Sunday, February 3, 2008

‘The Bush Tragedy’ By JACOB WEISBERG

George Walker Bush is the product of two family traditions, the Bushes and the Walkers. On one side is the familiar patriarch Prescott Bush (1895–1972), the decorous Republican senator from Connecticut, the New England WASP, the pennant-waving Yale man. On the other side of his father’s family stands a lesser-known patriarch, George Herbert Walker (1875–1953), the St. Louis buccaneer and raucous playboy.

The Bushes as we know them today are the product of a combination of — one might say the combustion between — the two very different families arrayed around these two dominant men. Because the family is private to the point of being obsessively secretive, its basic internal struggle has been largely obscured in favor of a familiar cliché: the old American upper class. But this isn’t the story of a happy, unified family. Drilling into the history of the Walkers and the Bushes, one hits layer upon sedimentary layer of conflict among brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandparents. The buried drama and forgotten ancestors are the beginning point for understanding George W. Bush, the roots of whose temperament are not as shallow as they appear.

Superficially, the Walkers and Bushes had much in common when they came together just after the First World War. Both families represented industrial fortunes from the Midwest transplanted into East Coast finance. Both were fanatical about sports and ferociously competitive, sharing a passion for baseball, golf, and tennis. Both came to worship side by side at Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, and at St. Ann’s in Kennebunkport, Maine, where George H. W. Bush’s parents, Prescott Bush and Dorothy Walker (1901–1992), were married in 1921. Endless connections to Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Harriman banking enterprises run through both families.

Yet an enormous amount is papered over by the simplification that George H. W. Bush was raised a Connecticut Yankee. The union of Prescott Bush and Dorothy Walker represented less a merger of equals than a crossing of lines: old fortune and new, Protestant and Catholic, Republican and Democrat. Prescott Bush descended from New England abolitionists. Dorothy Walker came from a Maryland family that owned slaves — a family secret that has been previously reported only in a small paper published in Springfield, Illinois. The more noticeable differences were resolved with relative ease. Both families soon became thoroughly Episcopal and Republican, and money ages quickly in America. But there endured a less visible conflict over attitudes, beliefs, and principles.

To put it simply, the value system of the original patriarch, George W.’s great-grandfather George Herbert Walker, was based on the pursuit of wealth. The one embodied by George W.’s grandfather Prescott Bush was an ethical ideal. The ramifications of this divergence were infinite and insurmountable. The Walkers behaved like the worst nouveaux riches: they were grand, greedy, extravagant, and focused on class distinctions. Prescott Bush’s clan was pointedly modest, frugal, and egalitarian. George Herbert Walker’s world was one of yachts, racehorses, estates, and servants. Prescott Bush couldn’t abide a yacht, was uncomfortable at clubs, and hated formal dinners, preferring the modestly genteel lifestyle of a suburban commuter. His social life was the Whiffenpoofs, the Greenwich town council, and golf.

The Walkers were gamblers; the Bushes conservators. The Walkers pursued winning and success; the Bushes sought to serve and lead. The Walkers viewed wealth as an end; the Bushes as a means. The Bushes embodied the old WASP embarrassment about being rich; they pretended they really weren’t, and treated the help as “family.” As Richard Ben Cramer puts it in What It Takes, whose early chapters contain the most insightful writing about them, the Bushes were known in Greenwich as being “not like that” — not the sort of people who lorded their wealth or station over their social and economic inferiors. Biographers find no shortage of tales of the early George H. W. Bush’s egalitarian decency; how he stood up for a Jewish kid being bullied at Andover, how he bonded with the enlisted men on his boat during World War II, how in Congress he wrote personal letters to crotchety constituents, turning them into devoted friends.

No comments: