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Fathers, sons, and ghosts

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Both candidates walked in their fathers' long shadows, and now move out from beneath them

February 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:11 p.m. EST (2111 GMT)

George Bush and John Mccain share a peculiar habit: they often introduce their fathers as a way of introducing themselves--even before they mention their wives, their children or the reason they are running for President. With Bush, the resemblance is so uncanny, his face does all the talking, even before he reminds you of how he got it. "When it comes to picking parents," he likes to say, "I did a fabulous job." McCain for his part presents his best-selling book as his coat of arms: Faith of My Fathers, he says, is the story of three generations of flawed men who found redemption in the service of their country. Now he is calling on voters to join him for one last mission.

One father waits in the wings, obsessed with his son's crusade, dreaming of restoration; the other lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But both men are eternally present in this race. In the Bush and McCain clans, expectations are stamped in the genetic code, assumed at birth, resented in adolescence like hair that won't lie flat or legs too short for basketball. Each generation seemed to raise the stakes ever higher. McCain, whose family traces its martial roots back to Charlemagne, entered the Navy as the son and grandson of four-star admirals. Bush, whose family is distantly connected to the Queen of England, entered national politics the son of a President and grandson of a Senator. Both men were raised by absent fathers and strong mothers and delight in recounting their rebellion against the impossible standards they faced, even as they walked in their fathers' footsteps like children leaping from one large bootprint to the next in deep snow.

Those journeys in long shadows are the scrapbook of this race. "Oh, Dad," McCain said wistfully, looking out the window of his bus last Friday, when asked what his father would have thought about this moment. "To be candid, he wouldn't understand. He was a military man from the time he was 16. The saddest day of his life was the day he left the Navy. So I'm sure he would be proud, but I think there would be some of it he would just not feel familiar with." Bush doesn't have that problem. His father knows all about life-and-death politics--and so does the son.

As he said last week, "I'm a warrior for my dad." for all the echoes in the Mccain and Bush family legacies, one difference screams out as the two men fight their way toward the White House. McCain is eternally willing to talk about his father and grandfather and the burdens and advantages that came with his birthright; he throws credit their way like garlands. In the Bush universe, the subject is a private matter. Indeed, even as he honors his father and worships his example, George W. Bush never misses a chance to insist that what he has accomplished he has done on his own, by his own efforts and talents and grit. He touts his record as a successful businessman without acknowledging how much of his success reflected the financial backing of his father's friends and their desire to be associated with the Bush name. And he stakes his claim to the presidency based on his record as Governor of Texas, even though the fat war chest and thick stack of endorsements may owe something to his birth certificate as well as his resume.

It wouldn't be quite right to call the Bush clan a patriarchy, although Dad and grandfather Prescott Bush dominate the family mythology. Both were tall, athletic, elegant men who made their fortunes early in life and slipped neatly into politics like a bespoke suit, then into one of the corner offices on government's higher floors. Both had done more by the time they were 40 and became politicians than most people do in an entire lifetime.

Even if Dad hadn't been on the road so much, first as an oilman and then as a loyal party man, George would have taken after his mother. The pivotal players in Bushland have always been the moms, the ones who hectored and carpooled and den-mothered the boys who would be President. Dorothy Walker Bush taught George W.'s dad never to use the first person singular, to avoid "braggadocio" and always, always to "do your best." These mantras were drilled deep into Dad's bedrock, and he extracted them over and over throughout his life, from the tennis court to NATO headquarters. Barbara Pierce Bush, a publisher's daughter raised in Rye, N.Y., was zanier, frostier and edgier than her mother-in-law, and her first son was a virtual carbon copy. "I have my Daddy's eyes," "W" says, "but my mother's mouth."

Which is why "W" was always regarded by the other kids as the fun one, a hot ticket. "Half the time he acts younger than all of us combined," said Marvin, his youngest brother. It was "W" who was detained in college for pranks and disorderly conduct and "W" who delighted in his bad-boy role in Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, walking with a strut, chewing tobacco, gnawing on unlighted cigars, saying things like "crock of s___." Everyone knew it was kind of an act, but they liked him for it anyway; it was part of his outrageous charm.

