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George W. Bush: 'My heritage is part of who I am'

(TIME.com) -- In conversation, Bush exudes both a folksy confidence and an eagerness to charm. In a recent 90-minute talk with managing editor Walter Isaacson, he discussed how his family affected his career.

TIME: You once said that to understand people you have to look at their family.

Bush: You look at his family and where he was raised.

TIME: So let's start with your grandfather Prescott Bush. He was a patrician Connecticut banker and Senator, part of the old-line Yankee Wasp establishment.

Bush: He was big, a very dignified person. When we went to dinner at his house, we wore a tie. I never wore a tie, only to church, barely. My dad would talk about my grandfather's lesson- before you enter public service you go out and make some money and take care of your family. But my grandfather believed money wasn't how you measured your life. If you had money it came with an obligation to serve. He once said that the most important thing a person could do was public service.

TIME: Your father seemed torn between being a scion of this New England gentry and being the Texan that he cast himself as.

Bush: Someone once said of my dad that he got to Texas a little too late in life, he was already well bred. That wasn't the case with me!

TIME: But isn't there some of that old-line establishment blood left in you?

Bush: Not really. I'm not inhibited by class lines. I can meet and get comfortable with anyone. In fact, I really never noticed that social elite structure.

TIME: Never?

Bush: Well, I became aware, I guess, of some of this structure. But I didn't spend much time thinking about it. My grandparents were not- they lived that life in Hobe Sound and Greenwich- but they were humble people.

TIME: Humble?

Bush: I found them to be humble.

TIME: When did you decide to distance yourself from this background?

Bush: I don't know if it was a conscious decision. It's a world apart. Greenwich to Midland. I often say of the difference between me and Dad is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High. In Midland there was no class structure.

TIME: But you sure shared a lot of the same upbringing: Andover, Yale, even Skull and Bones. Did you have any qualms, say, about joining an elite secret club like Bones?

Bush: No qualms at all. I was honored. I was fairly nonchalant. I didn't view it as a great heritage thing. I didn't take it all that seriously.

TIME: Demystify it a bit for those who might think it's a cross between a Masonic Lodge and the Trilateral Commission. Did your father show up for your initiation, like your grandfather showed up for his?

Bush: Without revealing all the great secrets? I got a few of my old club mates who could demystify it right off the bat. My dad didn't tap me. Someone a year ahead of me tapped me. There was an entry celebration. I can't remember whether my dad showed up or not. I don't think so.

TIME: What was the most important thing about your family legacy?

Bush: The unconditional love I got from my family liberated me. It gave me a sense of security. We were all at a church in Maine recently and the preacher asked whether anyone in the congregation had a perfect family, and the only hand that went up without hesitation was Dad's. It helped Jeb and me not be afraid of defeat.

TIME: Your family legacy surely also pushed you into politics?

Bush: Yes, my heritage is part of who I am, and that certainly included politics. But my dad didn't take me in the backyard and hit a tackling dummy to make me a great tackler, and he also didn't do things to try to make me a politician.

TIME: When did you decide you wanted to go into politics?

Bush: I've been searching my mind for that because people keep questioning that. Up to age 18 never much. I was never a member of the Young Republican Club on campus. I was apolitical. My interest in politics was the result of carrying signs for Dad. I love campaigns. My decision to run came from being concerned about what was happening. In 1978, I was concerned about things like the natural-gas regulation, so I ran for Congress. I ran for Governor because I was concerned about what was happening to education. It took sparks like that to get me to run, not just that it was expected of me.

TIME: But surely it was also because it was bred into your bones?

Bush: I don't know. That's an interesting question. Perhaps. I didn't have this life plan. I wasn't trying to turn the DKE presidency into a political career. I didn't know what I wanted to be, and I tried a variety of different things, like working in the oil industry, in campaigns, in a poverty program. You don't have to go into politics to complete a legacy.

TIME: Some say you got more from your mother than your father.

Bush: Yes, I'm more like my mom sometimes. I'm quick with a quip. Dad gives me advice when I ask him for it, my mom when I don't. She can be blunt, like me. She says what she wants. My dad's always gracious.

TIME: You were elected Governor in 1994, the year your brother Jeb lost the Florida Governor's race. How did your family feel?

Bush: On the morning of my inauguration, my mother hands me this letter from Dad with a pair of his cufflinks. He called them his most treasured possession. They were the cufflinks his dad gave to him when he went off to war in 1943. At first I didn't think about the continuity, the grandfather part. A lot was going on. The main thing I thought was that it was from my dad. He was saying he was proud of me. But later I reread the letter and thought about it. It ended with, "Now it's your turn." It was a powerful moment.

