Born to Run

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By Walt Harrington
Sunday, September 28, 1986

IT'S A 25-MINUTE RIDE AT A GOOD CLIP ON A ROUGH OCEAN TO the Saco River, where George Bush has heard the bluefish are biting. Along the way, he gives the nickel tour -- how to read the wind in the whitecaps, the island where he picnicked as a boy, the boulders hidden beneath the rising tide. Bush knows every rock along this Maine coast. He has come here 61 of his 62 summers. Only getting shot down in the Pacific kept him away in 1944. Soon he is trolling the Saco breakwater, fighting tangled lines and backlashed reels beneath cawing sea gulls swirling against a gunmetal sky. Bush leans comfortably against the captain's chair of his 28-foot Cigarette boat, the Fidelity, one hand on the wheel, the other holding his fishing rod off the starboard side. He wears old blue cotton pants, a ratty navy-blue pullover sweater, a camouflage cap and dirty Reeboks. And he tells his fisherman's tale: He caught three big blues a while back over at Wood Island Light.

Uh-huh, sure.

No, really.

GEORGE BUSH IS A POLITICAL PHENOM IN REVERSE.

HE HAS MADE A LIFE of mythic proportions seem somehow trivial, and he cannot understand why. He was the most lovable boy, always. President of his class at prep, president of everything else, too. Never a bad word about him. A war hero -- not like John Kennedy, but an undisputed war hero. Skull and Bones, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. Cushy job offers up the ying-yang. George said no. He packed his wife and infant son into an old red Studebaker and hit the road for godawful, roughnecking West Texas -- and drilled a fortune in black gold. Then Congress, the U.N., China, the CIA, Saint Reagan's veep. Most Americans view him darn favorably too, according to the pollsters. So why the mean quips? "There's no there there." Why the David Letterman gag lines? Why the "Doonesbury" attack on his manhood?

How did it ever come to this: George Herbert Walker Bush reviled as a whiny, waffling, boot-licking wimp?

What I knew of George Bush a few months ago is what you know of him now -- a grainy blur of telegenic biases: competent but boring, sometimes shrill, sometimes goofy, speaks high when low will do, Eastern scion hiding out in Texas, a moderate doing a Rose Mary Woods stretch to the Right. But this is TV knowledge, something akin to heat rising off a summer highway. The idea was to toss out all these vague impressions and start from scratch. What makes George run? Bush, jealous of his privacy, had his doubts. But his aides saw a chance to humanize his image, and they prevailed on him.

The door swung open for interviews with his brothers and sister, children, wife, mother, boyhood buddies, business partners and political cronies. There was a visit to his Waspy home town of Greenwich, Conn., a tour of the elegant Victorian where Bush grew up, walks along the streets of Midland, Tex., where he got rich. Finally, I was invited to Walker's Point, the Bush family compound in Maine, where Bush, his wife and their children and families were vacationing. They worshiped at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, ate hot dogs on the deck at Walker's Point, sang Happy Birthday to a Bush grandson. But George Bush and I also sat in the old caretaker's cottage and talked about what I had learned of his life and its two recurring themes -- great ability and great privilege. Bush is magical -- smart, funny, charming -- and I found myself wanting him to like me. Intimacy is his gift. But let's face it: Bush was handed opportunity after opportunity because of his family's wealth and influence, making him also a child of a lasting American inequality. As a boy, Bush wanted to be president, and his rare mix of ability and privilege has given him a shot.

Let me tell you, the vice president of the United States is very tired of hearing this. When I return to Walker's Point later that day for a fishing trip, Bush's wife, Barbara, pulls me aside. George had come back from the caretaker's cottage and said Barbara shouldn't be surprised if the boat returned one person lighter. I'm sure he was joking. But imagine his distress. One more story calling him just another rich man's kid. This story doesn't say that, but Bush couldn't have known that then. And as George Bush, his 40-year-old son George Jr. and I bob lazily on the Saco River, the vice president becomes suddenly reflective.

"I think you think 'class' is more important than I do," he says.

I suggest -- I'm smiling when I say this -- that people at the bottom of society often think social class is more important than do people at the top. But Bush will not be deterred. What did I mean when I said he was a product of America's upper class? Bush believes "class" is the snottiness and arrogance found in some rich people, those who think they are "better" than the less well-off. He says he has never felt that way. Exactly what does the word "class" mean to me?

This is an uncomfortable turning of the reportorial tables, and I am less than eloquent. But in fits and starts I say that "social class" is all about family connections and money and expectations and training, and what those can mean. I say the sons of fathers in high-level jobs end up in high-level jobs about half the time, while the sons of manual workers end up in high-level jobs about 20 percent of the time. I say that social class shapes everything from our self-esteem to our child-rearing to our sense of control over our lives. I say that education is the great American leveler -- but that rich kids get more of it. And that families like the Bushes often send their kids to expensive private schools to ensure their leg up.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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