The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty

Friday, July 30, 2004

For more than a century the Bushes have been at or near the center of America’s public life—as friends of presidents, captains of industry, capitalists, senators, congressmen, ambassadors, governors, federal judges, and two American presidents. Although the Bushes lack the flamboyance of the Roosevelts or the enormous wealth of the Kennedys, they have surpassed those two great dynasties. There can be little question that the Bushes are now the most successful political family in American history. Yet precious little has been written about the Bushes in contrast to the hundreds of books about the Roosevelts and Kennedys.

To the extent that the family has been studied at all, it has emerged as a caricature. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has compared the Bushes with a sinister Mafia clan while at the same time declaring that they are a boring group of cutouts from a Brooks Brothers catalog. Michael Kinsley claims that he can find nothing serious about them. They are motivated, he claims, by a “preppy ethic that one should be serious about games and casual about life.” Journalist Evan Thomas of Newsweek is equally unimpressed. “The Kennedys flew too close to the sun. The Bushes just ask for more pork rinds.”

Why the caricature? Mystery often invites these kinds of labels. Unlike the Kennedys and even to some extent the Roosevelts, the Bushes have been famously disinterested over the years in speaking to the media about their family and the dynamics within the greater Bush clan. Time magazine has accurately dubbed them “the Quiet Dynasty” because they have quietly gone about their business, flying below much of the media radar.

The family’s distrust and at times disdain for the media has deep roots, running back some 50 years to when Prescott Bush was making his first bid for the U.S. Senate. That distrust runs particularly strong when it comes to writing about family matters.

The simple fact is, members of the Bush family don’t like to talk about themselves. The Bushes consider self-focus and self-analysis to be dangerously close to self-centeredness. In an era of media saturation and confessional politics, the Bushes have little interest in playing the game. Too much self-reflection, Jeb Bush says, “is self-absorption and it’s part of our problem in this country. There needs to be a limit to constantly reflecting on yourself. You should keep your head up, help others, and be well versed in the world around you. My dad is not going to write a memoir; it would make him feel really uncomfortable. That is an odd thing in America today. Bill Clinton just signed up for $10 million for the book rights, and he’ll love writing about himself. His editors will probably say, ‘You’ll have to cut it in half.’”

The Bushes also have a disinterest in publicity because they consider themselves to be the “un-Kennedys.” When they talk about themselves both in public and in private, they often use the Kennedys for comparative purposes.

Senator Prescott Bush maintained a cordial relationship with JFK during his political career. But he was quietly dismayed about the Kennedys’ focus on publicity. So while the Kennedys often tried to Waspify themselves and play the aristocrats, the Bushes migrated in the opposite direction. While the socially ambitious Kennedys were giving white-glove teas, the aristocratic Bushes were barbecuing in Texas.

Prescott Bush was also proud of the fact that the Bush boys, unlike the Kennedys, were expected to go out and earn a living in the marketplace. Work was the great democratizer, an experience unfamiliar to the Kennedys.

But the Bushes also differ from other prominent families in their intense sense of loyalty. Their keen sense of self-identity runs deeper than in just about any other American dynasty. The Kennedys, for example, cultivated close relationships with a host of advisers and friends and made them, as Garry Wills has put it, “honorary Kennedys.” The Bushes have no such appendages. Marlin Fitzwater, who served as a White House spokesman for President George H. W. Bush and remains a close family friend, noticed pretty quickly that even the closest of friends and advisers could not penetrate the family’s inner circle.

For the Bushes, blood runs thicker than politics or patronage. John Adams called it “family spirit,” a desire to promote the essence of our families. For the Bushes it is an idea deeply ingrained from their earliest youth. Longtime family friends note that they possess a strong tribal sense, a dynastic instinct, which drives them.

Children are brought up with stories about past generations and taught to respect their elders and their contributions to both family and country. When Prescott Bush served in the U.S. Senate, he insisted that his grandsons call him not Grandpa but Senator. They were also strongly encouraged to come to the Senate Gallery to watch the action, to listen, and to learn.

The family makes a conscious effort to pass along its heritage. Just as the young John Quincy Adams would listen in on his father’s conversations with Thomas Jefferson, the Bushes make a conscious effort to train future generations as history is being made. When George H. W. Bush was president, he saw to it that not only his children but also his grandchildren became familiar with the White House and saw the pageantry of the presidency.

Over the course of their history the Bushes have forged thousands of friendships and alliances with both individuals and families. The Bushes try as best they can to see that these relationships are passed from one generation to another. Sometimes they fail. But during the past century the Bush family has proven remarkably adept at handing down relationships. It is not unusual for a young Bush to visit a close friend of his grandfather’s to ask for help or a favor.

