Not Like His Father
Bush I and II each launched a war with Iraq. That's where the similarities end
On New Year's Day, President George W. Bush was visiting wounded soldiers at San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center. He found himself by the bed of a badly burned soldier, swathed in bandages. He was told she might not pull through. Surrounded by her family, he couldn't summon words to express his feelings. "I sat there and wept with them," he recalled later. "I didn't know what else to do."
Fifteen years ago, President George H. W. Bush experienced his own emotional moments with the troops. On a Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia amid a huge U.S. buildup in the Persian Gulf region, he grew flustered when a young lieutenant thanked him for being there. Tearing up, the president was momentarily speechless, then blurted out, "That's what Woody Allen said: 'Ninety percent of life is showing up.'"
It is a familiar scene for the father and son: those awkward meetings with soldiers in wartime, punctuated by the fact that neither is a man of natural eloquence.
The two Bush men are bound together in other ways. They are only the second father and son to become president (John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the first). And each launched a war against the same tyrant in the same country.
Yet curiously, there are more differences than similarities in their role as commander in chief. The 41st president was a coalition builder and a diplomat. The 43rd president was willing to go it alone and ignore international opprobrium. The first Bush had a sense of limits about American power. His son believes the military is his best tool for working his will abroad.
The two men made the case for war in different fashion as well. It is true the father's job was easier than his son's. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and was an unmistakable threat. Nonetheless, George Herbert Walker Bush tried to build consensus at home and abroad before starting the Gulf War.
George W. Bush made his case in a more controversial way, arguing for a pre-emptive strike to depose Saddam. He spoke of how the Iraqi dictator might use weapons of mass destruction and of his ties to terrorists. Those claims have never been proved.
It is striking that the son rarely cites his father as his role model as commander in chief. George W. Bush says the world has changed dramatically since his father's tenure, largely because of 9/11 and the threat posed by terrorists. The challenges he faces, he says, are unique. As Vice President Dick Cheney told U.S. News in January, "We're talking about the possibility of a handful of terrorists--a relatively few individuals--able to get their hands on, say, a biological agent or a nuclear weapon and do enormous harm inside the United States. That's sort of the ultimate threat we face today. And it's a different kind of threat than we've ever faced before .... It forces us to think in new ways about how we defend the nation."
Grounded. This gospel of singularity informs Bush's role as commander in chief. It has led him to expand the authority and reach the presidency into areas his father never entered: domestic spying without warrants; detaining suspected terrorists without trial; conducting a vast, pre-emptive war against terrorists. "It requires certain qualities," says a senior White House official, "such as an unshakable will--and, particularly during a time of war--passion. Feelings are going to run higher than normal, and you have to be grounded, in the sense of knowing what you're doing and believing what you're doing is right."