1940; Reagan gambled with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The line between triumph and tragedy is a thin one, and things may yet work out.


Or so we must believe. Faith is important to the Bushes, always has been, and to return to the Bible the president knows so well, there is a New Testament verse familiar to patrician politicians from Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin to Prescott and George H.W. Bush: "To whom much is given," the Scriptures say, "much is expected." Much has been given to George W. Bush, and now, in the twilight of his term, as his father's men step in, he has been given another great gift: one more chance to set things right.

 

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