Heir Pressure

Can The Charismatic Yet Lackluster George W. Fill His Father's Shoes?

First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, by Bill Minutaglio (Times Books). Cloth, $25.

NO TIES BIND like family ties, and in the case of Republican front-runner George W. Bush, they bind like a pair of unchanged tighty-whities after a week on the trail. Heir to generations of WASP noblesse oblige and a family tradition of gentlemanly involvement in public service, Dubya just has to succeed. Unfortunately, he's no gentleman, and his heart is troubled by Oedipal bitterness.

Of several current books about the Texas governor, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty is the most substantive. Bill Minutaglio is a special reporter for The Dallas Morning News, flagship of the giant Belo media conglomerate, which is securely in the Bush camp. Minutaglio strives for fairness and balance, and his effort indicates great industry among sources and in the public record. However, his book is mainly about personality, and, except by inference, First Son gives little idea what the policies of a George W. Bush presidency would be.

The inferences to be drawn are not reassuring. First Son accepts the candidate's wild-oats spin that the youthful past is past, but Gov. Bush still emerges as an angry man empty of any serious reason -- or qualification -- to be President of the United States, lacking, as was said of his father before him, "the vision thing."

As the title suggests, First Son is as much about the family -- especially the father -- as it is about the son. By comparison, the first son appears small, vain and rather nasty: less athletic, less disciplined, less thoughtful, less brave and less decent. Other than his father's painstakingly constructed political network, the son's only advantages are a gregarious personality and a greater pliability in adapting himself to the popular mood. Like Bill Clinton, Dubya is a "new politician."

Minutaglio takes the reader through Big George's arrival in Midland as a decorated fighter pilot at the start of the post-World War II Texas oil boom. He succeeded in business by dint of hard work, and tirelessly cultivated the fledgling Republican presence in Texas politics. The rest is history. The family expects the same of his first born son.

Always measuring himself against "the old man," Little George was bundled off to fashionable Camp Longhorn, to Andover and Yale, and to jobs with his dad's friends. During the Vietnam War, he leapfrogged a waiting list into a safe slot in the Texas Air National Guard. In each venue he demonstrated a gift for good times and companionability, while avoiding serious activities, scholarship or commitments. One gifted Andover classmate said of him, "He rose to a certain prominence for no ostensible, visible reason. First of all, he was an attractive guy, very handsome, he had a presence to him, he had a cool look. He had a way about him, and he fit easily in. You know the cool guys?"

Everywhere except at camp, he had to follow in the giant footsteps of his father, who really had walked the walk. The son's one distinguishing moment came in his macho defense in The New York Times of his Yale fraternity's practice of burning pledges with a branding iron -- well, maybe it was a red hot clothes hanger.

Dubya's achievements were lackluster even when he went out to make his own fortune in the oil patch, despite connections and family seed money. And make no mistake, this is a family with big money, and cozy access to much more. One great-grandfather was co-founder of Brown Brothers Harriman, with a Manhattan business address at One Wall Street, a home at One Sutton Place. Another was a steel and railroad industrialist, a leader of the National Association of Manufacturers, a charter member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank.

According to Minutaglio, connections from family baseball ownership in New York (the Mets) gave Little George not just his first chance to shine in public, but also his windfall. He converted his meager 1.8 percent stake in the Texas Rangers baseball franchise into a $14 million fortune. His main contributions were to sit in a box behind the Ranger dugout signing faux baseball cards he had printed up with his own picture and to sweet-talk neighborhood opponents of a new stadium.

A striking feature of First Son is that Bush's policies and accomplishments as governor occupy only a few paragraphs. Mostly he has carried forward ideas far-advanced by other Texas politicians before his election. The education reforms he vaunts in his television campaign ads, for instance, are the brainchild of Tom Luce, frontman for Ross Perot, that perennial Bush family nemesis.

Besides positioning himself for a run at the presidency, Little George's main political experience is described as having served his mother as Bush staff and campaign loyalty "enforcer" in the face of John Sununu's egomania. He sat at the right-hand of dirty tricks badboy Lee Atwater. He was also family liaison to hard-edged conservatives and to Christian evangelical leaders, developing close ties to (among others) defeated Arizona congressional candidate Doug Wead, with his Amway and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker connections.

In awe of Bush's indefatigable energy as a campaigner, First Son suggests that his 1994 upset of political heavyweight Ann Richards might be attributed to her being "tired" of the governorship in the venomous atmosphere of Texas politics. Equally, the source of Bush's energy might have been a simple thirst to avenge Richards' effective flaying of his father at the 1992 Democratic convention with the now famous line, "Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth." First Lady Barbara Bush, the true family cutthroat, was made literally nauseous watching Richards' speech on television, and had to leave the room.

Born in Connecticut, the cussin', drawlin', cowboy-booted Dubya makes more credible than his father ever did the sincerity of the Bush-Walker family incursion into Texas. The nominal transplantation was a farsighted stroke of cunning, but Big George could never really pull it off, except among the oil tycoons and their lawyers and bankers, who cared more about the depletion allowance and their wells in Kuwait than they did about vowels and the Alamo.

Richards and other hardball Texas pols knew and exploited this. Minutaglio sees more significance in the decision of Texas' Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to endorse Bush in his 1998 re-election campaign than in the incumbent's landslide victory.

For those following presidential politics, First Son is essential reading. It will provide fodder for Gov. Bush's friends and foes in the months ahead, and a road map to the obstacles that will be placed in his path. He's not inevitable.

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