FIRST SON:George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty.
384 pages. $25.00.
This is a book much more interesting than its subject. Indeed, even Governor Bush might agree, since he made a point of telling the author that it was too soon for a biography. “Come back in twenty years,” Bush told Bill Minutaglio. Of course, Bush may have meant that quite literally since, more than a year later, on the day Minutaglio submitted the completed manuscript to his publisher, Bush’s press office told him one more time that the Governor was “still deciding” whether to grant the writer a real interview. The next time they hear the Bush team trumpeting their candidate’s “decisiveness,” voters might recall that exchange.
Indeed, the entire subject of “books” is taking on a comic air in relation to the burgeoning George W. Bush mythology. Minutaglio’s substantive and detailed biography has won the race to publication, but will be followed in short order by others already in development, including (to blow our own horn) a political examination by Molly Ivins and my colleague Louis Dubose (due this winter). And Bush has his “own” book in the works, initially to be ghosted by longtime Houston sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz. But when Herskowitz (hardly an investigative reporter) proved insufficiently deferential – he actually wanted access to more policy material than the Governor’s canned speeches – he was unceremoniously dismissed and replaced by head flack Karen Hughes, who knows better than to deviate from the message of the day.
And what of the Candidate’s own pen? Well, First Son provides a couple of tasty samples of the Bushean prose, at merciful brevity: “Dear Susan & Michael [Dell]: Laura, the girls and I had a fine time Saturday at your party. We especially appreciated the tour of your home. It is great. I look forward to future visits. Sincerely, GW.” “Dear Myron [Magnet], Thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts with me and my staff. We were all fired up after you charged our intellectual batteries.” There may be no need for a second Bush Library, after all.
Minutaglio writes that the campaign bristles at the increasingly widespread realization that the Candidate is not exactly (to put it politely) an egghead. Bush staffers insist that they have seen their boss actually reading books, and Hughes herself once “angrily lectured [an Austin reporter] on how many books Bush was reading, how he read ‘even more books than Karl Rove, and Rove reads a lot of books.'” Since strategist Rove’s favorite political scribe is the execrable Myron Magnet, apostle to the overstuffed, he may not be the best role model for the neo-bibliophile Dubya. Bush might better stick to his New Testament, which he at least says he reads, and the occasional Phillips Andover Academy alumni newsletter.
For as First Son suggests, it was at Andover (and Houston’s Kinkaid Academy before it) that the young Bush learned the essential tools of his political ascendance: affability, gregariousness, and what his schoolmasters called style. In his chapter under that title, Minutaglio reprints the founding-day speech of Kinkaid Headmaster John Cooper, who promised “an education which develops the best in the student, which seeks to give him a sense of style….” At Bush’s 1964 graduation from Andover, Headmaster John Kemper struck much the same note: “You are a proud group in a proud school. This pride will be sustained if you take with you a sense of style.” By all accounts – including his own – an otherwise indifferent student, Bush learned these lessons well. As a young man he was a legendary shlub, but (as head cheerleader, stickball commissioner, landman, managing partner, candidate) he was always full of jokes, shook everybody’s hand, and remembered everybody’s name. They said that about LBJ too, and indeed about Bill Clinton – if you plan to spend your entire life working the room, it is the one indispensable skill.
As the full title implies, First Son is as much a family story as a personal history. There are few surprises, at least to anybody who’s been following the Bush career, and no scandalmongering to speak of: no stunning revelations about drugs, and the chapter on the Air National Guard is even a little behind the curve of Ben Barnes’ recent incremental confessions of string-pulling on Bush’s behalf. But there is throughout the book an impressive accumulation of detail, of how this particular American life, born to insulated privilege and the instinctive expectation of its permanence, sorted itself out on the way to high office: grudging acceptance and then embrace of the dynastic education (Kinkaid/Andover/Yale/Harvard); ritualized apprenticeship in Houston and Midland, underwritten by family connections; the young squire’s impatience to assume his inheritance (i.e., run for office, any sufficiently high office); a calling in of generations of favors; and then finally, the formal assumption of the expectations of the prince’s class. They are champing at the bit in Greenwich, River Oaks, North Dallas, Tanglewood, Grosse Pointe…. The Arkansas arriviste and his followers must be driven from the throne, that the true royal lineage be re-established.
A lot of this is pure-dee horseshit, of course, from the oafish scions of new American money, and especially in the early chapters of First Son one often feels sorry for author Minutaglio, because his official subject keeps skittering off the page. There’s just not much to say about the young Georgie, after you’ve pointed out his passion for and incompetence at baseball, his safely wild streak, how little his friends remember of him. This all tells the reader a great deal, but it’s mostly between the lines. The family as a whole is indeed more interesting, and in curious ways: the obsession with competition and ranking; the formal negotiations between relatives over family business; the oft-proclaimed resistance to inwardness and reflection. Games and sports seem virtually compulsive: when her young daughter Robin dies of leukemia, Barbara Bush’s response is an exhausting round of golf. Smitten by loss, some people throw themselves into work, but in this world, jobs are a hobby or a distraction. Games are real.
There is also little of George W.’s own beliefs, except as they advance the narrative. When he finally decides to run for governor of Texas, his chosen issues (tort reform, welfare reform, law and order, local control of schools) seem less precisely the convictions of the candidate than of surveyed Republican focus groups and suburban swing voters, which is of course why they work. Minutaglio notes this platform, Bush’s broadcast of it, and moves on, to campaign style and pace. He has grasped that particular ideas don’t really mean much to Bush himself, except as strategy, and if the need arose he could just as easily exchange them for something else. Those looking to discover George W. Bush’s convictions should look elsewhere; what he stands for – that is, the people and interests he represents – are everywhere present in this book. Overwhelmingly, they ain’t you and me.
