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Authors: Richard Ben Cramer

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BOOK: What It Takes
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Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t even live in the house, or the bubble, they tried to make for him. He moved out after one day, said he had better security—and fewer fellas in the way—at his own home in Washington. But when George Bush began to live every minute surrounded by a half-dozen trim young fellows, he had ... six new friends! Every day! If only he could throw a horseshoe like Jimmy here, then his happiness would be complete. (But! Wait till the next match. There
... be a
from the Veep ... an
upset ...

Lyndon Johnson, the last Texan in the job, was never the same after three years as second banana to a glamor boy who disdained him. They
him, all those Kennedy guys. It ate at him like a worm inside, and it left him embittered. But when George Bush took the job, he decided Ronald Reagan was going to be his friend. George and Bar decided without even talking: they were going to
the Reagans. And they did, right away. They
the Reagans. The only surprise, Bush told his old friends, was how easy it was. Reagan turned out to be a great guy! The way he told those funny stories! You
to like the guy.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been no charming jokes, if Reagan had been a vicious drooler; just as it did not matter that Reagan had no talent for friendship, no personal connections apart from Nancy. In fact, Reagan couldn’t remember his grandchildren’s names, and he had no friends, only the husbands of Nancy’s friends. It didn’t matter! Bush had the talent, a genius for friendship. And like every genius, he worked at it: if Ronald Reagan connected with others solely by means of funny stories, George Bush would bring him funny stories. In fact, the Vice President’s staff knew he didn’t want briefing memos for the weekly lunch with Reagan: the way to earn a stripe in the OVP was to give him
a joke for the President
. This was no laughing matter to Bush. It was the core of his life’s method. Back in 1978, when George Bush was an obscure ex-CIA chief, just starting to run for President, someone asked him: What made Bush think he could be President? “Well,” Bush said, without pause, “I’ve got a big family, and
of friends.” Later in that campaign, he learned the “proper” answer, some mumbo-jumbo about experience, entrepreneurship, philosophy of government. ... But the first answer was true. George Bush was trying to become President by making friends, one by one if need be, and Ronald Reagan was a Big One.

It certainly didn’t matter that they disagreed—that Voodoo Economics thing, and a few other differences, on civil rights, the environment, education, energy, and U.S. policy on Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Soviet relations. Of course they disagreed, because George Bush knew five times more about the governments of the world—his own included—than Ronald Reagan ever would. But it didn’t matter! The fact is, they didn’t disagree anymore, because George Bush would not disagree with the President. This was another of George Bush’s talents: accommodation. He had the capacity to act on the judgments of others, to live within the bounds of received wisdom. It was a talent that had smoothed his path from his parents’ home, through prep school and the U.S. Navy, where the lessons of life were delivered explicitly, and later through Yale, business, and politics, where things grew murkier, and the judgments one lived by had to be doped out. But he did divine them: he was always sensitive to the ethic around him. And to the extent he could accommodate himself, he flourished, and made friends every step of the way. In 1964, he first ran for Senate as a Goldwater man, and though Bush lost, Goldwater was still a friend twenty-two years later. In 1966, for a House seat from Houston, he ran as a Main Street Republican, then served and voted with the moderate mainstream, as a backer of Richard Nixon. And in 1970, when he ran and lost for Senate again (this time, slightly to the left of his rival), he asked his Big Friend, President Nixon, for a job at the UN, which he’d roundly reviled as a Goldwater man. By 1980, the accommodation to Ronald Reagan was just a walk in the park.

And it did not matter if the Reaganauts couldn’t see him as one of their own. They screwed most of his friends out of jobs, stopped talking when he came into the room, made jokes about him when he was absent. He knew it, just as surely as Johnson had known. Hell, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, the way reporters would ask his staff: “People, uh, in the Cabinet meetings tell me Bush never says anything. ... Is that true?” Or they’d just print it: “
Administration sources
said the Vice President had nothing to contribute. ...” Of course he knew who the sources were. Some were the same hypocrites who came to his office
the meeting, asking him to back their schemes, talk to the President for them. ... Then, when he wouldn’t, they’d have some columnist in for breakfast and, just in passing, smiling, with a wedge of grapefruit on their spoons, they’d saw Bush off at the knees. Oh, he knew the game! Still, he never got into that White House cockfight: an eye for an eye, a leak for a leak. Could have had a pro, Jimmy Baker, do it for him. But he wouldn’t: it was a matter of loyalty to the team, loyalty to the President; most of all, a matter of discipline.