For "W," being wired so much like his mother made it all the harder to be like his dad. "He is always anxious to please his father," one of the President's oldest and closest counselors said a few years ago, "and he did it by emulation. He went to Yale. He was a pilot. He went into the oil business in Midland, Texas. He ran for Congress. In his way, he tried to relive segments of his father's life. The others have been more independent." Even the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, has done it his own way, marrying a Mexican woman early in his life and moving to Florida in part just to get away from the rest of the family.

Jeb seemed to realize that rather than match the old man, he had to push off from him. "If I felt like I had to follow his footsteps and follow a path he had set for me, I would fail," Jeb told author Bill Minutaglio. "I came to grips with that a while back. A lot of people who have fathers like this, or moms, who have lived such extraordinary lives, feel a sense that they have failed because they haven't reached the same level of just being a human being as their predecessor--and it creates all sorts of pathologies." "W" never veered from the Pattern, but like McCain, he struggled with it. Maybe the expectations were too high for the first son, or seemed that way, because he took a lot of time settling down--nearly his first 40 years.

Among the most painful defeats were his dad's, not his. He has often told the story of the day in 1964 when his father lost a Senate bid and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin told the young freshman that "your father lost to a better man." Twenty-eight years later, Bush's father lost again, to an Arkansas Governor the family considered a lesser man. "W" told a longtime aide that his father had asked him to secretly reconnoiter his 1992 campaign and determine if it had anything to worry about. "W" did just that and reported back. "He assured his dad that it was good enough to win," said the confidant. When the old man lost, the son had to live with the guidance he'd given--and the spectacle of the presidency that followed.

If the Bushes, even more than most aggrieved Republicans, watched Clinton in office and dreamed of toppling him someday, none of them imagined that "W" would be the one to do it. It seemed much more logical to think it would be the more polished second son Jeb who would follow the old man into politics. When both boys ran for statewide office in 1994, the family's chips were on Jeb in Florida, not George in Texas, to win. So when the reverse happened, "W" had pulled off the most outrageous stunt of all.

In the introduction to FAITH OF MY FATHERS, McCain bares the tattoo on his soul: "They were my first heroes," he writes of his father and grandfather, "and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life." As he tells their story, you wonder what kind of burden they represent, and what kind of gift. Sure, his father chain-smoked and drank too much, and his grandfather was a cusser, but both walk on water across the pages. His inheritance is both sword and shield: McCain too has his flaws, but he admits to them without fear because like his fathers before him, he did his service and, against all odds, came back a hero.

McCain's grandfather John S. ("Slew") McCain was the World War II commander of a legendary task force under Admiral William Halsey. When he would pass through the U.S. during the war, McCain's mother would wake up the kids in the middle of the night and sit them on the sofa so she could take pictures of them with their famous grandfather. He died of a sudden heart attack five days after he stood on the deck of the battleship Missouri to watch the Japanese surrender. The obituary ran on the front page of the New York Times; President Truman sent condolences.

How could McCain's father Jack, who followed his father to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and into the service as a submariner, possibly live up to the stories of Admiral McCain routing the Japanese at the Battle of Leyte Gulf? By rising through the ranks to take command of the entire Pacific Fleet, with 85 million sq. mi. as his domain. Young John was not at his father's change-of-command ceremony, but he writes that "I have always believed that for that one moment, my father, so hard driven by his oppressive desire to honor his father's name, looked on his career with tranquillity and satisfaction." He had, in official standing at least, surpassed his dad.