Yet despite the lackluster central figure, a handful of secondary characters draw attention. There is the mysterious Doug Wead, a still-persistent Bush advisor on the Christian Right who, it turns out, was the catalyst for the legendary dismissal of John Sununu from the first Bush White House, and apparently still has the Governor’s ear. There is the lamentably wasting-away, Lear-like Bob Bullock, who rails against fellow Democrat Ann Richards and her Hollywood friends, and somehow comes to a deathbed alliance with the alien Bush family, perhaps (Minutaglio suggests) because of an unexpected emotional connection with Bush the father. There is Barbara Bush, the apparently sedate matron whom her sons make clear is the real enforcer in the family. And there is even the minor tragic figure of Poppy Bush himself, the real government wonk, permanent yes-man from Congress to U.N. to C.I.A. to presidency, now rapidly being abandoned both by events and his son’s campaign, which looks more and more for its symbolism to Reagan the Winner rather than to Bush the Loser. One after another of the Republican hangers-on longingly describe George W. as “really a Reaganite,” and what they mean is, he’s not like his dad.
Or at least they hope so. Columnist George Will demanded and received first shot at First Son, and instead of renewing his mewling complaint that the Candidate lacks gravitas, Will acknowledged that the book confirms George W. is no “intellectual” – but then neither, insisted Will, was FDR or Reagan. To that one can only say: there are apples, and there are oranges, and there are also kumquats.
The demagogic defenders of “Western Civilization” and “high intellectual standards” are now reduced to proposing ignorance in a president as really not that bad, that bozos too have their virtues. So it is that Edmund Morris’ meretricious new biography is finally comforted by what he memorably calls Ronald Reagan’s “encyclopedic ignorance,” insisting that the Emperor – founder of a mighty new age for the Imperial Republic – was clothed with virtue under all that nakedness. The Emperor’s devoted disciples dearly want to believe they have found a new champion in Texas, nekkid as a babe. They may well be right.
Little League Millionaire
Editor’s note: As Bill Minutaglio prepared for the publicity tour for his new book, First Son, he spoke to the Observer about the approach of the book, and his research on the Bush family. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
What’s your sense of George W. after having written the book?
It’s interesting how the parallels appear to me, between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. I hope they are apparent in my book….
For example, he’s not exactly an arching intellectual, not a guy that spends a lot of time behaving like a “policy wonk” – the kind of guy who’s going to stay up until three or four in the morning debating, studying, analyzing, or relishing the art form of public policy, the intricacies of welfare reform, or the tax structure. People who like him or dislike him kind of agree on that.
Of course, you can spin that so it looks to his credit – that he seems more of the vigorous or spontaneous delegator, and knows how to surround himself with good people, and makes the decisions when he needs to, and he’s good at understanding the bigger and broader picture of things. The flip side of that argument is that maybe he doesn’t understand the real nuances and the specifics of each issue, so it’s not really to his credit.
You did have a couple of brief conversations with Bush?
I met with Bush twice. Basically, he said to me (I’m paraphrasing), “Come back and see me in twenty years, when I’ve really accomplished something in life.”…
Since the Governor’s office in Texas is not really a very powerful position, I decided to concentrate more on his upbringing. I think that’s pretty evident and people will probably criticize me for this, for delving more deeply into his development and his family instead of his actual tenure as Governor. But I decided, I was more interested in where he came from, his dad, more on how he grew up within that family.
Bush did provide you with some contacts?
He did give me a few names, some of whom I suppose he thought would be innocuous or flattering. His Little League coach was one of those, and he turned out to be symbolically perfect. This elderly gentleman, out in Midland, was saying things that were really indicative of Bush as an adult. He said, “He wasn’t the best Little League player in the world, he was almost afraid of the ball, but he was in on every play. He was just always there.” He couldn’t hit to save his life, apparently, but he was the catcher – you always need a catcher, the catcher is in on every play. I don’t know if you want to read it that way, but I took that it to be almost symbolic: Bush is always there, he’s always in on every play, he’s omnipresent, maybe not the most important player, but he’s surrounded himself by a team, and he gets to play.
And then the coach said to me, he realized that he was probably coaching the richest Little League catcher in the world. His dad was obviously a millionaire. That’s something I’d never thought about. There are all these stories that come out of the Bush camp about the family emerging in this West Texas moonscape and carving their way up, almost this Horatio Alger kind of story. In fact, I know now, and I hope people will know better after reading the book, those stories aren’t really accurate.
Bush’s more than comfortable family circumstances are a recurrent motif.
Well, when Karl Rove and these campaign people say that “Bush understands Bubba because he is Bubba,” that’s not entirely true. I’ve been around the state enough to think I know “Bubba” just a little bit, and Bubba doesn’t go out after an enormous family tragedy and play a round of golf. (That’s not really an indictment, it’s just an observation. I hope I wrote the book in mostly a neutral fashion.)
Bubba doesn’t date Oleg Cassini’s daughter, Bubba doesn’t date Tricia Nixon (when Tricia Nixon was the daughter of the current President), and Bubba doesn’t count among his friends people who are sitting at the higher echelons of industry and commerce and society and education. Bubba isn’t born in New Haven, and Bubba doesn’t live in the house that’s right next door to the Yale president.
I gather that the Bush people were not exactly enthusiastic about the book, and gave you only minimal access.
I found out from one of his close advisors, that the Bush inner circle had begun referring to me as “Mononucleosis.” I assumed it to be a corruption of my last name, since a lot of people have trouble pronouncing my last name. I also figured, well, it’s something contagious that doesn’t go away real easily. I’ve never had a chance to confirm that one way or another.