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Archive for Thursday, September 23, 1999

BUSH

September 23, 1999

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— William F. Buckley, having had the experience with President Nixon, says few pleasures are as intense as seeing a president take notes while you talk to him. The pleasure-drenched intellectuals and policy experts who have been to Austin to advise George W. Bush report that he listens to them and likes what they say and (therefore?) is a formidable fellow.

But the question remains: Is he what Franklin Roosevelt seemed to be when he first sought the presidency, or is he what Roosevelt actually was? Walter Lippmann's famous misassessment was typical of the intelligentsia's condescension toward FDR: "A pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president." FDR proved to be much more layered, devious, subtle and tough than anyone anticipated.

For voters trying to take Bush's measure, help is coming to bookstores. In "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty," Bill Minutaglio of The Dallas Morning News provides evidence that Bush has more fiber than his famous affability might suggest.

Minutaglio's deft and convincing portrait of the "combustible" and "caffeinated" Bush, with his occasional "bantam rooster strut" and "chinny defiance," suggests that Bush's self-definition began at Yale in the 1960s. There he reacted strongly against what he calls the "heaviness" of that place and time. By "heaviness" Bush means the amalgam of guilt and arrogance characteristic of America's elites then. "There was," Minutaglio quotes Bush remembering, "this whole period of 'Well, I'm going to dedicate my trust fund to whatever, whatever, whatever,' and 'You're at fault."'

Days after his father lost the 1964 Senate race against Ralph Yarborough, one of the most liberal senators, the first son, walking on campus, introduced himself to Yale's leftist chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr., who said, "Oh, yes, I know your father. Frankly, he was beaten by a better man." Says Minutaglio, "For the next thirty-five years, that encounter with Coffin would resonate in Bush's mind."

Bush's protracted recoil against "intellectual arrogance" continues: His in-house intellectual is his close adviser Karl Rove, a history buff and political theorist who has no college degree. Minutaglio calls him "a thinking man's anti-intellectual."

In Minutaglio's portrait of the presidential aspirant as a young man, Bush is seen at the Harvard Business School wearing his Texas National Guard flight jacket, and chewing tobacco. Back in West Texas he sleeps on a broken bed frame lashed together with neckties, and uses Scotch tape to attach the tassels to his loafers. Yet outward casualness covers considerable discipline.

Bush's upward mobility in politics only seems effortless. He deftly deflected rival Republicans from running for governor. He defeated Gov. Ann Richards when she had a 60 percent approval rating. He won re-election in a 68 percent landslide. He has dominated this Republican presidential nomination season. As an Andover classmate remembered him at school, "He rose to a certain prominence for no ostensible, visible reason."

But Bush's long apprenticeship in politics began when he campaigned in his father's losing Senate race against Lloyd Bentsen in 1970. Eight years later the first son lost a rough campaign for Congress in West Texas, where, Minutaglio suggests, the risk-taking ethos of the oil business may have contributed to the wastrel ways of his young manhood.

The headmaster of Bush's private secondary school in Houston aspired to give students "a sense of style," meaning "the individual's capacity to attain his goal without wasteful and irrelevant effort." At Bush's Andover graduation the headmaster urged graduates to "take with you a sense of style," a "distinction in manner and bearing."

FDR, a virtuoso of charm and guile, was more a manner than a mind, but in politics, manner -- style -- can be a kind of program. Bush seems to know this.

In the current issue of American Heritage, Richard Brookhiser, journalist and historian, notes that from 1901 to 1921 three authors held the presidency -- Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson -- and the last two were former professors. The country chose among the three of them in the 1912 election. But such intellect in politics is rare, and perhaps should be. Brookhiser says that the three philosophers who followed Washington in the presidency -- Adams, Jefferson, Madison -- served a total of five terms, only one of which, Jefferson's first, was successful.

"Perhaps," Brookhiser writes, "the wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself." That Bush understands this is suggested by Minutaglio's book, and by the contented purring of the intellectual pilgrims to Austin.

-- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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