Navy kids are as much acquainted with the idea of their fathers as with the reality of them. And when they get a taste of the reality, even it can seem unreal: as McCain recalls his parents, when they were stationed in Hawaii, eating dinner at home on Saturday night, his father dressed in black tie, his mother in an evening gown. On Christmas mornings, after the presents were opened, Dad would change into his uniform and go to the office. McCain was five years old and living in New London, Conn., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His father left home immediately and headed for the base. McCain saw very little of him for the next four years. "I became my mother's son," he says.

As a child, McCain resented his father's absence, thinking his father loved his work more than his children. Today he calls this judgment unfair. "I am certain that he wanted to share with me the warm affection that he and his father had shared. But he wanted me to know also that a man's life should be big enough to encompass both duty to family and duty to country. That can be a hard lesson for a boy to learn. It was a hard lesson for me," he writes. And yet it is a lesson he is teaching his own children, who have lived in Phoenix, Ariz., while he has served in Washington, and who live there now as he takes his long bus ride.

McCain says his father did not order him to go to the naval academy; he does not even remember talking with him about it. Once there, he endured all the normal humiliations and a second set as well, from the regulars who thought the admirals' son and grandson got in on genes rather than merit. "When I was a younger officer, I did something good, and someone would say: 'Good job, Ensign McCain,' I wondered if it was for ears other than mine," McCain says. "When I was punished, I wondered if I was being picked out of a crowd because of my last name." Some cracked under the pressure of paternal expectations. McCain tells the story of a flight instructor who had flown his T-28 to the town where his mother and father lived in retirement. As he flew in front of his parents' house, he tried a risky maneuver and crashed his plane; the parents watched him die. "I assumed his death had been caused by an impulse to impress his father," he writes. "It was an impulse a great many other midshipmen and I understood."

So what was the legend he had to live up to? It was not of great academic prowess. McCain often jokes about his dismal performance at the naval academy, but neither his father nor his grandfather had done much better. Jack McCain was notorious for breaking rules, picking fights and racking up demerits even faster than his son ever did. And yet, McCain writes, "my father was reported to have suffered his punishments without complaint. He would have disgraced himself had he done otherwise."

When it was his turn, McCain was not likely to impress his father by his rank or discipline or talent as a pilot. The stories of the rules he broke and the planes he crashed are now legendary. McCain had flown only 23 combat missions when he was shot down in October 1967. It was at this point that his father saved his life--and changed it. McCain was so close to death, with broken arms, knee and shoulder, plus growing fever and delirium, that his captors refused him medical care, thinking he probably would not survive the week. When he pleaded with a medic to take him to a hospital, the medic said, "No. It's too late." It was only later that day, when his captors rushed in and announced, "Your father is a big admiral. Now we take you to the hospital," that surviving seemed possible.

His fellow prisoners argued that his health was still so precarious that McCain could accept his captors' offer of an early release without dishonor. But McCain had grown up putting duty above everything and couldn't imagine facing his comrades--or his family--if he did otherwise. When the Vietnamese offered to send him home early, he refused. He writes that he was not going to let his captors torment past and future prisoners with the story of the admiral's son who waltzed out of captivity, leaving his comrades behind. And so he stayed, and there was worse to come, for 5 1/2 years.

When McCain finally came home, his father was not there to greet him. Duty demanded that he stay away: when the admiral had asked if the parents of other returning pows had been invited to attend, he was told they had not. So he did not take the special privilege. "That meant more to John than if he'd been there," says Mark Salter, who co-wrote McCain's book.

Navy psychiatrists probed the private scar tissue of that experience and learned that prison had set him free. As the son of a famous soldier, "he has been preoccupied with escaping being in the shadow of his father," one shrink wrote. "He feels that his experiences and performance as a pow have finally permitted this to happen." It was with a smile of relief and a wink at his dad that he enjoyed hearing the old man being introduced at a public dinner as "Commander McCain's father." John Sidney McCain III had finally arrived.

Even now, at 63, Mccain writes of his forebears that he still aspires to "live my life according to the terms of their approval." This may explain one of the more amazing feats of this race: turning a campaign that is almost entirely about him into something that resonates with so many other people.