This has translated into an enormous universe of friends, allies, and supporters. More than any other single factor, this informal network has allowed the family to develop and construct the largest network of supporters inside the Republican Party. They form what could be called a Bush caucus, individuals of diverse backgrounds and differing political views who are united by their respect and affection for the Bush family. George H. W. Bush used it when he ran for president. George W. accessed it in 2000. Should Governor Jeb Bush choose to run for president in 2008, he will hope to tap into it as well.


The “D” Word

Ask Bush family members whether they consider themselves a dynasty and you are likely to get a strong reaction. Family members will grimace, roll their eyes, or simply shake their head.

“D and L—those two words, dynasty and legacy—irritate me,” says former president Bush. “We don’t feel entitled to anything.”

“Dynasty schmynasty,” says Jeb.

The Bush hostility to the very notion of dynasty runs deep because it runs contrary to the myth that they are self-made. Although they are certainly more self-made than the Kennedys and have a strong drive to prove their worth, family members don’t think twice about going to family and friends in their climb to the top.

Stephen Hess, in his fascinating work America’s Political Dynasties, defines “dynasty” as “any family that has had at least four members of the same name elected to office.” The Bushes, despite their protestations, are thus by his definition a dynasty, but it is unlike just about any other in American history.

The Bushes do seem to lack a strong sense of entitlement when it comes to their aspirations for leadership. Their motive appears to be much more strongly linked to vindicating the family and perpetuating the strong sense of identity that they have developed over the decades, namely, to serve through leadership. Aspirations also seem to be driven by a raison d’être that is as old as humankind itself: Do your brother one better.

The 2004 national election will not only shape the future of the country, it will likely determine the future course of the Bush dynasty as well. Since winning reelection for governor of Florida in 2002, Jeb Bush has been quietly talking to individuals around the country about a possible presidential bid in 2008, family members have reported. Should George W. win reelection, Jeb’s chance to run in 2008 will be seriously open to question. Will Americans consider a third Bush for the White House?

America’s other well-known dynasties—the Roosevelts, the Adamses, and the Kennedys—all have had their idiosyncrasies. Some have enjoyed seclusion, others theatrical recognition. Some have viewed public service as an opportunity, others more as a burden. But all to varying degrees have been top-down families.

It was Joe Kennedy who called the shots in his clan, determining for as long as he was alive which son would run for which office. He enforced a rigid hierarchy, giving special deference to older siblings. It was his eldest son, Joe Jr., whom he first saw as the politician in the family. When he died in World War II, the father moved on to the next eldest, John. When John was elected president, it was the father who pushed him to make his brother Bobby attorney general, then helped Ted become a senator. Even after Joe Kennedy passed away, this sense of hierarchy remained. In 1968 it was Bobby who ran for president, taking John’s place, even though his younger brother, Ted, had seniority in the Senate.

The Bushes in contrast operate more like a high-tech start-up. Instead of creating a line of dynastic succession, they follow a process of natural political selection. The young charges in the Bush clan are never told or pushed to run for office. George W. Bush is fundamentally, at his core, a rebel. His life before politics was guided in part by a deep vein of rebellion against his father and the expectations that he believed were weighing on him. Even during his rise to power, he often made decisions that his parents disagreed with. It is not too much to say that had George W. Bush followed the guidance of his parents, he might never have appeared on the national political stage. Once in the White House, he has continued in a manner to buck the family tradition. In a top-down dynasty, this political success would have been doubtful.

The Bushes are also unique in that, for this family, success needs to happen far from home in order to be seen as success. Fiercely and loudly competitive in sports, the family is also quietly competitive in the realm of business and career. Striking out on your own in a new land garners greater respect than staying close to home and inheriting the old man’s business. It is this impulse to establish themselves as self-made men that has led the last four generations of Bushes to stay clear of their father’s home and actively seek out opportunities elsewhere. Pres Bush left Ohio for Connecticut; George H. W. Bush left Connecticut for Texas; George W. and Jeb Bush stayed clear of Washington, D.C., where their father effectively lived from 1970 on.

This sense of individual accomplishments is motivated in part by the simple fact that the Bushes lack the fabulous wealth of dynasties such as the Du Ponts and Kennedys. Were future generations of Bushes to stay at home and try to live off the family wealth, it would dissipate rather quickly. While the Bushes have over the course of the past century run in the social circles of the super-rich, their own wealth has been comparatively limited. Criticism that they are “out of touch” and living in an insular world simply does not ring true; their level of wealth doesn’t make such insulation possible.

The Bush dynasty has been able to cultivate a mix of cooperation and competition among its members, which creates a strange dynamic in the father-son relationship. It is not simply coincidence that the last four generations of Bushes, while relying on their fathers’ network of friendships, relied very little on the fathers themselves. Indeed, when George H. W. Bush and later his son George W. sought their fortunes in the oil patch, they turned to uncles rather than their fathers for financial advice, capital, and support.

