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Candidates Strive to Overcome Privilege

High social standing has played different roles in Kerry's and Bush's political careers.

June 20, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

He is a scion of American aristocracy whose path through life has been strewn with privilege.

Born to a family with deep roots on the Eastern Seaboard and a powerful place in U.S. history, he was pushed out of the nest into a boarding school where he often felt out of place. But that school -- and his name -- would help pave the way into an Ivy League college.

At Yale, he was tapped for an exclusive secret society. The first-born son of a father who was a World War II pilot, he too learned to fly and served his country during wartime.

His first run at political office was a disaster. Accused of carpetbagging, he was badly thumped. But he dusted himself off and went to work. Years later, he would again try his hand at politics. This time he would succeed, and spectacularly.

Now he is running for president of the United States. And that's the curious thing: While this thumbnail biography describes President Bush to a T, it also describes his presumed Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Indeed, the lives of both candidates, in broad strokes, paint a classic portrait of American privilege. "These people are definitely in the American hereditary upper class," said Gary Boyd Roberts, a Boston genealogist who has traced Bush's and Kerry's lineages and discovered they are distantly related. (Branches of their family trees cross eight times, said Roberts; at the closest point, they are ninth cousins). They are also descended from medieval kings.

How has privilege played out in their lives? Very differently, as it turns out.

Bush, a true social and political aristocrat, has spent much of his life publicly distancing himself from his patrician roots, while quietly availing himself of family connections. "Privilege completely and utterly defines George Bush," said his biographer, Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio. "I don't think it's pejorative to point that out."

Kerry, whose family glory lies in an illustrious and historic past, has worked energetically to secure his place in the upper reaches of American society, and twice married heiresses. "His parents came from modest wealth," said his biographer, historian Douglas Brinkley. "He was always a little cash-poor for the milieu he was running around in. He's like the F. Scott Fitzgerald figure looking into that world with one foot in and one foot out."

The novelist Christopher Buckley, an acerbic social observer who wrote speeches for Bush's father when he was vice president, said of the two political rivals: "Bush set out to distance himself from the world of Eastern establishmentarian privilege.... The funny thing is that Kerry sort of looks more like the guy who was born with the silver spoon, but economically, his circumstances were far less golden. That's the paradox."


The Bush family, which prizes loyalty, has a nearly genetic aversion to being portrayed as privileged or highfalutin. The president's grandmother, Dorothy Walker Bush, so disapproved of displays of what she called the "la-di-das" that her son George Herbert Walker Bush took to leaving the first-person pronoun out of sentences. That led, some think, to his famously tortured syntax.

The Bushes are deeply sensitive to any portrayal that implies their success is not due to hard work. But their triumphs -- on Wall Street, in the oil business, in real estate -- have gone hand in hand with long-standing social and financial connections that have been nurtured and handed down in the family with the sort of loving care that other families take with precious heirlooms.

The Bushes are famous for making friends -- and for keeping them and calling upon them when launching businesses and political campaigns. In their new book, "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty," Peter and Rochelle Schweizer call this phenomenon "the amazing Bush family money machine."

Although George W. Bush has striven mightily to purge traces of the patrician from his bearing -- at Harvard Business School, where he earned a master's of business administration, he chewed tobacco, eschewed opera for country music and wore cowboy boots -- his family's illustrious history is an inescapable fact. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut; his father, of course, was the 41st U.S. president. His younger brother, Jeb, is governor of Florida. At least three recent Bush biographies contain the word "dynasty."

"I know they have a stated aversion to what I think they call the D-word," said Buckley. "It's a becoming modesty, but as a practical matter ... if it walks like a dynasty, talks like a dynasty and quacks like a dynasty, it seems to me it's a dynasty."

"Dynasty, schmynasty," Jeb once snapped.

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