How has he managed this? Because even as they hand out pictures of him in his flight suit, in a brochure that begins, "John McCain is an American hero," even as many in the crowd arrive with a copy of his best seller, he has been able to talk about his experience in a way that sounds humble--anyone in his position would have done the same thing, doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down. And though many in the crowd conclude that he is made of different stuff, the suggestion that he's completely normal somehow lifts them up, lets them share some of that glory. McCain's many critics in Washington watch this and feel sick to their stomach because to them, he is a sanctimonious hypocrite who acts as though he is both personally and politically better and braver than other people, even as he too occasionally flies a corporate jet and takes money from special interests.

But voters listen closely, and if they hear an undercurrent of false modesty or vanity, they will catch it over time. It may be that the reason McCain is able to come across as genuinely humble is that he's not talking to us at all; he's talking to Slew and to his dad. By their standards, he did his duty and did it well, but that was what was expected of him and not something to brag about.

The fighting spirit that served the McCain men so well in combat may not, in contrast, hold its value in politics. McCain writes about a reflex that all three men shared--scrawny kids who moved around a lot, all were quick to pick a fight at the smallest provocation to prove they were tough. All three were rebels with or without a cause, and there are those who have worked with McCain who have come to view him as genetically combative, quick on the draw, as if all the fun in life comes at being forever at war with someone. It's the natural reflex for a professional warrior, but is it the right one for a President?

Lots of politicians before McCain have tried to stir up the electorate with calls to duty and sacrifice, but they didn't have quite the same example to go with it. With McCain, the exact nature of this duty is left to the imagination, and that is one reason so many different folks are drawn to his campaign. It is why veterans break down in tears at his book signings. It is why some independents who stopped caring about politics a long time ago are suddenly reading and watching all they can about the primary contest. It is why those voters who have no particular connection to the military reserve such affection for someone who does. Whether or not they really know what McCain stands for, how he has voted, where he has succeeded and failed along the way, they have an idea of him they don't want to let go of. The crusade is joined from the gut, not the head.

If Bush had any hope in 1997 of winning the Republican nomination, he had to do one improbable thing, something McCain never could do: appear to dis the father he worshipped. G.O.P. conservatives still blamed the old man for breaking his promise, raising taxes and losing to Clinton. And in any case, the last thing Bush wanted was to convey any impression that this crown was his for the taking, something he had inherited, like a seat on the board. And this was the hardest part of all, to do a sequel without anyone thinking it was a sequel--especially for someone as devoted to his dad as "W." In the next two years, he never criticized his father; that was unthinkable. Yet one of the strangest things about George W.'s climb to the top of the ticket is that he had to repudiate the family name in order to refurbish it.

In fact, his father gave him permission: In a letter to "W" and Jeb in 1998, he wrote, "Do not worry when you see the stories that compare you favorably to a dad for whom English was a second language and for whom the word destiny meant nothing ... At some point, both of you may want to say, 'Well I don't agree with my dad on that point,' or 'Frankly, I think Dad was wrong on that.' Do it. Chart your own course, not just on the issues but on defining yourselves ... nothing can ever be written that will drive a wedge between us--nothing at all, so read my lips, no more worrying."

And so first there was a purge: gone was the ancien regime, anyone who had had anything to do with Dad's team. For a family that could justifiably list its Rolodex as an asset on a balance sheet, it was remarkable to watch the Bush folks toss out so many cards in so public a way. Out went the Jim Bakers and the Dick Darmans, to the conservatives' delight. "The son's got a whole new team, and it looks nothing like Dad's," went the story in G.O.P. circles. In fact, Bush had not picked a new team; he just stripped a layer of paint off the old team and called it new. He had replaced his father's people with their intellectual children, their aides and alter egos. Into the campaign circle came Josh Bolton and Condi Rice and Bob Zoellick. Many had some "mainstream" credentials, and everyone on the inside knew it. On the outside, where the conservatives were watching, they didn't know; they just loved the ritual sacrifices of Dad's team. The purge sent a firm signal to the Wall Street Journal editors and the Christian Coalition that "W" was not his father, no sir.

