Like Father, Don’t Like Son: Noble WASP Vs. Rogue Preppy

First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty , by Bill Minutaglio. Times Books, 371 pages, $25.

All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings , by George Bush. Scribner, 640 pages, $30.

Some people care whether George W. Bush was arrested on cocaine charges 27 years ago. He’s denied the story, and St. Martin’s Press has pulled a biography, Fortunate Son , that claimed as much and whose author, J.H. Hatfield, seems to have a serious criminal past of his own. Meantime, Times Books has published what it calls “the first major biography” of Mr. Bush: First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty , by a political reporter, Bill Minutaglio. First Son contains much more troubling information about Mr. Bush: He doesn’t seem to have ever read a book. People can put chemicals behind them–Mr. Bush was an alcoholic till about 14 years ago–but who can stop being stupid?

First Son wants to promote Mr. Bush, but the portrait is of someone with little if any mental life. At Yale University, where he got in thanks to his name, Mr. Bush was completely oblivious to all the troubling questions of the late 60’s. He spent his time inventing nicknames and organizing games of “squockey,” a mix of hockey and squash played with a tennis ball. By 30, life’s journey had taken him to Midland, Texas, where he worked his father’s connections, said he was “inebriated” when he meant “exhilarated,” gave more people rude nicknames and offered his secretary $100 to name her son George. His father ran for President, and young Mr. Bush became a thuggish enforcer, screaming at cameramen and columnists who displeased him.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t that smart, but he had clear ideas that came to him out of his experience. And it was obvious to everyone that Dan Quayle was a nitwit, so he never became a real threat to lead a nation. But Mr. Bush has masked his stupidity with a handsome swagger that people label “charisma.”

Every idea he’s ever had has been given to him by someone else. The one idea that is his own is a belligerent resentment of the 60’s, which makes sense: That’s the decade when he realized that the system of advancement he depended upon, lineage, had given way to a system of intelligence tests. So he rails against intellectual “heaviness” and “arrogance” in the East. Meaning, he can’t keep up.

The would-be President has none of his father’s fineness or grace, virtues on display in a volume of the former President’s letters, All the Best, George Bush , lately published by Scribner.

Here you see the best qualities of a vanishing patrician class. George H.W. Bush is dutiful, sincere, unpretentious and funny. His life is a noble one, dedicated to public service and family. One of his major initiatives as President–”a thousand points of light”–was, he admits, another way of saying ” noblesse oblige .” Time and again, he extends himself to suffering anonymous citizens. He writes long, awkward personal letters to cancer victims, telling of his own struggles during his daughter’s losing fight against leukemia. When he discovers that a welder is out of work because he can’t read, Mr. Bush sits down and writes a letter to make sure “Jesse”–first names, always–gets into a literacy program. This book is filled with such moving acts.

But there are hints here of the degraded first son, in the former President’s mean streak. In one vicious aside, he settles scores with Archibald Cox, saying that Mr. Cox leaked to Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart during Watergate (at a time when Mr. Bush was kowtowing to President Nixon). In another low blow, he mocks former ambassador Arthur Goldberg for making himself seem important by ordering staff to interrupt meetings and say the President was calling when he wasn’t.

Mr. Bush doesn’t seem to understand that he’s being mean. He’s angry, out of control. Which helps explain his spotty judgment, why he promoted nothings like Clarence Thomas and Mr. Quayle, and encouraged his boorish son to run for President.

The son lacks almost every good trait his father had. Mr. Bush père was a fine athlete and a war hero who left the East for Texas to make his fortune. Mr. Bush fils was a poor athlete, a no-account as a flier in the National Guard and a failure in business when he went to Texas to make a fortune. Despite calling on his father’s connections again and again, he has almost no achievements. His two successes in life, partnership in the Texas Rangers baseball team and the governorship of Texas, he owes to his big-money connections and Clintonesque enthusiasm. He has a googly-eyed charm. A “rogue preppy,” in Mr. Minutaglio’s description. In high school, George W. was head cheerleader.

What you see in him is the deracinated WASP. He has lost his place and his values, but he has got plenty of anger: anger at the 60’s, anger that his father was forced from office by a 60’s rebel. That anger is what seems to drive Mr. Bush.

He’s a better politician than his father, much shrewder. When he first thought of running for office, he knew that he needed a wife, and so, just three months after meeting Laura Welch, he married her. He must appeal to minority voters. So he learns Spanish and pretends to care about diversity.

Now Mr. Bush is the favorite to be our next President. I don’t think he will be; a lot will happen in 13 months. Privately, top editors say Mr. Bush’s elevator doesn’t go to the top floors. Maybe they will tell their readers this, make an issue of what a crude mind Mr. Bush has, rather than what he put up his nose in 1972.

Journalists are so reverent of the powerful that many of them are now seeking ways to find Mr. Bush impressive or heroic. A reporter for The Dallas Morning News , Mr. Minutaglio reminds me of a lackey in the English court. He finds the rituals of the Skull & Bones Society and the Delta Kappa Epsilon house at Yale endlessly fascinating; he seems to think Mr. Bush’s nicknames are hilarious and that they somehow make him larger than life.

Mr. Minutaglio has a lot to gain if Mr. Bush succeeds. He’d become the next David Maraniss, whose 1995 biography of Bill Clinton lifted both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Maraniss. Mr. Minutaglio mentions Mr. Maraniss approvingly in his preface and gave his book a title that sounds like an unconscious parody of the original, which was called First in His Class . Well, I’m sorry, Bill, you’re no David Maraniss. You don’t have Mr. Maraniss’ strong chin. And Mr. Maraniss would never have passed on, as amusing, Mr. Bush’s friend’s description of a poor Midland neighborhood as “nigger town.”

Copies are never as good or as interesting as the original. Young Mr. Bush is a bad copy. His father lost to Mr. Clinton because Mr. Clinton was more charismatic, crowd-pleasing and false. So Mr. Bush has shrewdly modeled the winning qualities of the usurper. And from his father and his father before that he has thrown out the best traits, sincerity, humility and a modicum of thoughtfulness, holding on only to the worst, entitlement.