WASHINGTON – As the Watergate scandal was unfolding, taking down the Nixon presidency, George W. Bush was in the liberal bastion of Massachusetts. He was attending Harvard Business School, on a campus that was not friendly to Republicans, much less the son of the Republican National Committee chairman.
“I kept my head down, studied hard, and generally did not discuss politics,” Bush writes in his new book about his father, George H.W. Bush. “One exception came when I visited Dad’s only sister, my energetic and spirited aunt Nancy, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. We would play nine holes at her favorite golf course and commiserate about the putrid swamp that George Bush had waded into.”
That swamp, in fact, became the family business.
Bush’s book, “41: A Portrait of My Father,” is largely a warm recounting of a son’s take on his father’s life – what Bush calls a “love story” -- that throughout references the family’s ties to New England.
Bush writes that he was encouraged to pursue the book after meeting with Dorie McCullough Lawson, the daughter of historian and author David McCullough.
“One of my father’s great regrets in studying John Adams is there was no serious account of him by his son John Quincy Adams,” Bush says she told him about the nation’s only other father-son presidential pair. “For history’s sake, I think you should write a book about your father.”
(In fact, John Quincy Adams did start writing a biography on his father, portions of which were later published).
There are few new revelations in Bush’s book, although it does elaborate on his decision to invade Iraq – something many have suggested was done partly to complete something his father didn’t.
“I was not trying ‘to finish what my father had begun,’ as some have suggested. My motivation was to protect the United States of America, as I had sworn an oath to do.”
Bush writes that he never asked his father for advice – “We both knew that this was a decision that only the president can make,” – but he says they did talk about it over Christmas 2002 at Camp David.
“You know how tough war is, son, and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war,” Bush writes his father told him. “But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.”
Much of the book is recounting his father’s life, from the senior Bush’s birth in Milton, Mass., to his years at Phillips Academy in Andover, to his long political career.
He refers to the bitter feelings about seeing his father falter in a New Hampshire presidential debate against Ronald Regan. The future president, when moderators tried to cut him off, uttered the now-famous line, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” (As Bush writes, Reagan referred incorrectly to moderator Jon Breen – not Green -- of the Nashua Telegraph, but Reagan’s remark went over well with the audience and Reagan eventually won the nomination).
It was, Bush writes, “the first time I experienced the unique brand of pain that the child of a public figure feels.”
Bush rehashes several aspects of the 1988 presidential campaign, when his father faced off against then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis – a man Bush refers to as “the somewhat uncharismatic governor of a midsized liberal state.”
He writes about the famous Willie Horton ad, which was used to damage Dukakis by tying him to the convicted murderer who was released through a Massachusetts furlough program and then raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé.
Bush raised Horton frequently during the campaign, but it was an independent group that ran ads featuring him.
“Dad’s campaign had nothing to do with that ad,” Bush writes. “As a matter of fact, it infuriated George Bush. He would never play the race card. He had run ads criticizing the furlough program, which was a legitimate policy issue, but he had never shown a photo of Horton or otherwise alluded to Horton’s race.”
“In retrospect, the Horton controversy was a harbinger of a new political phenomenon: independent groups trying to influence elections,” Bush adds.
Bush several times mentions his 2004 Democratic opponent, John F Kerry, the former US Senator from Massachusetts who is now Secretary of State. He writes that he lost a debate to Kerry for “grimacing,” and compares it to how his father was criticized for a debate performance for checking his watch.
“It is a sign of the shallowness of the presidential debate process that their most memorable moments have centered not on issues but on gestures or quips,” Bush writes.
There is only a fleeting reference to Mitt Romney, Bush notes that his father was featured in a Newsweek cover story headlined, “George Bush: Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’”
“Twenty-five years later, Newsweek ran a cover story headlined, ‘Romney: The Wimp Factor,’” Bush writes. “Apparently only Republican candidates are wimps in their eyes.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.