In the meantime, as people got to know the son, they could see some strengths he brought to the game that the father lacked. Bush Sr. was never a natural on the stump: it would have been hard for anyone who summered in Kennebunkport and wintered in the low country of the Carolinas as a kid, along with servants and drivers, to come out sounding like Woody Guthrie. The younger Bush just doesn't have this problem. Raised in Midland, Texas, where dust is a daily appetizer, "W" has an instinctive feel for people--how to befriend them, talk to them, tease them, judge them--at least "double or triple his dad," said one who speaks with them regularly. Though the son attended the same schools as the father, "W" did enough time in the sandlots and oil fields of the Permian Basin to become a real Texan, who spits and swaggers and struts and swears, is a little too full of himself and can't help it.

Where the father lived to make friends, "W" has less time for it. His charm offensive is about a minute long. The Governor comes right up to you, squints hard, almost as if he's trying to scare you, then smiles, gets too close, closer than the permissible 18 in., touches you and gives you a nickname. If that hasn't won you over completely, he moves on to someone else, and you go down on his Suspicious Characters List. In Washington, Republicans cling to the notion that "W" is tougher, and tougher-minded, than the sentimental dad, that he is steelier, a realist who isn't afraid of Democrats, reporters, anyone. It is said so often and by so many people that it's easy to forget the old man could be tough too. The difference is that he thought twice about letting you know. "W" never tires of it.

Now, at 75, the former President is "obsessed" with the campaign, his wife admits. You can hear far more than you can see: the father has been busy all year e-mailing friends, building bridges, calling allies and donors, even working old foes in the press to go easy on his son. You can tell he's coaching "W" on foreign policy. When the son talks about the need for "certainty" above all in foreign affairs, he is channeling for Dad, whose diplomatic mantra was "The enemy is uncertainty." And in public, Dad is back in the motorcade, doing three stops a day, sometimes late into the night. On the stump he touts his son's record, but there's also some satisfaction in the way the worm has turned. "The country is crying out for a restoration of dignity and respect and honor that has been missing in the White House," the elder Bush said in Michigan two weeks ago. That line always gets the most applause.

And if the dad is helping the son, isn't the campaign at some level a crusade to redeem the dad, right a big wrong and in the process exceed every expectation--and then some? Ask old Bush hands about how much of this race is about that race, and most dismiss it out of hand, even though nearly all of them will admit to you that's why they are back in the fight. Only two or three will even talk about George W.'s complex motivation, and those who do choose their words carefully. "Look," says a Bush confidant, "somebody once said that to understand what moves a man, you have to understand the failures of his father. For 'W,' a pretty good piece of this is about 1992. How much? A pretty good piece."

This raises a haunting question for Bush, one that echoes the big question raised about his dad. The old man never wanted to do very much as President so much as he just wanted to be President, to sit behind that big desk and make the hard calls. George Bush never promised to be an activist in the Oval Office; he just promised to keep the ship in the channel. "W," whose public agenda is not much thicker than his father's, is essentially promising the same thing, but his private agenda is more pressing. Bush's father was worried at times that "W" wouldn't amount to much, but at some point everything fell into place. Would it really be so surprising if the mission that finally elevated "W" was the redemption of his own family?

A woman who has known both men for 20 years put it this way: "He has tremendous respect and love for his dad. His whole being is that he idolizes his father. He gets choked up talking about his dad. He thinks his dad is someone who is beyond reproach. [Redemption] is not the reason he's running, but you can hear him rationalizing it that way. He thinks his dad was mistreated by this country, and it is not beyond the pale that his Inaugural speech would begin with a tribute to his father." For George W. Bush and the nation, the question is: What would come after that?

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson, with McCain

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Cover Date: February 28, 2000

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