TIME: That day your father told the press, "Our heads are in Texas, but our heart is in Florida." What do you think Jeb was feeling?

Bush: I remember at the inauguration Dad wiping a tear from his face and Jeb standing behind me looking pensive. He was the one supposed to win. I'm not sure what he was thinking. I suspect he thought about what might have been, what went wrong. And he doubled his thoughts about running again. Made up his mind he would have his own inaugural, and he did four years later. And he wasn't bitter or sour, because getting up after a loss and realizing that life goes on is part of the legacy we share. The same thing happened to me in my first race, and to my dad, and to my grandfather. I know Jeb well. He's a loving soul. It made him better, more determined to win next time. He converted to Catholicism, started an inner-city school in Miami, didn't let defeat keep him down.

TIME: How is Jeb different from you?

Bush: Taller! Well, we come from the same place. The same sense of love. But Jeb expresses himself differently. He's very sensitive. Quieter than me. We're both tough, but him in a different way. I'm quick with the quip, kind of sharp. Jeb tends to seem softer around the edges, but he's very smart and capable and beloved.

TIME: Didn't your mother consider Jeb the more natural politician?

Bush: I'm not sure. He's a good campaigner. I watched him work a strawberry festival with me, and I was proud. He worked it very hard and shook all the hands and was comfortable. People know whether you're comfortable with them. My mother can walk into a room and quiet everyone's nerves. She can relate. So can I. I like watching Jeb do that too.

TIME: Do you all ever discuss policy or politics?

Bush: Sometimes. Not often. Jeb's an e-mail person. He'll e-mail me ideas, forward me things. I don't initiate e-mail, and I keep my address secret, but I respond on e-mail, especially to him. He e-mailed me some thoughts on Elian Gonzalez. He counseled me early on about Mexico. He urged me to move beyond the normal business relationship and into the more cultural relationship.

TIME: If he had won first, would he be in your shoes now?

Bush: Probably. A little hard to tell.

TIME: Would that bother you?

Bush: Wouldn't bother me in the least. You play the hand you're dealt.

TIME: Do you think the Bush name helped get you where you are in politics?

Bush: It cuts both ways. Some folks will say, there's George and Barbara's son, he must be interesting, let me listen. Others may say he's not done anything in his life, just running on his daddy's name. It's a mixed blessing ... Well, to me it's not a mixed blessing. It's a great blessing to be raised by George and Barbara Bush.

TIME: Do you hate the word dynasty?

Bush: No, don't hate it. But it's not really true. Dynasty means something inherited. Both Jeb and I know you don't inherit a vote. You have to win a vote. We inherited a good name, but you don't inherit a vote.

TIME: Your father once said of the Kennedys, wait until my boys get out there. How does your family compare to theirs?

Bush: I admired the Kennedy brothers. They set a tone. They were very powerful figures and built a legacy. Ted Kennedy, I know he's anathema to conservatives, but he's in the Senate serving and very professional.

TIME: One thing you seem to share with your mother is that sometimes you carry a grudge.

Bush: Yeah, I remember some things, like anyone else. I remember. But I don't go out of my way to seek revenge. In 1992, I got some things off my chest. I was a warrior for my dad. But I'm a pretty forgiving person. To be a successful Governor, I had to have been.

TIME: You sometimes seem deliberately anti-intellectual.

Bush: I know it comes across that way. I don't think it's fair. How can you say I'm an anti-intellectual when I'm sitting next to [former Stanford provost and Russia expert] Condoleeza Rice on a regular basis? This will be an administration of people well suited to their jobs. I am secure enough that I want smart people around me. I made the leap from Texas schools to Andover, where a couple of people got dual 800s on their SATs. I'm comfortable with people who have high intellects.

TIME: You're saying you downplay your intellectual side?

Bush: It may have been. We're all sums of our experience. Kent Hance [who beat Bush for Congress in 1978] gave me a lesson on country-boy politics. He was a master at it, funny and belittling. I vowed never to get out-countried again.

TIME: So how do you assure folks you're smart enough to be President?

Bush: I'm confident of my intellect. I wouldn't be running if I wasn't. My job will not be to out-think everybody in my administration. My job will be to assemble an administration full of very capable and bright people.

TIME: What Presidents have done that well?

Bush: Reagan and Bush did a good job. Reagan had a very successful presidency because of his team. So did my dad. The foreign policy team of Cheney, Powell, Baker, Scowcroft. I also happen to like- I forgot what President it was- who liked to keep antenna out to other people. Roosevelt maybe.

