With George W. Rising, Jon Bush of New York Is a Player Again

Remember Jonathan Bush? Until recently, former President George Bush’s younger brother, a frustrated Broadway hoofer turned money manager who was once a top New York Republican power broker, had disappeared into the same void that swallowed up Donald Nixon and Billy Carter. Yet unlike those hapless First Brothers, Jonathan Bush is back for a second act.

His return from oblivion is simple: His nephew, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, has emerged as the odds-on favorite for next year’s Republican Presidential nomination, even though he has yet to declare his candidacy. Early polls show him beating Vice President Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s heir-apparent, which means that he’s likely to begin getting all kinds of support from calculating politicians who don’t wish to be the last passenger on the bandwagon. Not surprisingly, then, powerful New York Republicans suddenly remember what a charming, amiable fellow Jonathan Bush is, and such a dancer!

The 67-year-old Mr. Bush clearly is enjoying his re-emergence as a man to see, to quote, and to flatter. So when he talked to the New York Post about First Lady Hillary Clinton’s possible U.S. Senate run in New York next year, Mr. Bush offered a quote that sounded as though it was eight years in the making: “She makes Geraldine Ferraro look like the Virgin Mary.” Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s possible Senate campaign has nothing to do with George W. Bush’s possible Presidential campaign, but Jonathan Bush clearly didn’t want to pass up a chance to offer a red-meat partisan opinion, now that he is back in currency. Mr. Bush, once lauded in The New York Times as “first-rate hayseed” for his portrayal of Will Parker in an Off-Broadway production of Oklahoma , clearly “was having fun and being funny,” said his son Billy Bush, a morning radio host on Z104-FM in Washington, D.C.

When his older brother was in power, Mr. Bush dined with prime ministers and kings at the White House and threw his weight around with varying degrees of success in New York’s Republican Party. Then Bill Clinton was elected and Mr. Bush found he didn’t have as many admirers as he might have thought. There were no more funny soft-shoe routines at Albany press dinners. Nobody called him to lead audiences in songs at political rallies. Some even said he was frozen out by former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who had backed Bob Dole against his brother in the 1988 Republican Presidential primaries. “Jon was basically shut out as soon as his brother was out of the White House,” said a Republican operative.

But now that another Bush stands a good chance of being President, people suddenly can’t overstate what a wonderful political asset he is. “Jon knows his way around,” said socialite Georgette Mosbacher, a Republican National Committee woman. “He knows this state from top to bottom. He knows the landscape, the landmines, and he knows the players. And he has an institutional memory which will serve his nephew very well.”

“He is well respected,” said Peter Powers, a former first deputy mayor and a close friend of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “He certainly has a good name. People will pay close attention to him.”

A Big Game of Gossip

It’s not clear what role Mr. Bush will play if his nephew decides to pull a John Quincy Adams on the American electorate. He declined The Observer ‘s request for an interview for this story. But it’s clear that Mr. Bush still loves politics, which he once referred to as “a big game of gossip.” So there’s little doubt that he will be involved in his nephew’s campaign. He already is quietly reaching out to big New York contributors on his nephew’s behalf. “What he can do is bring back some of the former Reagan and Bush supporters in New York who have not been active in New York politics for the last eight years or so,” said Zenia Mucha, communications director for Governor Pataki, who is said to be considering an endorsement of the Texas Governor. “He’ll be able to muster up some financial support.”

“A lot of Republicans are trying to get a line into Governor Bush,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “Jon has made himself a line.”

If George W. Bush wins next year’s election, Jonathan Bush once again will rub shoulders with world leaders at White House social events. And he will be almost certainly be surrounded by courtiers and fawning party hacks who may encourage him to relive his glory days as a New York political macher , never mind that while he has an apartment on the Upper East Side, he votes in Killingworth, Conn. Said a Republican insider: “A guy whose nephew is President of the United States is always an important guy.”

Mr. Bush has always benefited from such connections. He is said to be a charming man who plays a mean game of tennis and enjoys a good joke. But people have always had a problem taking him seriously, perhaps because he always looked like someone’s goofy kid brother. He sounds just like his famous sibling, a fellow Yale graduate, when he opens his mouth. But he has big ears, a prominent nose and a self-deprecating grin.

