And So's Your Old Man

Politics and policy.
July 2 1999 3:00 AM

And So's Your Old Man

Why isn't George W. more like his dad?

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Stories about Republican President-designate George W. Bush invariably note that he has spent most of his life doing exactly what his father, former President George H.W. Bush, once did. This is not quite right. W. has spent most of his life doing exactly what his father did, but doing it worse. He is a chip off the old block, chipped.

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Poppy Bush starred at Andover. W. lazed his way through the prep school. The father motored through Yale in two and a half years, earning a Phi Beta Kappa key along the way. The son squeaked through old Eli. Poppy, like his own father Sen. Prescott Bush before him, captained the Yale baseball team and joined the secret society Skull & Bones. W. wasn't good enough to play ball for Yale. And though he joined Skull & Bones, he whiled away his nights with a much less refined group, the hard-drinking frat brothers of DKE.

The elder Bush enlisted in the Navy in 1942, became the service's youngest fighter pilot, flew 58 missions in the South Pacific, was shot down over enemy waters, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. The son also became a fighter pilot--for the Texas Air National Guard. He spent the Vietnam War flying "missions" over the Texas scrub.

W. followed his father's path into the oil business. Both abandoned New England for West Texas to strike it rich. Both relied on rich friends for a head start, but whereas the old man scored in his oilfields, the son struggled. George H.W. ran for Congress and won. George W. ran for Congress and lost. Come middle age, the father threw himself into public service: U.N. ambassador, China ambassador, CIA director. The son threw himself into baseball, as an executive for the Texas Rangers.

(Americans tend to forget the heroic life of President Bush. This was one of his unfortunate talents: He could make the extraordinary seem mundane.)

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

There are competing theories about what the son's pale imitation of a résumé signifies. The first, popular among Gov. Bush's fans, is that he's a late bloomer. It took him till his mid-40s to settle down, but now that he has he is making up for his lost years and surpassing the father he has so long trailed. After all, he has won a statewide race in Texas twice. Poppy lost both his statewide campaigns in Texas. Junior has already vanquished former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, the woman who ridiculed his father in 1988. Now he will topple Al Gore, half the team that battered Dad in 1992. The other, less charitable, theory surmises that just as W. has tried to equal his father and fallen short, so he'll find some way to choke in the presidential election.

It's far too early to take sides on this question or to draw grand psychological conclusions about how the father will shadow the son's presidential campaign. But there is another way to look at W.'s knockoff résumé: as a documentary of a generational change in American politics.

Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, author of America's Political Dynasties, notes that American political dynasties come in all sizes and flavors. In some, a family from humble origins uses political success to make itself rich and snooty. In some, a dynasty is stolidly consistent across generations. The Tafts of Ohio, for instance, have been steady Republican burghers for more than a century.

The Bushes started as a noblesse oblige dynasty. Prescott Bush began his (forgettable) service as a senator only after a long career as a gentleman banker. He viewed his political activity as an obligation, and he instilled that sentiment in his son George. Poppy was dutiful in pursuit of office, compiling the requisite experience almost mechanically, adding line after line to his résumé until America had no choice but to elect him president. Politics was always a duty, never a pleasure. (Remember the horror of hearing George Bush ingratiating himself with voters by calling them "my main man" and the like?)

But what began as noblesse oblige has morphed into something different during this generation. The Bushes are a microcosm of the transformation of Republican politics from Northeastern elitism to Western populism. The son's failure to match his father reflects this small-D democratization. Bush the elder came of age when New England Republicans led the party, and patrician manners were boons to a Republican. But in an era when a politician's ability to communicate trumps anything else and the balance of Republican power has shifted west, the preppy, Anglican ethos that defined the old man is suspect. (George W. Bush spent his 1978 congressional campaign excusing his father's membership in the Trilateral Commission.) In today's politics, the son's checkered résumé signifies success. By choosing DKE over Skull & Bones, drinking over studying, baseball over the United Nations, George W. compiled a record that suits our populist age.

W. has bartered the high-status accomplishments of his father for something more precious: regular guyness. He is warm and impulsive where his father was distant and calculating. Every story about the son applauds his democratic instincts, his ease with all kinds of people, his ebullience and physicality, his informality. His passionate Methodism contrasts with his ancestors' chilly Episcopalianism.

The Gore dynasty, oddly, has followed the opposite path. Al Gore Jr. has outdone his senator father in the calculus of political achievement, but the veep is stiff and awkward and dutiful in a way that his impulsive, backslappy dad never was. George W. Bush jokes that his father's idea of a perfect son is Al Gore Jr. This may be America's choice in 2000: the George W. Bush who isn't George H.W. Bush, or the Al Gore who is.

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