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In His Father's Shadow, a Son Charts His Course

August 29, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — By the time he arrived at Yale University in 1945, George H.W. Bush had been the Navy's youngest pilot and was a decorated combat veteran. He made Phi Beta Kappa and captain of the baseball team. A famous photograph captured him, dressed in his college baseball pinstripes, shaking the hand of Babe Ruth.

When his son George W. Bush landed at Yale 19 years later, he quit baseball after his freshman year, calling himself "mediocre." A hellion of a fraternity president, he earned average grades and became known for such pranks as tearing down Princeton's goalposts. When his name appeared in the New York Times, he was defending the practice of branding fraternity pledges with red-hot coat hangers.

Same road, very different style.

Yale and military service, the Texas oil business and politics: George W. Bush has traveled a route similar to that of his accomplished father, sometimes seeming diminished by his father's long shadow. Even when he became president, the son's lack of foreign policy experience was shrugged off by many who thought his father's expertise and former aides would guide him.

But this week, as he accepts the Republican nomination for a second term, President Bush is clearly more than his father's son. The man who will stand before the nation on Thursday is a product of his father's example, his high expectations and expansive advantages, but he is also someone who has bristled at them enough to establish his own style: openly religious, politically combative and aggressive in his approach to foreign policy and tax cuts.

The path Bush has chosen also has put him in one more competition with his formidable father. If he wins in November, he will have surpassed the career of the first President Bush, who was defeated after a single term.

If he loses, Bush will end up repeating his father's fate as a one-term president in part because he worked so hard in the White House to cut a different path.

The first President Bush chose to limit his pursuit of Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and broke his campaign pledge against new taxes. The current President Bush cut taxes to such an extent that even some Republican allies complained about the resulting budget deficits. His approval ratings, sky high after Sept. 11, have fallen steeply as the war in Iraq has continued.

Doug Wead, an aide in the first Bush White House and a close friend of the current president, has seen up close how the son was formed by competition with his father. "The word that keeps coming to me is irritation -- maybe positive as well as negative -- the way a pearl is formed with a piece of sand," he said. "It's very much a love-hate relationship." The Bush camp rejects efforts to explain the president, 58, by analyzing his relationship with his 80-year-old father.

"It's a spurious and specious story line," said Mary Matalin, who has been a campaign advisor to father and son. "I think this whole thing is a press creation ... this whole Oedipal nonsense, like life is some kind of Shakespeare," said Matalin. "This is not fiction, this is not a Broadway play."

But others cannot resist. "If you had to write this up as a novel," said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst who has written books about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, "someone would say, 'Oh come on. You're being heavy handed.' "

Though he is not technically a "junior," George W. Bush has been called that for much of his life. The first time he ran for office, in 1978, he spent a good deal of time reminding people that he was neither his father -- already a well-known political figure -- nor a "junior," going so far as to display his birth certificate so that reporters could see their names were different.

At 15, Bush left Texas for the same Massachusetts boarding school his father had attended, then followed his father to Yale. In 2001, he told a graduating Yale class, "To the C students, I say, you too can become president of the United States." On his 18th birthday, his father enlisted in the Navy and went on to become a war hero; Bush joined a unit of the Texas Air National Guard that was considered safe for young men wishing to avoid combat in Vietnam, learning to fly a kind of jet that was being phased out of combat.

His father was a casual drinker, but by the time Bush got to Harvard Business School, his uncle, Prescott Bush, has said, he "was becoming a real boozer," according to Peter Schweizer, co-author with his wife, Rochelle, of "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty."

In fact, his biography as a young adult is punctuated with unpleasant alcohol-related incidents. In 1972, at 26, he tried to pick a fight with his father after bringing his younger brother home from a party and running over garbage cans on the way into the driveway.

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