'First Son' Bush: Romping in Texas

October 10, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff

"First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty," by Bill Minutaglio. Times Books. 320 pages. $25.

"First Son" delivers two important products: a well-timed campaign biography of the latest Bush family presidential candidate and a Bush family history crucial for understanding the remarkable trajectory and evolving character of George Walker Bush.

With a style reminiscent of Tom Wolfe and Richard Ben Cramer -- even Hunter Thompson (without the gonzo quotient), Bill Minutaglio takes the reader on a romp through Texas politics, through a dynasty not quite competitive with the Kennedys and along for much of the rise of a man as famous for having one middle initial as his father was for having two.

An award-winning reporter for the Dallas Morning News, Minutaglio limns the barreling prose of Wolfe. Describing the fraternity ritual at Yale, Minutaglio writes of "The preppy voodoo iconography; the clubby medieval nods ... a certain muscled-up seriousness ... a perfectly codified level of Round Table Arthurian kinship." The reader may be a bit breathless but never bored.

At Yale, the reader sees a young man as devoted to protecting his father as he was to the usual beer-drinking and hell-raising of college life. George W. never could -- and never wanted -- to avoid the fact that everything he said or did might reflect in some harmful way against his father. This did not mean George W. was not his own man -- or trying to become his own man.

Minutaglio makes the pressure of being a Bush palpable, a controlled thrashing against unseen restraints. The pinnacle of tension comes with a drunken George W. challenging the old man to a "mano a mano" in the family home in Washington, knowing his father will be outraged to see his son drunk and, minutes before, driving. His brother Jeb intervenes.

"Barbara and I never tried to put any pressure on our five kids to be something they didn't want to be," the former president said cluelessly. But the pressures were ambient.

"This is not an easy family to grow up in," one of his cousins told the author. "All of us had to come to grips with the fact that there are enormously successful people in it and a lot of pressure to be a big deal," one of his cousins said.

The pressure was not all bad, of course, and may have allowed this "Roman candle" of the Bush clan to purge his demons. Nor was the pressure entirely unwanted.

George W. appears in these well-wrought pages as a man engaged in several races simultaneously: against the ambient expectations of dynasty; against his brother Jeb; against those outside the family who saw only privilege in the Bushes.

Perhaps because he resented this snobbery, George W. is described as hostile to introspection. And yet he anticipates his personal and political vulnerabilities and finds ways to minimize or overcome them. All those years of protecting his father seem manifest now as he refuses to comment on his errant youth or on the rantings of Patrick Buchanan, the hard right conservative who may bolt the GOP -- and take Bush votes with him.

The Texas-born son of George Herbert Walker Bush earned his spurs in many ways: at Andover and Yale, in the oil fields, as an owner of the Texas Rangers, as an F-102 fighter pilot in the Texas National Guard -- at the Harvard School of Business.

He told his parents he wouldn't be going there, thank you. And then relented in a way that illustrates his working-out of strict obedience to family expectations. Just wanted to prove I could go if I wanted to, he said.

He spoke disparagingly of the political life in these years but, just as he had done with graduate school, relented and ran. He disdained packaging and "feel good" politics but then neatly reinvented himself as the progenitor of "compassionate conservatism," a neat formulation of politics, not policy, or it seems.

Mr. Minutaglio leaves the reader to decide whether George W. runs for the presidency because he wants to prove he can win it as his father did or because he has a passion about putting his compassion and his conservatism at the service of his country.

C. Fraser Smith, a member of the editorial board of The Sun, has been with the paper for 22 years, covering City Hall, courts, the state legislature and, in the Washington bureau, the state congressional delegation. He is the author of a current biography of William Donald Schaefer published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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