TIME: Like Lyndon Johnson? He had the best and the brightest.

Bush: Well, no, there's a difference between having really smart people around and making right decisions. People also have to be confident of my judgment. They need to hear my speeches and get a sense of where I want to take this country.

TIME: But you talk about getting the smartest people to tell you what to do ...

Bush: No, no, no. Not tell me what to do. Make recommendations. Plus, I'm not going to have a group of people who say the same thing.

TIME: So what happens when they disagree?

Bush: These people don't decide for me. I'm going to have to decide. I will overrule my advisers. I've done that before. People are going to have to hear my explanations of why I make decisions. They'll hear the rationales and they'll have to make up their minds whether I'm the kind of person who decides upon a set of principles or am I going to keep changing my principles based on the political whims of the day. And that's my problem with the current administration, and that's my problem with who I'm running against. They keep changing based on politics. My job is to get good thinkers and get the best out of them.

TIME: With the failure of the missile-defense test, are you still convinced we should move quickly to build a defensive shield?

Bush: Yes, we need to move ahead. I hope I can convince Mr. Putin and the Europeans. I talked to [Russian Foreign Minister Igor] Ivanov about it, and I talked to him point-blank. You'd have been proud of me. I said here we are still trying to get out of a cold war mind-set. Please tell Mr. Putin I am willing to think differently. I noticed his rhetoric began to change a little. He began to talk about the most effective missile defense being the one that can detect and destroy on launch. And he talked about the new threats of outlaw nations, those are his words.

TIME: Why do you think your father lost in 1992?

Bush: It was a death of a thousand cuts, and it took a thousand to defeat him. He couldn't get his base intact. And the cause of that was breaking the "read my lips" tax pledge.

TIME: But didn't his compromise on taxes help set groundwork for the recovery?

Bush: Some economists say it helped. I think the lesson is not to give a Shermanesque pledge during a campaign.

TIME: But having made it, was he right to compromise later?

Bush: I would have advised him not to have done it, as political advice.

TIME: But that's making a policy for political reasons.

Bush: As I said, that would have been my political advice. His change opened things to Patrick J. Buchanan. There were other reasons he lost. Perot. Third, there was the beginning of a generational change. Fourth, he did not wisely spend political capital earned from Desert Storm on domestic politics, so he got painted as out of touch. Fifth, his campaign wasn't designed well. And part of the reason he lost was history. He was at the end of a very long run.

TIME: Your father said in a recent interview that it was mainly the forces of history, and that these forces were now going to help you. Were you upset he didn't give more weight to your own attributes?

Bush: I wasn't mad. He was being modest. He wasn't going to be bragging on his son. It's part of the family heritage. He's a little gun-shy to be bragging about me because he doesn't want somehow the critics to be saying, there he is, promoting his son.

TIME: You stress that you are a "new kind of Republican." How is that different from the old type?

Bush: The old types were viewed, fairly or not, as being against things. Our party kind of slipped into not being for things. Education is an example. We were viewed as being against public schools. Perception became reality in this case.

TIME: Does that apply to Reagan? Your father?

Bush: Listen, I'm not dealing in history, I'm dealing in the short term. I'm talking about how Republicans have been defined by a politically deft President. I'm faced with perceptions that Republicans don't care about newly arrived immigrants. I do care about them.

TIME: So you're talking about the congressional Republicans?

Bush: You're trying to get me to name names. I'm not. I'm going to have to be working with these folks.

TIME: What are your feelings about affirmative action?

Bush: The best thing to do is to educate every child and to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. We can have affirmative programs that enhance people's chance to access the middle class without quotas and without pitting race against race. We were the first state to put a rule in place that the top 10% of each high school class could go to a state university. I call it affirmative access. This is going to enhance the ability of state universities to attract minorities. The pool of applicants must be increased for small-business ownership. I don't mind measuring, I don't mind a scorecard that says, "Whoa, why is every contract going to white firms?" But you can do it without quotas.

TIME: Do you think you benefited by a different, older version of affirmative action, an old-boy's network, when you got into college and went into business?

Bush: I don't know. Maybe. And yes, racism exists. I'm not going to be making policy based on guilt. The fundamental question in certain neighborhoods is, how do we break a sense that the system isn't meant for me? You need mentoring programs. Part of it has to do with there isn't the entrepreneurial system being passed from one generation to the next.

TIME: The way it was passed from your grandfather to your father to you?

Bush: No question. I learned at the knee of a good father.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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Tuesday, August 1, 2000


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