The late I. F. Stone was a remarkable journalist. He worked exclusively from the public record -- newspapers, magazines and, of course, obscure government documents that only he seemed to read. For part of a weekend, I did an Izzy Stone on George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and, if the polls hold, the next president of the United States. The record is clear. This is a man who, had he not been George Bush's son, would not now be a presidential candidate.
Bush's entire business career was built on little more than the kindness rich men often bestow on the children of powerful politicians. He went into the oil business with the backing and connections of his father's friends and associates. When he ran into trouble, he sold 10 percent of the company to a friend of James Baker III, his father's eventual secretary of state. The company was worth $382,000 Time magazine tells us. The one-tenth share, though, went for $1 million.
With the company failing, Bush sold it -- and again the price was inflated. This time Bush was made a director of the acquiring company, Harken Energy Corp., whose founder, Phil Kendrick, although out of the company by the time the deal was made, certainly understood why it was made: "His name was George Bush." The year was 1986, and George Bush the elder was vice president with a good chance of moving up.
The pattern persisted. Bush became an owner of the Texas Rangers through the good graces of a family friend. He heard the team was for sale through family connections, and he got a shot at buying it because the owner admired his father. He assembled the financing, again using family connections, and, in the end, wound up making almost $15 million on the deal. He originally put up only $500,000 of his own money.
The best investment strategy, of course, is to have a rich and influential father. Bush seems aware of that. He knows that he is "a blessed person," as he told Newsweek, but he does not quite admit that with a different last name he would be just another Texan who tried the oil business and now runs a Piggly Wiggly. In effect, he amends the old saying: He was born on second base but got to third on his own.
Still, Bush would not be the first such person to make it to the White House. FDR and JFK were both rich and more than a bit spoiled. But they also triumphed over enormous adversity -- Roosevelt's polio, Kennedy's various ailments and, critically, his World War II combat experience. Nonetheless, the pampering and protection a rich boy gets nearly ruined JFK. It led him to believe he could do privately pretty much as he damn well pleased -- when it so pleased him. Retrospectively, his reputation has suffered as a result.
George Bush, the father, says his son has "been tested by running against Ann Richards" for governor, but surely he is joking. A gubernatorial campaign is not combat. It is not paralysis. Bush's crises have been nothing of the sort -- some boozing, some frat house bawdiness. None of it amounts to the loss of a father and a boyhood coping with a drunken stepfather. This was Bill Clinton's experience and it explains, if anything does, how he coped when the most intimate details of his reckless sex life went onto the Internet.
Stone's methodology was interesting, not infallible. Applying it to Bush means not accounting for that special something we call charisma. It cannot be found on the page. It is an upfront, in-person sort of thing -- an intangible. Bush clearly has it. People like him, as they did Ronald Reagan, who taught us all that a successful president doesn't have to be all that sharp. He must, however, be able to lead. Reagan had a vivid ideological commitment. Bush, like his father before him, seems to have little more than hustle for the sake of hustle.
Will a winning smile be enough for Bush? The campaign may answer that question. It is as close as we can come to presidential real life -- to the pressures of the White House.
Could George W. Bush survive the equivalent of an impeachment or a war that seemed for a time to be going nowhere? It's impossible to say, but it is possible to say that nothing in his experience has prepared him for what might be coming. His life has been too sweet. He has indeed been blessed, and that -- down this campaign trail -- may turn out to be his curse.