The first father: Proud, engaged and deeply frustrated

There are times in the life of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States and father of the 43rd, that people, perfect strangers, come up to him and say the harshest things.

The first father: Proud, engaged and deeply frustrated
Words intended to comfort but words that wind up only causing pain."I love you, sir, but your son's way off base here," they might say, according to Ron Kaufman, a longtime adviser to Bush, who has witnessed any number of such encounters - perhaps at a political fund-raiser, or a restaurant dinner, a chance meeting on the streets of Houston or Kennebunkport, Maine. They are, he says, just one way the presidency of the son has taken a toll on the father.

"It wears on his heart," Kaufman said, "and his soul."

These are distressing days for the Bush family patriarch, only the second former president in American history, after John Adams, to see his son take the White House. At 83, he finds it tough to watch his son get criticized from the sidelines; often, he likens himself to a Little League father whose kid is having a rough game. And like the proud and angry Little League dad who cannot help but yell at the umpire, sometimes he just cannot help getting involved.

The official line from the White House is that 41, as he is known in Bush circles, gives advice to 43 only when asked. But interviews with a broad range of people close to both presidents - including family members like the elder Bush's daughter, Doro Bush Koch, and aides who have worked for both men, like Andrew Card Jr. - suggest a far more complicated father-son dynamic, in which the former president is not nearly so distant as the White House would have people believe.

They talk almost every morning by phone, and Bush studiously avoids saying anything critical of his son, close associates say. But he has privately expressed irritation with some of his son's aides. At times, he has urged White House officials to seek outside advice, and he has passed on his own foreign policy wisdom to the president, even as he makes a point of saying his son's administration is not his.

He views himself, in Koch's words, as "a loving father, first and foremost," but as he himself suggested to a group of insurance agents at a recent dinner in Minneapolis, loving fathers find it tough to stay away.

"Any parent in this audience knows exactly how I feel," Bush said in response to a question about what it was like to have a son as president. "It's no different. You've got to look at it strictly as family - not that anyone is a big shot, even though he's president of the United States. It's family. It's the pride of a father in his son."

This weekend, the elder Bush will preside over his clan's annual summer gathering at Walker's Point, their grand seaside spread in Kennebunkport. There will be the usual horseshoe games, fishing trips and speedboat rides, plus a visit from the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy - a classic Bush family tableau, but one that does not capture the delicate course the elder Bush has charted in playing the roles of father and former president at the same time.

It is a balancing act. The former president keeps up his contacts with world leaders - last year, for instance, he invited President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to spend a night at Kennebunkport - but is discreet. Once, during an intimate dinner with the king of Morocco, he called the White House and got the president on the phone.

"He put the king on, just like that," one startled guest recalled. "No national security advisers, no nothing, just the president talking with the king of Morocco."

He is a frequent visitor to the White House. He still loves eating at the White House mess and has breakfast or coffee with Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, whenever he comes, mostly to chew over political gossip. From time to time, he picks up the phone to talk policy with Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff. He called Bolten's predecessor, Card, about every other week.

Mostly, said Card, who was transportation secretary to the elder Bush and views himself as "a bridge" between the generations, the father was simply checking on his son. But sometimes the ex-president would raise a foreign policy question, or suggest the White House reach out to those "in his circle," like James Baker, the former secretary of state, or Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, who has been openly critical of the war in Iraq.

"He made sure that I knew there were experts around that we should be reaching out to or listening to," Card said, adding: "I never felt that the former president was trying to meddle in the responsibilities that the president had. But he cares deeply about his son."

Some authors have asserted that there is rivalry between the two Bushes; the journalist Bob Woodward, for instance, reported in his book "Plan of Attack" that when asked if he sought his father's advice before going to war, the president said: "You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

The rivalry theory flared up again last year, at the christening of the Navy's newest Nimitz aircraft carrier, the George H. W. Bush. The president joked that given the ship's qualities - "she is unrelenting, she is unshakeable, she is unyielding" - it should have been named for his mother. The line brought a laugh, but some close to the elder Bush winced at what seemed a subtle dig.

As to what is said in private conversations between father and son, no one can be certain. When phone calls come in from Houston or Kennebunkport, White House aides make themselves scarce. But Card says it is clear to him that family talks were not always confined to family matters.

"It was relatively easy for me to read the sitting president's body language after he had talked to his mother or father," Card said. "Sometimes he'd ask me a probing question. And I'd think, Hmm, I don't think that question came from him."

The former president is often asked how he steers clear of second-guessing his son, and his answer is always the same: that he is not qualified to second-guess because only the occupant of the Oval Office has complete access to the kind of intelligence reports that inform presidential decisions.

Even so, those close to the former president say it is clear that the father has been dissatisfied with the performance of some of his son's aides, notably Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense.

"I think it is accurate to say that there's a feeling that a lot of the aides around him have not served the president well - Rumsfeld is one," said one person close to the elder Bush who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

IHT
Last Mod: 10 Ağustos 2007, 09:50
Add Comment