This was another of Bush’s great talents: personal discipline. There were no leaks from the OVP: there was
not one story
saying George Bush was unhappy with this or that decision, or the President overrode objections from George Bush. In fact, there were no stories suggesting Bush had opinions at all, even before a decision came down, even when it would have gotten him off the hook. It would have been so easy: when Ed Meese was filling Reagan’s ear with some Neanderthal antiblack screed, sticking the administration’s nose into a civil rights fight, putting them all in the soup ...on the
wrong side
of the issue! And here’s a reporter in Bush’s armchair, gently inviting: “Mr. Vice President, it seems that you might be less comfortable with something like this. ...” But Bush wouldn’t bite. Never. Christ, the reporters were easy. One of his own aunts came at him, drove him right out of his chair, trying to have a
serious discussion
—why Ronald Reagan refused to have arms talks with the Russians. Years later, she was still half-convinced Bush was willfully stupid, or had the attention span of an eight-year-old. Didn’t matter! They could all think so, and he wouldn’t lift a finger to prove them wrong. He wouldn’t even let his staff help. His first Chief of Staff, Admiral Murphy, used to haul every staffer in for a talk, to let them know they had only one job: to help George Bush do
job, and
job was to help the President. There would be
disagreement between members of the Vice President’s staff and the President’s staff. They
could not argue with anyone in the White House
. Admiral Dan had them all in, down to the girls who’d answer the phones. And with the same flair he’d once shown as Commander of the Sixth Fleet, he’d warn:

“Honey, tonight, you’re gonna go out with your boyfriend. And you’re gonna go to a bar, and you’re gonna have a drink. And you’re gonna want to tell him what a
guy you’re working for, and what a
great thing
he did today ... and how he saved the President from the
most awful thing
that somebody else was trying to do. ... Sweetheart, you don’t know who’s in the next booth, do you? So ... DON’T SAY A GODDAM THING!”

It got so the whole OVP was a whisper zone in that gray granite building across the street from the White House. People and paper moved back and forth down the dark, lofty halls of the Old EOB—earnest young people, of good families, sons and daughters of George Bush’s friends, would
between the offices, flushed with the press of business for the Vice President. And nothing came out! George Bush would go out to speak, all over the country, twenty, twenty-five days a month (he wouldn’t duck a chance to help the Party, the President) ... and nothing would be heard of him! True, the speeches weren’t about George Bush, or what he was doing, or what he thought. They weren’t about anything, really, except what a great country, and a great President, we had. That was fine with Bush. All the positions, all the speeches, were just politics to him. The rest, the friendships, or loyalty to the President, those were personal matters—matters of the personal code. That was where Bush’s talents lay, and the only thread of steel running through his life to his seventh decade. He wasn’t going to let politics change the
way he was.
God forbid! It was all personal with George Bush. He couldn’t see things any other way.

Of course, he would accommodate. After he came off like such a stiff in the ’84 reelection, and his personal polls took a dive, and reporters on his plane got so nasty, then his friends ganged up and made him change the staff: they told him he had to, if he ever wanted to be President; they called it a more “political” support team. That’s when he signed on Lee Atwater—neither son nor friend to any old Bush-friend—to run the PAC and the campaign to come. That’s when he had to let Dan Murphy go, and hire Craig Fuller as the new Chief of Staff. Fuller was a young White House pro: neat, calm, organized, and people said he knew how to stick the knife, if he had to. But he was another stranger. Jeez, Bush would call the office now, and half the people who answered were strangers! He’d live with it, if that’s what it took. But it just wasn’t ... friendly. And it wasn’t really fair to Dan. Those rules weren’t Dan’s rules, they were Bush’s. Bush told him just how he meant to do the job, even before he got elected. It was the fall of ’80, at the same lunch where he offered Dan the job. Murphy had been his deputy at the CIA. They could talk frankly. And Bush told him point-blank, wanted him to know how it was going to be, had to be ...

