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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

Bush Family's Feud Heats Up With Clinton

Controversy: Former president and his wife take umbrage over attacks on their son--and they fire back. Democrats love it.

August 03, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — George W. Bush and his campaign have enjoyed remarkable success synchronizing the message from everyone at the Republican National Convention this week.

Except his parents.

After maintaining a low profile all year, former President Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush have been drawn into a pointed war of words with President Clinton--the man who ousted the elder Bush from the White House in 1992.

The confrontation, which escalated when Barbara Bush criticized Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday, worries many Republicans, who fear it will both distract from the convention's velvet-glove feel and reinforce questions about whether the younger Bush would be this close to the presidency if his name was Smith.

"It plays into [the Democrats'] hands," complained one Bush campaign insider about the feud. "It's what they want: a distraction from a perfect convention."

Indeed, Democrats have welcomed the controversy. "It reminds everybody . . . that Bush thinks the presidency is an office you can inherit," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew on Wednesday.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, rejected the notion that the Bush family-Clinton tiff was interfering with the convention's carefully scripted message of moderation and civility. "I think what's more important . . . is that the vice president is such a weak candidate that he's forced to rely upon a constant barrage of attacks launched by President Clinton," Rove said. "I think people see it as inappropriate and it paints a picture of Al Gore as a weak candidate and a weak leader."

She's Skeptical Gore Can Restore Respect

Barbara Bush added fuel to the flap when, with her husband Wednesday on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," she first inferred that Clinton had brought disrespect to the presidency, then said she was skeptical Gore could return respect to the office. "It would be very difficult, I think, with some of the things he's done," she said.

She did not elaborate.

The multi-generational battle--which before Barbara Bush's comments had seen Clinton criticize the younger Bush and both the younger and elder Bush criticize Clinton--underscores the unique circumstance of this campaign. Only once before in American history has a president's son also won the office. And that man, John Quincy Adams, ran 24 years after the term of his father, John Adams, had ended, long enough for the passions of his presidency to cool.

In contrast, the younger Bush is running at a time when the wounds of his father's defeat are still open, especially among Republican activists who viewed Clinton as morally unfit for the office even before the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

But in both public and private, George W. Bush has always emphatically rejected suggestions that he has sought the White House to avenge his father's defeat. And for most of the campaign, the younger Bush has been extremely sensitive to avoid the impression his presidency would amount to a restoration of his father's.

Bush, for instance, hasn't campaigned with his father since the former president referred to him at a New Hampshire rally as "this boy . . . of ours."

Media Stir Debate on Father's Influence

That arms-length relationship began to break down last week, when Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate. As Defense secretary, Cheney had been an architect of the Persian Gulf War that marked the greatest triumph of the elder Bush's presidency. And President Bush's apparent backstage support for Cheney inspired a new wave of media discussion about his influence on his son's campaign.

Clinton stirred the pot Friday at a Democratic fund-raiser in Rhode Island, where he suggested that Bush was running for president on minimal qualifications. Speaking as if he were Bush, Clinton said derisively, "I mean, how bad could I be? I've been governor of Texas; my daddy was president; I own a baseball team."

Democratic insiders say Clinton may have turned on Bush in response to Bush's own barbed comments that day on his inaugural campaign swing with Cheney. Bush described his running mate as "a solid man . . . a man who understands what the definition of 'is' is." That was a reference to an often-ridiculed answer from Clinton during his 1998 grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky scandal.

Whatever the cause, Clinton's comments drew sharp retorts from both the younger and elder Bush. The former president told NBC earlier this week: "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to wait a month. And then, you give a call. . . . And if he continues that, then I'm going to tell the nation what I think about him as a human being and a person."

Since then, the elder Bush has studiously avoided further comments; he told Fox News on Wednesday that his son "probably wished I kept my mouth shut, but I haven't heard from him yet."

Some Bush campaign officials say the former president's high personal popularity--recent polls found about two-thirds of Americans now have a favorable opinion of him--means there's little risk in his increased visibility over the last few weeks. In any case, one senior Bush aide said that after this week, the parents will quickly recede into the background again.

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