America's new first family? The Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, seem destined to win

October 26, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Move over, Kennedys. A new American dynasty is about to emerge.

Down in Texas, Gov. George W. Bush is considered a mortal lock for re-election next week and the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination in 2000.

Younger brother Jeb Bush, meantime, seems headed for victory in the Florida governor's contest.

Come January, if the polls are right, 35 million people will again be living under a Bush first family, just six years after the nation's voters dumped George and Barbara for that couple from Arkansas.

Call it coincidence, a swing of the pendulum or a deliberate scheme. In any case, the result is the same: the revenge of the Bushes.

When George W. Bush sets his face a certain way -- lips pressed in a tight line that dips slightly at one end, halfway between a grimace and a frown -- he's a dead ringer for his dad.

That inherited look projects a resolute air, a hint of toughness. This is the man, after all, who once did hatchet duty in the Bush White House, telling the president's prickly chief of staff, John H. Sununu, that it was time to hit the road.

When the governor of Texas opens his mouth, he occasionally lapses into "Bushspeak," the staccato shorthand of sentence fragments for which his father is known. But his voice reflects his upbringing in the Texas cities of Midland and Houston. It's a genuine twang the elder Bush never developed.

A decade ago, after a lifetime of moves that tracked his father's (prep school at Andover, college at Yale, a race for Congress in Texas, a fling in the oil business), Bush broke away. He spent five years as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Then he leveraged that high-profile job into a successful run for governor in 1994.

'Like a Jack Kennedy'

Today, he's the most popular politician in the nation's second-largest state. Handsome, energetic and intense, he's reaching beyond the Republican suburbs for votes, into the barrios of San Antonio and other Democratic strongholds.

"He connects with people like a Jack Kennedy," said Lionel Sosa, a Bush media adviser. "They just love to touch him."

At 52, he is well-positioned to try to emulate John Quincy Adams, the only president's son to rise to that office. He'll make up his mind, he said, by early next year. The decision will revolve around whether he wants to put his 16-year-old twin daughters and his wife, Laura, through the scrutiny of life "in the bubble."

To deflect inevitable questions about his personal life, Bush has confessed to "youthful indiscretions," saying he drank too much and lived too fast during college and for a time afterward, but won't go into specifics. He does say that he's been faithful to his wife and that one too many mornings-after made him give up drinking for good at age 40.

"When you uncover some act of a fraternity boy, I'm going to say, 'Did it.' As I said, I've been irresponsible. I'm not trying to play like I'm anything other than a human being who went to Yale and enjoyed himself," he said.

Speculation that something in his past might keep him from entering the race for president spread last month after Bush told an Austin newspaper that the Monica Lewinsky scandal "has been a very depressing time for me."

He made that remark in response to a question about the factors that might influence his decision whether to run, but he insists there's nothing to the speculation. At the same time, he's resigned to more whispering from the political gossip mill.

"You can't nail the rumors coming out of Washington. I mean, I've never seen anything like it. You talk about Rumor Mill City. Stuff is filtering its way down here about me, my wife, my family," he said in an interview.

"A rumor's a rumor. I know the truth. And by the way, the truth has been sought after a lot since I've been in public life. If there's something major out there," it would have come out by now, he said.

If he runs, Bush expects embarrassing incidents to be unearthed from his younger days. But he said he's more concerned about the dumbing-down of public discourse than about his own ambitions.

Journalists, Bush said, should be asking baby-boomer candidates like himself the question, "Have you grown up?" Not, "Were you irresponsible?" but, "Are you mature now?"

"Otherwise, not many baby boomers are going to pass the early smell test," he said. "And that's reality."

As governor, Bush has enjoyed extraordinarily good relations with the Democratic-run Legislature. As a presidential candidate, he would offer himself as an antidote to the poisonous partisanship in Washington.

"The questions that anybody who would think about the presidency is going to ask are: 'Can an administration change the tone? Can one administration make a difference in the atmosphere?' " he said.

He deplores the capital's "I win, you lose" dynamic, which some trace to the 1988 election, when the late Lee Atwater, a Bush campaign strategist, showed how effective negative campaign tactics could be.

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