A father's son, but his own man

Policy: Even as the president follows the elder Bush's lead, he works hard to avoid his mistakes.

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On New Year's Eve 1990, 17 days before launching Desert Storm, then-President George Bush wrote a letter to his four children, one of them a future commander-in-chief, conveying the essence of what he wanted them to know about the coming war against Saddam Hussein.

"I look at today's crisis as `good' vs. `evil.' Yes, it is that clear," the elder Bush wrote, bracing them for a war that, if it went badly, could bring devastating political consequences, even impeachment.

Over the years, much of the values, motivations and grit of the two Bush presidencies has been passed like a baton between two world leaders a generation apart, in a relationship that combines examples to follow and bitter lessons learned.

The younger Bush followed his father through Andover and Yale, into the oil business and politics, and then into the White House, where the elder Bush's influence is rarely spoken of but can be inferred from key decisions, friends of both men say. Last week, he followed him into a war with Iraq fought under different circumstances but essentially for the same reasons.

George W. Bush's Texas accent and swagger are such a contrast to his father's Eastern manner and patrician modesty that he's often seen as deliberately punching out from his father's shadow, determined to act differently.

But those who have known or studied him see a son still somewhat in awe of the father who got him out of youthful scrapes, guided him in his early years in the energy business and, years later, brought him into his political life as a trusted troubleshooter.

Historic actions

Passages from the father's New Year's letter could have ended up, with little editing, in the speech the current president gave Monday, when he delivered an ultimatum for Hussein to leave power.

"How many lives might have been saved if appeasement had given way to force earlier on in the late '30s or earliest '40s?" the elder Bush wrote. "How many Jews might have been spared the gas chambers, or how many Polish patriots might be alive today?"

Speaking to the nation Monday, his son said: "In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth."

The elder Bush's decision to fight after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 marked a huge departure from recent history: He launched the first major war on an Arab state, the first major American military engagement since Vietnam. He was determined to prevent outbreaks of aggression after the just-ended Cold War.

Following his father's lead, his son has launched a war that is equally historic: the first pre-emptive American attack to destroy an enemy regime, an attack that he justifies on the basis of new terrorist threats to a nation that until Sept. 11, 2001, had never suffered a major attack from abroad on its mainland since the early days of the republic.

Having watched his father move ahead in the face of congressional opposition, street protests and a series of last-minute diplomatic obstacles, the son has done likewise: He spelled out the conditions that would let Iraq escape war, and when they weren't met, "never flinched, never blinked," said a Western diplomat who knows both well.

"It's just a rock-solid approach to what has to be done," the elder Bush said with pride last week.

Mindful of the father's vision for the aftermath of war, the president has articulated one of his own. The father launched a Middle East peace process that for the first time brought Israel into direct talks with all its front-line foes. The son wants to use a liberated Iraq as a springboard for encouraging reform, democracy and suppression of terrorism throughout the Middle East.

One-upmanship

George W. Bush chafes at the notion of family redemption in toppling a hated man who outlasted his father's presidency, but some who have worked with or studied him see a closing of the circle on Hussein or maybe even one-upmanship.

"I'm convinced at some level this is personal," said Doug Wead, who worked closely with the younger Bush in his father's 1988 presidential campaign and later served in the first Bush White House.

"There is an instinct to do what your father couldn't do," said Wead, the author of a book about the children of presidents.

"I really do believe that some part of what he's doing now is guided not just by advice but has to do with understanding his father's role in history," said Bill Minutaglio, author of First Son, a biography of the younger Bush.

"He's going to get Saddam Hussein and enter history in a bolder, greater way than [his father] did."

The communication between the 41st and 43rd presidents is closely guarded, although the Bush family is close, mutually supportive and fiercely loyal.

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