Brother, Can You Spare A Line?
“I can assure you, when I was a senior in high school, I never sat in an audience saying, ‘Gosh, if I work hard I’ll be president of the United States.’ Didn’t exactly fit into my vocabulary in those days. But you never know. You never know.”
—George W. Bush
You certainly don’t.
The eerie 2000 White House race, replete with a colorful cast of candidates from Donald Trump to Steve Forbes to Pat Buchanan, gradually narrowed down to a turbulent run between Al Gore, the seasoned, though dispirited, Dem who preached internet savvy and love-thy-earth visions, and his opponent, a former frat boy son-of-a-Bush Republican with ambitious, though unclear, goals and mystifying verbal gymnastics. He had, for example, expressed concern for Americans who were trying to “put food on your family”. And the winner . . . after much-ado about Florida, George W. Bush traced his father’s footsteps right into the Oval Office, begging the question (for lack of a better word): What?
New York Times reporter and author Frank Bruni, who spent the election trailing Bush and his entourage, offers us insights as to how and why Bush came to earn his prestigious ticket in Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. Unlikely? Yes—and no—and therein lies the rub.
With his born-to-the-manor background and education (George W. prepped at Andover, and followed on to Yale and Harvard Business School), he boasted a history rooted in establishment traditions and politics: he was, after all, a Bush, with a father who had donned the Presidential garb and a grandfather who had served as a senator. It seems fitting that George Jr. and brother Jeb (who was the one destined for greatness) should follow suit to claim the governorships of Texas and Florida, and only natural that W. should court the Presidency. Why then the frequently raised eyebrows over the fact that W. was in way over his head?
Because he wasn’t, despite his governor status, as - well - Bush-like as George Sr., shall we say. Preferring a Texan swagger to his Northeastern sensibilities, George W. came across, particularly in the heyday of election season, as an oddity. As Bruni explains, it was hard to pinpoint his true nature, since layer after layer proved additional surprises. George W. is the product of the elite establishment, with the surname to prove it. However, he seemed uncomfortable with the idea of his heritage, and as Bruni explains, “endeavored to cast himself as a people-smart Texan and curled his lip at anyone overly identified with elite enclaves in the Northeast. . . .”
Initially, the distance George W. placed between himself and his political inheritance (and he edged closer to said inheritance down the road) was in large part due to his insistence on presenting himself as a good ol’ boy rather than an inheritor of an “inside the Beltway” legacy. Bruni humorously relates Bush’s unfortunate and often hilarious verbal gaffes which continue to plague him (referring to Greeks as “Grecians,” using the non-existent word “misunderestimated,” and assuring a group at the Department of Labor soon after the September 11th attacks that “there’s no doubt in my mind - not one doubt - that we will fail.”)
Bush’s demeanor, initially the object of derision (as Bruni writes, “To some observers, the evidence was stark and irrefutable: Bush was a bozo”), was in the process of transformation. Despite his off-color humor, flippant behavior and embarrassing struggle with issues such as foreign affairs, Bush would on occasion stun reporters with tremendous depth of feeling regarding issues which mattered to him, and sudden bursts of knowledge which sent the press corps back to the drawing board to chalk up additional qualities which had gone unnoticed. Bruni deftly depicts the unsure, and at times reluctant, candidate who eventually metamorphosed into the full-fledged leader of the Western world, perhaps through no fault of his own.
The most pressing question, however, is what were Bush’s motives in aspiring to the Presidential role. Bruni’s description of Bush paints a fragmented character who “struck different poses at different times”: the average student with a quick temper, prone to too much drinking and partying, who years later summoned enough ambition to win the race for governor of Texas, and whose loyalties lay with his family, pets, his beloved Texas ranch, baseball, and a slew of devoted friends who painstakingly championed his cause.
The answer to Bush’s political quest may lie in the phrase “It’s all familyeverything,” uttered by George Sr. in an interview with Bruni at the family estate in Kennebunkport. Family, tradition, roads that lead onto roads, like father, like son. As Bruni writes, George W., undoubtedly saddened and angered by his father’s defeat to Clinton, sought to finish what George Sr. had started; that it was his family that “had given him the connections” and that he had “lived since childhood with the burden of the Bushes’ formidable accomplishments. . . .” The (dare I say?) Kennedy syndrome, albeit the conservative version.
George W. hadn’t quite anticipated the tremendous leap from running Texas to running the U.S., until September 11th when the world demanded that he better hurry up and take center stage. The tragedy seems to have, ironically, served in the best interests of George W.‘s political future, as he drew the nation together and waged war on terror. Flashback: George Sr.‘s popularity also soared during the Gulf War. The trick, however, will be whether George W. can continue his heroic ride on the war wagon, or will pressing national issues (the economy, unemployment) make their presence known in ways that will tarnish his polish.
Bruni presents a well-written, amusing, and insightful account of not only Bush’s character and campaign, but glimpses of life as a campaign correspondent, replete with vivid scenes of the sheer boredom of particular events that are merely rote, and hysterical observations of the candidates and their “cool” factor. (Bush’s isolation from mainstream culture - as Bruni states, Bush’s entertainment glitterati was largely comprised of “fossils like Loretta Lynn and the Bellamy Brothers” - pales in comparison with the “I want my MTV” chic of the Gore camp.) Bruni offers rare snapshots of the rituals of the campaign trail and informative analyses of not only Bush the politician, but Bush the man. (Fans of Tim Crouse’s legendary The Boys On the Bus should particularly enjoy this.)
Bruni’s final words on Bush, though - “evasive, mundane, stuttering, sincere, sweet, and in the end, both a bit platitudinous and profound” - leave us with an important thought: Mr. Gore, we want more.