The Bushes: A dynasty is born

Tradition: Though the Bushes avoid the term, "dynasty," with two presidents in eight years, and a sitting governor, they've become the nation's dominant political family.

January 28, 2001|By Todd J. Gillman

PRESCOTT Sheldon Bush made a fortune on Wall Street and spent 18 years in a low-key government job, moderating the town meeting in Greenwich, Conn. Then he made the leap to the U.S. Senate. His son became president. And his grandson took the same oath eight days ago.

Not a bad winning streak for one clan. Some families sell cars. Some raise cattle or own gas stations. Bushes run for office, and with two presidents in eight years, they've eclipsed the Kennedys as America's reigning dynasty.

The Bushes resist the word, even despise it, but historians say that with the first father-son pair of presidents since John and John Quincy Adams, and a sitting governor to boot, there's not much room for debate." `Dynasty' means something inherited," President George Walker Bush said last summer. "We inherited a good name, but you don't inherit a vote."

Seeds of the Bush dynasty were planted three generations ago by Bush's great-grandfathers, Samuel P. Bush and George Herbert Walker. Samuel was a steel and railroad industrialist, a charter member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, director of the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland and a close adviser to President Herbert Hoover. George was a founder of Brown Brothers Harriman, the oldest and largest private investment house on Wall Street, and one of a handful of influential men who urged New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt, distant cousin to former President Teddy Roosevelt, to run for president.

That was a move the Bushes came to regret, once what some viewed as the Democrat's big-government, traitor-to-his-class tendencies emerged. From them, the baton passed to Prescott, the first Bush to win high office, who captured a Senate seat in 1952 and became a frequent golfing companion of President Dwight Eisenhower's.

Two years after the elder Bush - who even insisted that his grandchildren call him "senator" - left office, his son George tried to follow him into the Senate. He failed but landed in the House before serving as United Nations ambassador, CIA director, vice president and president.

George's own son, George W., began planning to run for Texas governor soon after his father's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.

"It's the family business. It's just what they do," said Bill Minutaglio, a Dallas Morning News correspondent and author of "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty."

"He's constantly in his father's shadow. It's like something out of Shakespeare or the Greek epics. And it's funny because George W. - he's not the kind of guy who walks around with a skull in his hand saying, `Oh, woe is me.' He's not going to be the guy in the White House talking to the portraits. ... I don't think he's burdened by saying, `I think I'm part of a dynasty. Do I live up to the legacy and the standards?' "

"It's a family thing, after all," said James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership whose latest book is titled "The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America." "They may not talk in terms of dynasty or even think in terms of dynasty. But they're well aware of it."

The 13 colonies threw off the chains of monarchy, but Americans acquired no allergy to keeping power within a family. The Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, weren't even the first to hold simultaneous governorships, though they were the first since the Rockefellers led Arkansas and New York in the 1970s. The Adamses, Kennedys and Tafts provided the nation with presidents and other public servants, from congressmen to governors. The Longs ruled Louisiana for a time, and the Daleys remain a force in Chicago.

And there are plenty of lesser-known pedigrees, some of them hopelessly tangled. Robert Livingston, the Louisiana congressman who nearly became House speaker two years ago, has an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence. He also has a host of near and distant kinfolk who have served in public office, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, a niece of Teddy Roosevelt's; former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean of Livingston, N.J.; and the Bushes themselves.

Barbara Bush, the former president's wife and the new president's mother, is a descendant of Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president, and one of her grandfathers served on Ohio's Supreme Court in the 1920s. And what dynasty would be complete without blood ties to the Queen of England? A decade ago, a genealogist discovered that the Bush line dates to William the Conquerer, making the former president a 13th cousin to Queen Elizabeth.

The Bushes prefer not to speak of such things. As president, George Herbert Walker Bush turned down invitations to visit the tiny English village of Messing, in Essex, where in 1631 - 11 years after the Mayflower - a farmer named Reynauld Bush decided to leave for New England, establishing the American branch of the Bush family.

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