Whether or not it’s fair, the image is understandable, because he has always played a supporting role in the Bush family. After spending two years in the Army, Mr. Bush made a serious attempt to become a professional song-and-dance man, studying with acting teacher Stella Adler, guru to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. He abandoned his quest at age 30 when he failed an audition for the Broadway production of “Take Me Along.”

Mr. Bush settled for a more traditional career, founding J. Bush & Company, a modest investment management firm. He did well enough as a money manager, but when his brother became Vice President in 1981, he leaped at the chance to do something more exciting.

Mr. Bush become the state Republican Party’s finance chairman in 1983. It was a job he thoroughly enjoyed. Not only did he raise millions of dollars to keep the ailing state party afloat; he wowed an audience at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association dinner in Albany with a musical send-up of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, sung to the tune of “Marian the Librarian.”

Mr. Bush’s finest hour, however, came when he played a key role in his brother’s victory in the 1988 Republican Presidential primary in New York. He stumped the state, praising the Vice President and leading audiences in a song entitled, “Vote for George Bush.” “Any brother who would do that must be pretty good,” said Robert Wood Johnson IV, a prominent Republican fund-raiser and a friend of Mr. Bush.

But the First-Brother-to-be also managed to thwart Mr. D’Amato’s push for Bob Dole, his brother’s nemesis. The struggle became so emotional that Mr. Bush and Mr. D’Amato nearly came to blows at one point, according to one press account.

But the two men reached an uneasy truce after the primary. In his memoir, Power, Politics and Pasta , Mr. D’Amato offered Mr. Bush the highest tribute: “He tirelessly promoted his brother, thinking nothing of speaking in Rochester in the morning and then having dinner on Long Island. He wined, dined and charmed in every county and district. He become one of our party’s best fund-raisers.”

But one Republican fund-raiser said that Mr. D’Amato was more interested in using Mr. Bush to attract donors than in calling on him for his political acumen. “D’Amato would use his name,” the fund-raiser said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I’m having a big fund-raiser and Jonathan Bush is coming.’ He made it sound like Joe Torre was coming or Tino Martinez. I don’t think [Mr. Bush] ever had any influence in making candidates or anything like that.”

But he wasn’t shy about testing his political clout. In the midst of the 1988 Presidential race, Mr. Bush tried to throw former G.O.P. state chairman Richard Rosenbaum off the Republican National Committee because he refused to support his brother. Despite his myriad of connections, Mr. Bush failed miserably. “I think everybody just resented him playing the 500-pound gorilla,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled.

Lost Causes

The Rosenbaum debacle was only the beginning. After his brother was elected, Mr. Bush tirelessly championed a long list of Republican lost causes, including U.S. Senate candidate Robert McMillan and gubernatorial candidate Pierre Rinfret. He tried to broker a truce between Ronald Lauder and Rudolph Giuliani during the 1989 Republican mayoral primary by promoting the notion of a Lauder-Giuliani ticket. It went nowhere.

Then in 1990, Mr. Bush blurted out to the New York Post that he disagreed with his brother’s anti-abortion stance, fueling speculation that the Bush family was on the fence over the contentious issue. It was the last thing President Bush needed as he infuriated conservatives by raising taxes despite his famous “no new taxes” pledge.

But President Bush remained loyal to his younger brother. And Jonathan Bush returned the favor. In the final days of the 1992 race against Mr. Clinton, he was seen stumping in a Bush-Quayle T-shirt at a supermarket in Medford, L.I., with a doomed Congressional candidate. “The tide’s turning, folks,” he said. “It’s coming in like you’ve never seen.” He probably should have tried the soft-shoe approach.

When Mr. Clinton won, Mr. Bush, who had stepped down as finance chairman in 1989, found there was little demand for his talents-either in fund raising or song and dance.

Some blame Mr. D’Amato, his old adversary. Others say Mr. Bush lost his political juice once his brother was defeated. But now that he has another relative running for President, Mr. Bush is reminding New Yorkers that he’s still here.

“He’s been on the phone,” said Ms. Mosbacher. “Make no mistake: He’s been on the phone touching base with the powers that be in this state. He has been working on it for a while. He is a real asset. No question about it.”