At the same time, the Bush women are a critical factor in the rise and success of the dynasty. Dottie Bush (wife of Prescott), then Barbara (wife of George H. W.), and later Laura (wife of George W.) are all strong women in their own ways. Bush marriages are often marriages of opposites, which serve to temper troubling qualities in the Bush men and encourage positive ones. American history is replete with examples of what Stephen Hess calls “the coupling of political genes.” But it is difficult to find an example of a member of the Bush-Walker clan marrying into another political family. It is equally rare to find a member marrying into big money.

Spurning luxurious living, which would have required a corporate career for their husbands rather than a political one, the women of the family play a vital role in keeping the men on an even keel. Each learned in her own way how to confront her husband about his shortcomings, limitations, or failures without compounding them or deflating him. It is also the Bush women who have the most influence on the next generation. The men are often too consumed and preoccupied with all of their ambitions and ventures to spend considerable time with their children. They are admired from a distance and respected close up. But it is the women who give their children the sense of duty, moral values, and ambition that propels them when they get older. One can imagine them giving the sort of advice to their children that another mother gave to her sons. “Aim at the stars,” Martha Washburn, a matriarch of the early-nineteenth-century Washburn political dynasty, wrote to them. “If you don’t hit anything, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your arrow go up and come back again.”

Aiming for the stars is an apt metaphor for Bush ambitions. The Bushes are raised to be risk-takers. It comes from seeing their fathers trying to realize their ambitions. But it also comes from their mothers, who fuel them to extend their efforts beyond where they want to go.

Clearly the responsibilities of the women in the family are immense. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, in most instances, the women in the family tend to move into the Bush-Walker clan rather than pulling their husbands into their own family orbit.

The Bushes are also curiously different from other American dynasties in that they have consciously chosen to take a path of inverse social climbing over the past half century. While the other great American families rose to aristocratic stature and maintained their position as select and unique, the Bushes have in many respects moved in the opposite direction. George W. Bush is a prime example of this movement. Coming from a privileged family with a great Eastern establishment lineage, fine social standing, and access to elite schools, he has rejected that part of his past. The disdain that George W. Bush and his brother Jeb have for America’s elite institutions is genuine and deeply felt. This is more than a public pose or an exercise in public relations. President George W. Bush draws his friendships and values from his youth in West Texas. The world of his grandfather and even at some level his father is not his.

Politically, this sort of devolution has allowed him to succeed where others might have failed. The Republican Party dominated by Eastern and Midwestern families like the Lodges and Tafts has long since passed. Since the Depression the party has found its zeal in Sunbelt America, in sons like Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. But it would be a mistake to dismiss George W.’s down-home persona as mere political posturing. Few if any of the new generation of Bushes, even those far from the public glare, are comfortable with the Eastern establishment, country-club ways of their ancestors.

The Bushes have a strong sense of identity with the past. Jeb and George W. learned to respect what their grandfather did in the U.S. Senate. George P. Bush, Jeb’s elder son, was able to witness events up close while his grandfather was president. But this is about more than having respect for the past. What the family has done tells younger members of the clan what is also expected of them. The Bushes have managed to strike a balance in which everyone is independent but still part of the whole.

So how have the Bushes succeeded in establishing themselves as the preeminent dynasty in American politics today? No doubt talent has something to do with it, as has their ability to make and keep alliances and friendships. They have also created an internal culture that helps perpetuate the family mission. But perhaps what separates them most from other political families is their sheer ability to adapt.

As the family has grown in influence and size, it has also become less close-knit. The days when Dottie Bush ran the clan, kept siblings close, and gently wove a sense of identity have faded. The divide between Jeb and George W., fueled by their mutual ambitions, would not have festered in previous generations. The current generation is not as close as previous ones, simply because they no longer have that sense of place their forebears did in Kennebunkport. For more than a century the Bushes have tethered their ambitions to the rise of America itself. As Americans migrated from the East to the Midwest, the Bush family was there. Even their politics have changed. Pres Bush was a Connecticut Republican—a moderate in the mold of President Eisenhower. His son was also a moderate conservative, to the right of Rockefeller but to the left of Reagan. George W. and Jeb are what could accurately be called Reagan Republicans. The family’s political evolution reflects, not coincidentally, the political evolution of the Republican Party.

For all their sense of place at Kennebunkport, they are equally at home in Texas, Florida, or wherever their ambitions may take them.

Assuming that they maintain their adaptability, it is likely that the Bushes will continue to be the most powerful family in American politics for the next decade or more. If Jeb Bush does indeed run in 2008, it is safe to assume that he will be the man to beat. In a world where political fund-raising drives media coverage, which in turn drives national attention, even popular figures in the GOP cannot help but feel that they are a small merchant shop up against Wal-Mart.

In the early days of the Kennedy administration, a joke made its way around the White House. “We’ll have Jack for eight years, Bobby for eight, and Teddy for eight. Then it’ll be 1984.” And yet for all the joking, all three sought the presidency and received public support. Americans may hate kings, but they love princes.