s George W. Bush’s presidency lurches to its dolorous conclusion, even the most hardened Bush hater might be forgiven for quailing at the sight of another book examining it. Despite Bush’s own professed contempt for second thoughts, his presidency has spawned an entire subgenre of accounts detailing his failings, written by administration insiders and journalists, that shows no sign of going away.
It is hard to imagine that another Bush chronicle has anything new to offer, but Slate editor Jacob Weisberg manages this feat. As the editor of several collections of Bush malapropisms (“Bushisms”), Weisberg might seem an unlikely candidate to provide a dispassionate dissection of the man. But that is exactly what The Bush Tragedy supplies. We are all aware of the subject’s faultsa proclivity for extremism, boastful truculence, impatience with debate, distaste for intellectual exchanges, reckless decision making, blind loyalty to his subordinates, and a host of other less-than-winning characteristics. Instead of cudgeling Bush for his manifest short- comings, however, Weisberg embarks upon a kind of psycho-biography in an attempt to explain what is really behind these character flaws and why the Decider decides as he does.
Weisberg locates the answer in the early history of the Bush family. The tensions between the Walker and Bush clans, he argues, formed the essential backdrop to George W.’s own troubled life and presidency. This is tricky territory. But Weisberg largely avoids crude reductionism, offering many illuminating insights into Bush’s behavior and actions.
The patrician side of the Bush family is well known. Prescott Bush (grandfather of the current President Bush) was the Republican senator from Connecticut, and seemed to be the very personification of the WASP ethos. Descended from James Smith Bush, a well-connected Episcopal preacher who wrote several books and venerated public service, Prescott Bush’s social life consisted of performing with the Whiffenpoofs (a Yale a capella group) and attending Greenwich town council meetings. Prescott’s college career is remarkably like the fictional character Dink Stover in Owen Johnson’s 1912 satire Stover at Yale, which lauded the notion of sacrifice for the greater good. In it, Stover declares what would become Prescott’s credo: “He suddenly realized the stern discipline of it all … subordinating everything to one purpose, eliminating the individual factor … an immense idea of sacrifice and self-abnegation.” Prescott’s ideal was tending to the public weal, not accumulating wealth. He even insisted that his grandchildren call him “Senator.” At the Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich, he stormed out of the locker room when a friend told a dirty joke in front of his son, George H. W.: “I don’t ever want to hear that kind of language in here again,” he fumed.
Much less well known is the other side: the Walker family of St. Louis, led by the swashbuckling and raucous playboy George Herbert “Bert” Walker, the father-in-law of Prescott Bush. Bert Walker excelled at boxing, polo, and golf, winning the amateur title as the Missouri heavyweight champion. He set up a boxing ring in his house, where he pummeled his sons, in the hope of toughening them up. A bold speculator, he won and lost several fortunes (though he was shrewd enough to liquidate his portfolio right before the 1929 stock-market crash) and drove around in his own chauffeured Rolls-Royce during the 1930s. Rowdy, profane, and obnoxious, he was even described in the prim official family history as “coarse.” But this didn’t stop him from putting on airs: a kind of Jay Gatsby figure, Bert had a weekend home on the north shore of Long Island, where he would appear in white tie and was waited upon by liveried butlers. Another grand estate was located in Santa Barbara. The Walkers were parvenus who lived largethe very sort of thing that Prescott Bush, the would-be leader of an egalitarian and frugal clan, despised. The Walkers’ glittering world of yachts, racehorses, estates, and servants was simply anathema to him.
“Drilling into the history of the Walkers and the Bushes,” Weisberg observes, “one hits layer upon sedimentary layer of conflict among brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandparents.” So deep was the conflict that decades later George H. W. Bush would one-up the Walkers by purchasing their ancestral vacation spot, Kennebunkport, from them. In the end, Yankee thrift had won out over Jazz Age profligacy. According to Weisberg, “Poppy’s hostile takeover of Kennebunkport represented the submersion of the St. Louis clan and the repudiation of its mercantile values. He would turn it into the anti-Hyannisport, a place where nobody drank to excess, everyone went to sleep early (in the right bed), and got up for church on Sunday.”
In essence, the Walkers were gamblers; the Bushes, conservators. Guess which model George W. ended up following? His aim, as Weisberg reminds us, was to distance himself from George H. W., who had tried to live up, as far as possible, to Prescott’s lofty ideals. Weisberg diagnoses a frustrated hero worship on the part of George W. not unmixed with disdain for the New England aristocracy. The era of the WASP ascendancy was coming to a close. Vietnam protests flourished. Affirmative action loomed at Yale, and leftist intellectuals held sway. The riffraff was becoming the new meritocracy. “By graduation,” reports Weisberg, “Bush had defined himself as the scourge of intellectual snobs, who were fast replacing the social kind.”