“I’ve thought a lot about it,” Bush said. “I know I’m not gonna have much input on policy, nothing substantive to do at all ...

“And I’ve decided, I can be happy with that.”

And he had been happy. That’s what no one could get through their heads, except Bar, of course. That’s one of the reasons he loved her: she understood things without talking. She was better at it than he was!

What was the Vice Presidency?

wonderful adventure.

He had decided—
had decided—that it would be, just as he had decided how he was going to do the job. This was the ultimate triumph of discipline, and George Bush’s greatest talent: the power of mindset. He could decide—they could decide—how it was going to be, and then it
was that way
... because no one,
no one
, would ever see them treating it any other way.

They loved the Reagans.


Because they
loved the Reagans.
They had decided.

And it didn’t start in 1980. Talent like that comes from a lifetime. There was the time George Bush’s career picked them up and moved them to Houston, and the wife of a business friend gave a tea for Barbara, to show her off to the ladies.

So they came to meet her, and one after the other, they asked: “And where do
come from?”

Bar said sweetly: “I live in Houston now.”

“Oh. Yes, but ... where do you

And Bar, with her smile still placid, beatific, replied: “Houston is my home now.”

They weren’t going to put her in that box, thank you. And they weren’t going to hand her husband a carpetbag, either. She had decided.

But the brilliance of it was, it wasn’t one party, one lunch with Admiral Dan, or one talk to the staff. It was there every day, unwavering.

What is the Vice Presidency?

A wonderful adventure. Every day.

So, every day, he did a little more, made another friend, signed more photos, wrote more notes to people he’d met ... every day. If no one could see that ... it didn’t matter! He had it in the bank. And every day, he did a little more.

Fly across the country and back for a ball game?

A wonderful adventure! He’d get his son Jeb to fly in from Florida, and bring
son, George P. ... And he’d call his eldest son, George, too. George and Laura were in Midland, just across the state, they could fly in, with friends. ... He’d make it a friends-and-family thing. Bar’ll come. Sure, she’ll come. It’ll be fun!

So the kids flew in to Houston, and they all met at the Astrohall, at the cocktail thing, before the game, and it was fun, sort of ...

But then they walked to the Dome, and the Service whisked the VP away to some bathroom downstairs, or some damn place, and the others were led to their seats in the park, the Vice President’s party to the owner’s box on the first-base line, and the others to seats somewhat removed. And that was the first bit of trouble: George W. Bush, George Bush the Younger, who’d gotten his wife and a couple of friends, and the friends’ private plane, and had flown across the state from Midland, Texas, to be with his father and mother at the ball game ... Georgie Bush, the firstborn, first son, the biggest and most jagged chip off the old block,
, as some friends now called him,
George W. Bush ...
along with his wife and friends, whom he’d roped into flying across the state, five hundred statute miles, and back, in the same night, for this game, to be with George
H. W.
, and Barbara Bush ... was sitting off behind home plate.

“These our seats?”

Junior’s voice was mild, but the Advance man hastily checked the envelope to make sure. There was edge on that word, “our” ... there was a hint of ominous meaning in the glance Junior cast to his right, toward the field, toward the biblical Box Seat. Suddenly, there was more than a whiff of trouble in the air. This almost subsensory impression was reinforced a moment later, as Junior added quietly:


The Advance man decided he’d better run off and check.

What the fuck is GOING ON here?
They were screwing around with the wrong guy. Junior was now standing, staring at the Box Seat, watching who sat down behind Barbara Bush and the seat reserved for his father. There was Jeb, and his boy, P.
got seats with the old man. ... And a lot of them were Service. Most of them would leave. Anyway, they had to be there. Wait a minute! There was Fuller, the new Chief of Staff, and one of his paper-pushers.
Are they sitting DOWN? ... Well, wait just a damn minute!

BOOK: What It Takes
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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