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His Great Gift, to Blend In : Team Player Bush: A Yearning to Serve

November 22, 1987|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He is a man of many Americas, North and South, new money and old, the refined manners of the Connecticut upper crust and the brash spirit of the Texas oil fields.

There he is in the photos, one of history's great survivors: ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, director of the CIA. He was nearly Nixon's choice for vice president, nearly Ford's, finally Reagan's.

But there is something fuzzy in the grain, as if all this adaptability has caused things to blur. The quintessential team player, George Bush is indistinguishable from the team.

Devoted to Good Conduct

By temperament, that is his very impulse. He is not in government so much to lead as to serve. He is politic, cautious and glad to be of use.

A genteel upbringing has left its enduring stamp. His deep devotion is to good conduct, not the power of ideas. His urge is to accommodate, his great gift to blend in.

And it is the darndest thing, for what a singular life! Chapter by chapter, it is epic stuff. Top athlete. War hero. Yale man. Wildcatter. Millionaire. Off into politics. George Bush, born to privilege and blessed with ability, has lived what others merely dream.

Where many politicians have to manufacture and reinvent themselves, Bush is the genuine article. He was a star baseball player while Ronald Reagan only played one in the movies. He was a daring fighter pilot in the Pacific while Reagan flew simulated missions on the back lots of Culver City.

Bush has been married to the same woman for 42 years and has five children who adore him; Reagan is divorced, with children he rarely sees. Bush is a devoted churchgoer; Reagan seldom feels the need.

Yet it is Reagan who so naturally marches in step to the cadences of God, family and country, Reagan who is the courageous sheriff busting through the saloon doors to meet a dare.

And it is George Herbert Walker Bush, seven years the faithful sidekick, who is maligned for merely tagging along, George Bush reviled from the left and the right as a lap dog, a preppy and a wimp.

Character unfolds across a map of generations and geography, and to understand George Bush is to locate him along the crowded avenues of an eventful lifetime.

Directions come from boyhood pals and Navy buddies, roughnecks and executives, partisans and rivals, family who love him and family who don't.

"What you'll find about George Bush is that his life is almost too good to be true," says his eldest son, also named George.

And, up to a point, the son is right. It is a life of almost uninterrupted success, of good deeds, lasting friendships and inner peace. But it is also a life so satisfied with its marrow that it has largely closed itself to reflection.

Accepts American Myths

"He has spent a lifetime thinking in conventional terms, never reaching beyond them, never even wanting to," says Thomas (Lud) Ashley, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and Bush's close friend of 40 years.

The myths of America were accepted without inspection. Religion provoked no conflicts. Morality was as simple as common sense.

"There is a Christian innocence to George," says psychoanalyst Ray Walker, Bush's cousin. "His life has been without moral ambiguity. He feels he has been granted goodness and that his success proves the goodness was warranted.

"But this has all come to him without introspection, without any grappling about right or wrong. George plays it safe. . . . He plays for the status quo."

George Bush, at 63, is a grown-up version of a model high school class president, the popular choice of students, teachers and principals. He is an "A" pupil and a jock and a nice guy. He makes no waves. He fits in.

He is a leader because he follows so well.

On Oct. 12, George Bush formally declared as a candidate for President. This began a long-promised if very careful unveiling, Bush freeing himself from the tethers of the vice presidency to be his own man.

"It has been so long since he has been able to say what is on his mind," says Nancy Ellis, his sister, the regret heavy in her voice.

"Even if it gets him creamed, I can't wait for the day he just stands back and says: 'I want to do this and I want to do that.' "

For the longtime faithful, that is the great expectation, that a steely and magnetic candidate is rising up from seven years of temporizing.

But just what is it that Bush aches to say to America? What issues hit him square in the gut?

Ask those closest to him and their answers curiously turn toward matters of comportment, not national policy: fairness, loyalty, humor, manners.

"The gut issues for him are simple decency and public service," says Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.). "Bush runs for President because that's what he thinks a good man should do."

It is not that Bush lacks political convictions. He is dedicated to a traditional notion of mainstream Republicanism--a friend to big business and a skeptic of big government. But it is a shallow enthusiasm. He will follow that stream wherever the prevailing currents take it.

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