The Bush Family: An American Tragedy

The Bush family has done more damage to American politics and history than any other.

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My father's question about George W. Bush gone missing from public sight during the 2012 campaign—grounded at the Crawford ranch?—prompted thoughts on the best and worst of the family from whence he came. Nobody running for president has even uttered his name. I wonder why.

[See a photo gallery of Bush's legacy.]

Give me Prescott Bush any day. He did no harm as the patrician elder Bush who actively supported Planned Parenthood. He served in the Senate like a proper Greenwich, Conn. WASP without breaking any of the nation's teacups or starting any tempests at home or abroad. Prescott, strictly a country clubber, had nice manners and knew how to behave in front of company.

Prescott was the best of the bunch of Bushes, the family that has done more damage to American politics and history than any other. No other comes close, people, in all our years since 1776. The Adamses and the Roosevelts are the two best political families, by far. But right now in the times we live, we have the Bushes to thank for the way it is, so here's my thank you note.

(The tragic irony of it all is they have no idea how tragic they are.)

In the second generation, President George Herbert Walker Bush was a minor disaster, if naming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court as "the best man for the job" can be called minor. (It became major league in late 2000.) This clubby Bush was all about the best resume he could build, his monument in the desert. So he "deserved" to be president because it was the last brick in the pyramid. Yale baseball star, Navy pilot, Texas oilman, Republican congressman, and party this and that, later head of the CIA. He had not much in mind other than being president, writing breezy yet lordly thank you notes from the Oval Office. In waiting, he played the part of Ronald Reagan's understudy well.

Some think he acquitted himself well in the first Gulf War—a warm-up, as we see now. OK, that war was a good team sport, building a multinational coalition. We'll give him that. The end of the Cold War happened on his watch and he didn't mess it up. But not for one moment—maybe one—was he a man of the American people. He was a man of his class and generation. Seldom did he get caught cracking a book. A gentlemanly C+ for his one term in office.

When my mind falls on the truly tragic Bush—the senator's grandson George W. Bush—they are all implicated. Yes, he's the worst, but the apple didn't fall far from the tree. For one thing, the third Bush would not have gone into politics if it wasn't his birthright as the eldest son with something to prove to his genial, distant father. Oh yes, Freud and the Bard are written all over this private and public tragedy.

[Jamie Stiehm: George W. Bush's Legacy is No Laughing Matter]

What is not as obvious is that the second George has his mother Barbara's rather rude temperament. He is more his mother's son that way and he grew up as her favorite, while Jeb is his father's. Living in Texas exile (from her rich Connecticut family) turned her hair white and stole her looks, but her personality always had an acerbic edge. Her family was the kind who "hated" Franklin D. Roosevelt for being a traitor to his class. Very nice. The boys went to "nothing but the best" prep schools back east—and Yale—to remind them where they came, nicknames, fraternities and all.

Truly the younger George became the worst of both worlds: Eastern elitism and entitlement without the intellectual depth, and Texan swagger without the good-heartedness. His family made him so. As the governor of Texas, he went for the prize. His father indirectly provided the fifth vote on the Supreme Court that broke the presidential deadlock in Florida. The Bushes like to win and don't care much how. Brother Jeb, as governor of Florida, was able to lend a hand. Another thing that has his handwriting on it was the "Stand Your Ground" statute that is being questioned as a trigger, so to speak, in the recent shooting death of a black youth, Trayvon Martin.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks cut the Bush psyche and presidency like crystal. He took them oddly personally and used them as a pretext to settle a score by invading Iraq. (See, Dad?) Somehow he managed to escape any blame for ignoring intelligence briefings just weeks before in August. Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brought out the best in our national character after Pearl Harbor, Bush brought out the worst in us, discouraging any shared sacrifice. Sadly, the nation became fearful of public spaces and strangers, willing to surrender civil liberties without a struggle. In the aftermath of September 11, we were easily led.

[See photos of the 10th anniversary of 9/11]

Because it seemed so Shakespearean to me, I imagined the president saying some anguished lines in Elizabethan blank verse on Air Force One when he heard of the attacks: "Tragedy never was my cup of tea/and Terrorism never haunted me/Always an away game till this damned day."

On the ground from his secret location, Vice President—or Lord—Dick Cheney tells him, "It's your moment, your grace, to make your place."

Then there's Donald Rumseld, lord of the Pentagon, on the other line:"By golly, the 21st century war/has just come knocking, crashing at our door."

[Jamie Stiehm: Moving Forward from 9/11]

That dark day is one we are still paying for—in the trillions for two wars and the resulting recession. American foreign policy lost its moral authority and disappointed the whole world as the 21st century opened. Young people—college graduates in this economy and soldiers coming home with wounds barely seen—are paying the highest price of all.

But the Bushes are feeling pretty good about themselves. Nothing's wrong in their world. And they send their best.

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