Let Me Be Your Guide: I Understand Bush Men

When I started this column about 15 years ago, in the first issue of this paper, I called it “The Midas Watch” in recognition of the revival in the 1980’s of an idea that had been suppressed in American public life for the better part of six decades: namely, that wealth represents a form of virtue. From the Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War and up through the 70’s, wealth had been considered to be, basically, money. The metaphysical component was lacking–and this, mind you, in an era which could both define and spell “metaphysical.”

Now comes my editor, a man for whom my respect and affection know no bounds, with the request that I divert at least a number of these columns from the consideration of the notionally transmutational power of lucre (and whatever the circulating medium is thought to be able to buy, which these days is just about anything or anyone) and do what, for lack of a better word, might be called “The Bush Watch.”

This request is based on the assumption that I, as a WASP, and of a certain age, am perhaps well placed to interpret what is going on in Washington: a situation which seems to have many pundits, most of whom appear to write for The New York Times and one or two in this paper, foaming at the mouth and writing absolute rabid nonsense.

Other factors may also equip me for the daunting task. I went to Yale, where I was pledge chairman of the Fence Club, a fraternity that made up in sophistication and polish what our next-door neighbors at Deke (George W.’s fraternity) boasted in the way of sheer animal exuberance. I should add, in hasty mitigation of the foregoing, that the President’s Yale career and mine parted company at that point: my B.A. degree reads magna cum laude , my senior society was Elihu, not Bones (I was a legacy to Scroll & Key), and I have a Phi Beta Kappa key that was last seen, almost a quarter-century ago, hanging on its gold chain (a monument to a transient phase of sheer 70’s sartorial idiocy!) from a bedpost in a Neuilly premises that housed one of Madame Claude’s more toothsome operatives.

It gets better. The President’s great-uncle, the late James W. Walker, the nicest guy who ever lived, was my godfather. The President’s and my father both served with distinction in naval aviation in World War II, both on carriers in the Pacific. In palmier days, I not only sat on the board of Zapata, the offshore-drilling company the President’s father ran after he and his Midland partners, the Liedtke brothers, parted company, but–years earlier–my first serious summer job had been to drive a truck for Halliburton, of which my father was a director for 30-odd years, and of which the President’s partner in (punditically perceived) evil, Vice President Dick Cheney, served as chief executive.

George W. Bush’s father was an East Coast boy who went to Texas to seek his fortune; my father was a Texas boy who came East to seek his. The President made his money out of the Texas Rangers; my father had investments at various times in the Detroit Tigers, the California Angels and (as I did myself) the Los Angeles Rams.

I list all this only to make the point that I understand the milieu from which the President derives, especially the Texas-East Coast axis (I myself lived in Dallas for the better part of 1978-79), back to front, up and down. As I do, thanks to 30 years in and around Wall Street and the corridors of corporate America, the milieu from which spring the people around him. I know what it is like to be the son of a man who had a “good war,” at a time when such a thing was still conceivable.

That said, I think anyone who has read this column for a long time will know that I am not an unreconstructed Bushie. It was this space that first nicknamed the first President George (H.W.) Bush “Herbert Hoover Poppy,” in recognition of the perception that the senior Bush appeared to try to govern the country with his résumé. I was highly critical of George H. throughout his term. I felt he had let down the WASP ethos in an effort to be political, and that We the Taxpayers and We the People were the worse off for it. I voted, to my everlasting shame, for that charlatan Bill Clinton, displaying a misjudgment of character (not of an individual only, but also of a generation that has so far shown me nothing) that will keep me spinning in my grave through the better part of eternity, I expect. In the last election, I voted for Ralph Nader, since as a New Yorker I had been made to understand that a Nader vote might count toward the 5 percent “third-party” target. If our electoral system were different, I would have voted for George W., if only as the lesser of two mediocre choices, because no power in Heaven, on Earth or in Hades was going to allow me to vote for Al Gore.

Now–no thanks to me–George W. sits in the Oval Office. I think I understand, given my knowledge of the way people like this think, what they are trying to do. And therefore, conversely, what they are not trying to do–which in many instances is synonymous with what certain pundits accuse them of trying to do. This is not an apologia, although I have argued–as I have with respect to each of the three other administrations that have taken office since I began The Midas Watch–that it behooves us to hold our tongues and watch until patterns become clear and we have something into which to sink our teeth, or on which to pin our rosy hopes.