But if George W. was struggling to find his footing in this new era, so was his father. George H. W. was not immune to the Walker influence: after graduating from Yale, he moved to Texas to become an oilman, which fit into the Walker mold. But unlike the Walkers, he applied himself to learning the oil business methodically from the ground up. But George H. W.’s attempt to fit into the right-wing Texas culture never quite took. While he won election to the House of Representatives in 1967, he never made it to the Senate, losing to the folksy Ralph Yarborough, for the second time, in 1970 (years later, during his run against Michael Dukakis, Bush would be ridiculed for claiming that pork rinds were his favorite snack). George W. was not slow to draw the lesson that his father’s self-conscious patrician restraint hindered his ability to succeed in the buccaneering culture of Sunbelt conservatism. The lesson became even clearer after Ronald Reagan polished off George H. W. for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. George W. admired what he saw as a true “Western man.” Reagan, not his old man, would become his lodestar.
In short, he wanted to become a true Texan, rejecting, as far as possible, his New England patrimony (which, incidentally, was hardly minimalschooling: Andover, Yale, and Harvard; vacations: Kennebunkport). Rowdy and boisterous, he would head back to the Walker roots of his family. In Weisberg’s view, “George W. Bush likes to say he is his mother’s son. But many of his most distinctive traits don’t seem to come from her or from his father. He is impatient, aggressive, often angry, and sometimes cruel. He’s a plunger, not a careful analyst or a patient builder. The man’s a Walker, through and through.”
In the 1970s, the Walker approach did not serve George W. well. He didn’t strike it rich prospecting for oil. In contrast to his father, he refused to approach the business systematically. Instead, George W., “who thought success was a matter of rolling the dice with borrowed money, never struck lucky.” Sound familiar? It was Bush’s pattern: decades later, in Iraq, he gambled again and lost. As Weisberg sees it, “Driven by family demons, overflowing with confidence, and lacking any capacity for self-knowledge, Bush seems to me to have done precisely what we should have expected of him.”
What Weisberg means by this isn’t simply that Bush flubbed up. It’s that it was almost preordained, in large part because he engaged in a form of intellectual mutilation by rendering himself as incurious as possible. According to Weisberg, “Bush’s self-image as a Churchillian leader, the anti-Poppy, meant that he didn’t need to delve into endless rounds of diplomacy or spend time studying the history of Iraq … Others could handle those details.” Bill Clinton had it right: “He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t want to know anything. But he’s not dumb.”
The same superficiality, Weisberg suggests, extends to Bush’s ostentatious religious piety. It isn’t that Bush doesn’t believe in a higher father, as he likes to put it. It’s that much of his religiosity, Weisberg contends, amounts to no more than atmospherics. Religion for Bush, which he glommed onto during his battle with the bottle, is, we are told, more a self-help program than a deeply thought-through belief system. It has been Vice President Dick Cheney, not a higher power, who’s been guiding his thoughts and actions. What’s more, Bush’s newfound religiosity, Weisberg suggests, provided him with another way to outdo his father’s rather tepid embrace of evangelical Christians. George W. would be the complete package, the successor to Ronald Reagan who would go even him one better in launching a global crusade for freedom.
As Weisberg plunges into the Bush presidency itself, however, he begins to lose the thread of the family’s influence on George W. The problem here may be that while Bush’s early actionsscorning the advice of realists such as Brent Scowcroft and James Bakercan be viewed in terms of besting his father, once Bush embarked upon the Iraq War he encountered a series of events that prompted him to offer shifting rationales to defend it. Psychologically, for the GOP, the memory of the Vietnam War seems to be one of the biggest current driving forces. The Wall Street Journal, for example, keeps publishing pieces bemoaning America’s failure to stop the communists in Vietnam, the loss of honor, and the urgency of preventing a repetition of that calamitous war. It seems likely that Senator John McCain will make this part of his campaign as welland he doesn’t share a father with George W. Bush. (Though family military tradition clearly weighs heavily in McCain’s case.)
The British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield referred to the “Whig interpretation of history,” in which each event of the past is interpreted as inevitably leading to the strengthening of liberty and progress worldwide. Weisberg, who traces Bush’s sins backward to his ancestors, may be engaging in a reverse form of Whiggism. He essentially contends that character is destiny, which would strike many historians, who are interested in larger trends and forces, as somewhat anachronistic. Missing in Weisberg’s meditation on Bush is a larger context that takes into account the GOP’s capture by the far right. Bush wasn’t operating in a vacuum, and we know he isn’t much of a brooder. How much of his presidency has been shaped by psychological forces, and how much by sheer opportunism?
While Weisberg may at times overemphasize the influence of family on Bush, it doesn’t really detract from his account. Fluently written and probing, the book covers a tremendous amount of ground with great panache. While it contains no footnotes and boasts little original research, Weisberg never gets mired in pointless detail. The Bush Tragedy is an imaginative attempt to reconstruct Bush’s emotional and mental world. Ultimately, it suggests that in betraying his father, Bush ended up betraying himself. A pity that everyone else has to pay the price.