March 29, 2004, Monday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
BOOKS OF THE TIMES; The Bush Family: Father, Son, Freud and Oedipus
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Portrait of a Dynasty
By Peter Schweizer
and Rochelle Schweizer
Illustrated. 574 pages. Doubleday. $27.95.
In their fascinating new book, ''The Bushes,'' Peter and Rochelle Schweizer depict former President George H. W. Bush as being proud but somewhat baffled by his son George W.'s rise to power. ''You remember when your kid came home with two A's -- and you thought she was going to fail,'' they quote him saying. ''That's exactly what it's like.''
The authors portray the current and former presidents' relationship as a conflicted one, animated in equal parts by love and competition, and by careful study, on George W.'s part, of his father's successes and failures. Less a conventional family saga than a study in Oedipal competition and Freudian anxiety of influence, the book sheds new light on the very different presidencies of ''big George'' and ''little George,'' as one relative calls them.
The Schweizers write that the two men sometimes speak several times a day and that they often discuss policy matters but only at the behest of the son. Of George W.'s decision to go to war against Iraq, they write that his father shared many of the concerns of his own former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who in the summer of 2002 warned of the dangers of military intervention in Iraq and a ''virtual go-it-alone strategy.'' They write: ''As the prospects of war continued to grow throughout 2002, family members could see the former president's anguish. When his sister Nancy Ellis asked him about the war, he responded: 'But do they have an exit strategy?' ''
In writing this book, Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of a hagiographic book about Ronald Reagan and the cold war, and his wife, Rochelle Schweizer, a writer and media consultant, talked with members of three generations of the Bush family, including former President Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, as well as many family friends.
The strengths and weaknesses of the resulting book reflect their heavy reliance on these sources. On one hand the book provides illuminating insights into the internal dynamics of the Bush family dynasty and the often intense rivalries among Bush men while charting the rightward evolution of the family's politicians. On the other hand it tends to serve up Team Bush's point of view on controversial events like the Florida election standoff, instead of providing a more balanced and analytic context.
Members of the usually media-wary Bush family seem surprisingly unguarded in talking to the authors, and some of their remarks could well disconcert a White House in campaign mode or ratify opponents' worst fears. For instance the Schweizers quote one unnamed relative as saying that George W. Bush sees the war on terrorism ''as a religious war'': ''He doesn't have a p.c. view of this war. His view of this is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.''
The Schweizers write that with the war on terrorism, family members saw ''the Walker genes literally coming out in him,'' referring to the Walker side of his family -- ''aggressive risk-takers who wanted to win at all costs.'' They describe what they call George W.'s ''addictive personality,'' which ''required him to fix in on something and maintain a hold on it.'' And they quote a relative who says: ''With terrorism, he's like a dog with a bone. He won't give up on it.''
For that matter, the authors argue that the post-9/11 demands of office were a perfect match with George W.'s personality: ''Because of his addictive personality, it was the sort of presidency that suited him well. Unencumbered by domestic issues, with their detail and ambiguity, he was now free to speak naturally in a way that reflected the way he viewed the world: black and white, good and evil. Life had been for him a struggle to conquer those things that had a bad hold on him; the struggle between good and evil was something that he had experienced in his own life.''
In terms of chronicling the main events in its subjects' lives, this book relies heavily on earlier biographies like Herbert S. Parmet's ''George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee'' and Bill Minutaglio's ''First Son,'' in addition to Barbara Bush's two memoirs, George H. W. Bush's 1999 collection of letters and George W. Bush's largely ghost-written 1999 campaign autobiography. What this volume does most persuasively is flesh out stories and relationships already known or surmised by the reader.
It has been reported, for instance, that the Bushes long regarded the methodical Jeb -- not his feistier and initially more wayward older brother -- as the family's political comer. In this book the Schweizers tell us that on election night in 1994 (when Jeb lost the race for governor of Florida, and George W. went on to victory in Texas), the governor-elect talked to his father on the phone and afterward complained to his Aunt Nancy: ''It sounds like dad's only heard that Jeb lost. Not that I've won.''
The Schweizers add that after that election, relations between the brothers grew strained, and that they would often go half a year or more without speaking. It was a rift that would really heal only during the Florida election standoff, when Jeb, as the longtime family friend and counselor James A. Baker III put it, ''did whatever we needed'' without worrying about ''his own political future.''
Over the decades many Bush men tried to follow their fathers' path into business and politics, but as the Schweizers point out, a drive for independence was a catalyst as well: ''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.''
In the course of this volume the Schweizers enumerate many other traits shared by Bush family members, including a tendency to live their lives in chapters (George W., for example, making a clean break with his heavy-drinking past); an emphasis on self-control, coupled with an unwillingness to show weakness; and a need to personalize both alliances and enemies (as exemplified by the two Georges' highly personal detestation of Saddam Hussein).
By the end of this family history, however, the reader comes away with a sense less of the similarities between George W. Bush and his father, than of their differences, in temperament, governance and attitudes toward religion, diplomacy and decision making. Not only did Bush the younger look to patriarchal figures like Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham for inspiration, but he also determined not to repeat what he saw as his father's mistakes.
If his father lacked the ''vision thing,'' he would preside over a more ideologically driven administration. If his father was a committed internationalist, he would be willing to go it alone. And if the first gulf war had failed to dislodge Mr. Hussein, then the 2003 Iraq war would finish him off.
As Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman sees it, George W. almost consciously tried to be different from his father from Day 1: ''You might say it was almost exaggerated,'' the Schweizers quote him saying. ''I don't know why because the father and son were very close. But George W. seemed to want to be defined differently from the beginning.''
One of the few personal details missing from this revealing book is just how the former President Bush feels about his son's trying so hard not to walk in his footsteps.
Published: 03 - 29 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 8