After the death in 1953 of three-year-old Robin Bush from leukemia – she was the only girl in the four-pack of Bush boys – her mother, Barbara Bush, wasdespondent and holed up in her Midland home. Writing in the March issue of Talk Magazine, Bill Minutaglio (author of First Son, another George W. bio) described the scene this way: “Listening one day from inside her house, she heard [George W.] tell a friend he couldn’t come and play because his mother was lonely. She was cementing her status as the family disciplinarian – a role she has played ever since.”
That same family story is told in Elizabeth Mitchell’s W: The Revenge of the Bush Dynasty. Mitchell has it this way: “With the windows open and the curtains blowing in the breeze, [Barbara Bush] heard young George telling his pal he couldn’t go play. ‘I have to be with my mother – she’s so unhappy,’ he said. That’s when she realized that she had to let him be a child.” In this case, Mitchell’s version of events is likely closer to what actually happened, and her softer treatment – coupled with a sort of amateur psychoanalysis – seems appropriate, at least in the early chapters, when her focus is on George W.’s childhood. The romanticism implicit in this passage, however, clings all the way to the end.
The book begins with the tale of George Herbert Walker Bush’s enlistment in the Navy during World War II, and continues somewhat tediously through his marriage to Barbara Pierce, the birth of their five children (W. was the first), his business ventures in Midland, his term in the U.S. House, and his various appointments to the U.N., the R.N.C., the C.I.A., and finally his service in the White House. Meanwhile, young George is growing up, weaving along his father’s academic and career path with notably less success: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, the National Guard, Midland, and yes, even a failed run for Congress. The only real accomplishment young George can claim for his very own is in the baseball business. Everything else belonged to the senior George, who did it first, and better. Yet, despite the tangible and meaningful shortcomings in the son exposed by Mitchell’s retread of the father-son comparison, the book’s tone is far too forgiving to be politically useful. Such compassion should be reserved for the Kennedys. Our subjects here are very much alive – and one of them is running for president.
Not that Mitchell should be more critical, just more of a critical thinker. The Bush story, the way she tells it, is rarely challenging or entertaining. A metronomically chronological account of the life of a young boy who wants to please his important father? Yawn. But a young boy who’s not quite as kind, principled, smart, visionary, or accomplished, squatting on his father’s well-earned coattails? Now, that’s a story. It’s one we never get. Mitchell is a thorough researcher and writes in a style suitable to an historian, but never is her lack of critical analysis more evident than when she fidgets with bringing her subject to task.
In a chapter devoted to George W.’s years in Midland, where he struggled to match his father’s success in the oil business, the son is assisted financially on various occasions by relatives and friends of his father (or at least those wanting an “in” with the senior Bush). Yet, when describing the bailout of George W.’s Midland oil speculation outfit, it’s almost a non-issue that her subject had a Vice President for a father, and that the money came from a close friend of President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker. She dances around the troubling topic, drawing instead a sympathetic picture of a man who is so unsure of himself that he never fully realizes how much he’s been given. The chapter ends vaguely, without lines drawn to George W.’s present life, or future prospects:
“George W. never seemed to acknowledge adequately the role of the carpetlayers in his life. He had been able to raise the capital for Arbusto [his Midland oil company] with the help of his Uncle Jonathan. Philip Uzielli, a good friend of James Baker, had bailed him out at the right time. He had been saved from fiscal ruin by the merger with Spectrum 7 that Paul Rea helped facilitate; and Harken [Energy Company] had taken a gamble on George W. because of, among other reasons, the power of his family name. While George W. was a smart, well-liked boss and colleague, his insecurities prevented him from giving credit where credit was due.”
Insecurities? Mitchell’s compassion is overbearing and lacks real political insight when it is needed most. This is the man, after all, who would be our next president. Most of the time, Mitchell can’t seem to pin down her slippery subject. To the author, George W. is somehow pompously insecure, a failed athlete who excelled at sports, a smart “C” student, a generous cheapskate, a frat boy with a tear in his eye, and finally the Prodigal Son who isn’t sorry. She never seems to see the parallels between the contradictions in the George W. family myth, which she so readily swallows, and the contradictions in the candidate, so readily apparent in his campaigns, both for governor of Texas and for president.
Where, for instance, is the ironic parallel that George W. is running on a tax cut platform, yet raised taxes in Arlington –as a private citizen, no less –to pay for a new baseball stadium for his Texas Rangers? Mitchell describes the deal as “masterful,” pointing out that the $5 million per year rent the owners pay will go toward the $60 million purchase price of the stadium. After twelve years, the team’s owners will own the facility. She also fails to mention how George W. and his partners used the City of Arlington’s eminent domain powers to purchase the thirteen acres of land for the stadium for about half of its appraised value. The original property owners sued and won, and the balance of the $5 million award owed them was eventually paid by the city – that is, the taxpayers. (The total amount was $7.6 million after interest accrued.) Although the “master contract” between the city and the team owners states that the Rangers would pay any costs over $135 million, the team owners denied responsibility. Bush sold his share of the Rangers and is not currently a partner, but he was there when the court made its decision.
Mitchell devotes thirty-seven celebratory pages to George W.’s experiences with the Rangers, while trimming his six years as governor to a mere twelve pages. Considering that the governorship is the only public service the candidate has performed, that weighting seems odd. Mitchell charitably writes that prior to his victory over Ann Richards in 1994 his “accomplishments were harder to define: He could only list head cheerleader, fraternity president, and first lieutenant, a commission that would forever be marred by the fact that he received the promotion on his father’s 1970 election day.” But then she goes too far: “What kind of awards were handed out for fun guy, loyal friend, good old boy, caring neighbor? You couldn’t run on those résumé lines.” And as a son of the Bush dynasty, George W. never had to – so why mention it?
If Mitchell’s point here is that George W. is following in George H.W.’s footsteps, then how, we might ask, do those very personal ambitions play in the coming national election? How has it played out here in Texas, where he’s been in a position to change his community? If an author wants to psychoanalyze a subject, fine, but her readers are entitled to a reasonable expectation of a certain measure of insight and analysis, some thoughtful projections about what his personality will mean for us. Her subject is a politician – what are his politics?
It’s too tempting to continue to point out where the book is lacking in useful information – information that would be helpful to readers trying to decide what they like, or don’t like, about George W. Bush the candidate. For instance, would the candidate even have a national campaign platform if it weren’t for the property tax cut he rammed through the state legislature in 1997? Shouldn’t it be noted what important discussions and decisions on education funding reform, real property tax reform, electric utility deregulation, teacher’s pensions, and emissions testing were being ignored? He needed that tax cut (which many households never realized, due to increases in local tax rates) to run for the White House, and everyone knew it. Some detail about the bills he’s passed (and the bills he’s ignored), and why, would be interesting.
Even when the author mentions the emotional topic of Jasper, and hints at Governor Bush’s role in killing the hate crimes bill inspired by James Byrd’s murder, she doesn’t go into too much detail about any actions (or non-actions) he’s taken on the issue as governor. She does, however, devote space on the next page to talk about how George W. got “choked up” over a young teen in prison, telling him face to face that “he and the state of Texas cared about him, but that [he] needed to be punished for what he had done.”
Mitchell, it seems, is the real “compassionate conservative.” How about this for some amateur psychiatry – a young female author struggles with her need to comfort the already comfortable, forsaking even her own objectivity in her attempts to play the nurturing, undemanding, forgiving parent.