So let me quickly make a few points. The first is that the George W. Bush administration strikes me as trying to be the sort of administration the President and his advisers, including his father , think or wish the first President Bush’s administration had been. Guided by certain basic principles, almost apolitical, and with a sublime indifference to media and Beltway aspirations. “Aloof,” these men realize, is a workable substitute for “dignified” in an age where dignity is hard both to come by and to keep. An age without heroes, like the present, is a tough age in which to govern, because the entire notion of exemplarity is called into question in consequence of a morally shiftless relativism.

Men like this tend to rate “professional” more highly than “political”–with the exception of “professional politicians” like Bill Clinton, whom they rate at the absolute bottom of the charts. They are bottom-line types, which does not mean rapacious, but means a capacity and inclination to think net, net, net . To balance off costs against incomes, wins against losses, denominated in real rather than political capital. As a result, envy and resentment and–oddly enough–naked ambition do not count as coin of the realm in their calculations, which can produce a woeful, even suicidal political shortsightedness. Inside the Beltway, it’s the Gores, so striving and politically calculating it makes your teeth hurt, that can carry the day. But not against people who happen to think that the Beltway is only the place where, for better or worse, the office happens to be located.

This manifests itself in a tendency to give an ear only to people who have had “real jobs,” who have “met a payroll”–which leaves out 99.9 percent of the pronouncing media and practically the same percentage of the Capitol Hill population. My guess is that the present administration has looked at what they’ve inherited and concluded, as have I, that the 90’s were basically a wonderful game in which every rule of common sense and political economy was flouted thanks to a series of near-miraculous circumstances that may now be in danger of running out. It felt unreal, and now it turns out it may have been. In an economy as truly wonderful as we were told ours was, at the height of the dot-com boom and the 11,000 Dow Jones, you do not end up with a power shortage in California. Which seems to be the right place to put in that such people also have a basic mistrust of, if not downright loathing for, Wall Street.

They belong to a generation that was taught a good deal of history. The President was a member of one of the last Yale classes to graduate before our alma mater sank into the Dark Ages from which it only now seems to be emerging. Such men live the connection between past and present. They know that the world depends on “why” and “how” and not merely on “how much.”

I think all of these are qualities that we expected of Bush I, but didn’t see. But they are coming through loud and clear in Bush II. And I think there is one huge reason why, which is simply that the President is at ease with who he is, and his father wasn’t.

To understand this assertion, we have to go back to the Texas-East Coast axis. George H.W. was a carpetbagger, which is, after all, a term coined to describe a North-to-South flow and not the other way round, as we in New York, with the examples of R.F.K. and Mrs. Clinton before us, tend to think. I don’t think H.W. ever lived comfortably in his Texas skin, which made him politically unsure down the line. He lived in Texas, but I doubt he ever felt like it was home , and that carried over into H.W.’s time in the White House.

But W., I believe, is comfortable with who he is–a Texas boy, born and bred, whereas Daddy was an interloper. I’m a New Yorker in a way I know my father never quite felt he was. Park Avenue and River Oaks are not just addresses, they’re states of mind, and we all know it’s entirely possible to have the one without the other.

As a Texan, W. doesn’t mistrust money, the way East Coast WASP boys his age were taught. He knows that for this particular economy to work for the greatest benefit, the rich are going to get richer, no two ways about it. It’s not a truth I’m particularly crazy about, but it’s the way it is. W.’s been in the oil business, so he has a fair grasp of contingency. On his own, and watching his dad mismanage Zapata–a company in a business where bribery and backscratching were what got the big contracts and the best day-rates–he knows what failure feels like; it’s no fun. He feels about the media the way most businessmen do, the way Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes felt about the forward pass: put it in the air or shoot your mouth off, and there’s three things that can happen, and two of ’em are bad.

Bottom line: W. and his people are who they are. That “who” is folks whom Maureen Dowd, with her clumsy Sopranos fantasy metaphors, or others I could name closer to home, are just never going to understand. Which may be the strongest recommendation of all for the rest of us to give them a chance. Let Me Be Your Guide: I Understand Bush Men