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DECISION '92: SPECIAL VOTER'S GUIDE TO THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION : THE FORMATIVE YEARS: The varied experiences of their lives have profoundly shaped the outlooks of the men who would be President


WASHINGTON — Party platforms and candidates' positions on issues are important, but ultimately presidential elections for many voters come down to a choice among individuals.

Over the years, American politics has seen repeated examples of campaign promises broken, platforms abandoned and stands on issues altered. For that reason, voters often--and wisely--listen with some skepticism to candidates' professed stands on the issues of the day.

"Asking just what a person says he will do has turned out to be absolutely absurd," says James David Barber of Duke University, who has written extensively about the presidency and presidential character. "You need to know 'Who is that person?' "

In answering that question this year, one thing is clearly true--the 1992 campaign has offered the electorate an unusually clear choice among men with vastly different biographies, ideologies and backgrounds.

Begin with the President: George Herbert Walker Bush was born in 1924, the son of Prescott Bush, a prosperous investment banker who later became a senator from Connecticut, and Dorothy Walker Bush, the daughter of one of the country's leading men of wealth--G. H. Walker, for whom the President is named.

As a boy, the young Bush had all the advantages of wealth and position, from a chauffeured ride each morning to school--the Greenwich Country Day School--to tennis lessons in the afternoon. After time, he moved onto the graceful and cultured campus of one of New England's oldest and most prestigious preparatory schools--Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

World War II interrupted what might otherwise have been a seamless slide for the young George Bush from Andover to Yale to one of the Wall Street firms where he might have joined his father or his uncle or one of their friends in managing the business of America. Instead, at age 18, he joined the Navy, became a flier and headed to the Pacific to join the war.

There, he nearly lost his life. Shot down by Japanese gunners off Chichi Jima, he floated alone on a small raft until found by a passing submarine, one of whose officers thoughtfully captured the rescue on film.

Returning home after the war, the young Bush quickly got on with his life--marrying Barbara Pierce, having a child, moving to New Haven to hurry through Yale, playing baseball, studying economics, planning for the future.

And then, in what he has ever since recalled as the most fateful decision of his life, Bush turned away from the easy path that would have followed the commuter train tracks from New Haven to New York and, instead, struck out for the West. To Texas. In 1948, the young family moved, settling in on the flat, bleak territory of Odessa and learning the oil business.

Bush did not exactly strike out on his own, as he has sometimes implied. Family members who put up $300,000 in capital gave him the stake he needed to play in the oil game. And after 1964, when Bush quit the oil business for politics, other family members and friends of his father, the senator, helped lubricate his career. But even Bush's detractors concede he always worked hard, devoting his seemingly limitless energy to constantly expanding his circle of friends and contacts and pushing toward his goals.

Bush started his political ambitions high, running for the Senate in 1964. He lost, but then won a seat in the House two years later. One thing led to another: a second unsuccessful Senate campaign, a post as ambassador to the United Nations, the chairmanship of the Republican Party, ambassador to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then, finally, the big break--Ronald Reagan's choice for vice president in 1980, which came after Bush's own presidential bid fell short that year.

In 1964, as Bush--at age 40--began his political career, Bill Clinton set off for college. Neither his mother nor his guidance counselor could ever quite fathom how the young man had settled upon Georgetown University to attend. One day, he simply announced that that was where he would go to college, and that was that.

Much to their dismay, Clinton politely declined entreaties to apply elsewhere, telling those who asked that the Catholic college in distant Washington was certain to admit the Baptist boy from Arkansas. He was the student who everyone in his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., had long since picked out as most likely to succeed, and the possibility of failure seemed not to have occurred to him.

He was right. And Georgetown proved the ideal place for a young man who already seemed set on politics as a career. Short on funds, Clinton took a job working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman was Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. And he quickly settled into a front-row seat to watch as Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society took shape--and then fell apart.

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