Image: Bush and his father
Jim Young  /  Reuters
President George W. Bush, right, talks to his father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, as they leave a church service in Kennebunkport, Maine, in August 2006.
updated 8/8/2007 11:47:26 PM ET 2007-08-09T03:47:26

There are times in the life of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States and father of the 43rd, that people, perfect strangers, come up to him and say the harshest things — words intended to comfort but words that wind up only causing pain.

“I love you, sir, but your son’s way off base here,” they might say, according to Ron Kaufman, a longtime adviser to Mr. Bush, who has witnessed any number of such encounters — perhaps at a political fund-raiser, or a restaurant dinner, a chance meeting on the streets of Houston or Kennebunkport, Me. They are, he says, just one way the presidency of the son has taken a toll on the father.

“It wears on his heart,” Mr. Kaufman said, “and his soul.”

These are distressing days for the Bush family patriarch, only the second former president in American history, after John Adams, to see his son take the White House. At 83, he finds it tough to watch his son get criticized from the sidelines; often, he likens himself to a Little League father whose kid is having a rough game. And like the proud and angry Little League dad who cannot help but yell at the umpire, sometimes he just cannot help getting involved.

The official line from the White House is that 41, as he is known in Bush circles, gives advice to 43 only when asked. But interviews with a broad range of people close to both presidents — including family members like the elder Mr. Bush’s daughter, Doro Bush Koch, and aides who have worked for both men, like Andrew H. Card Jr. — suggest a far more complicated father-son dynamic, in which the former president is not nearly so distant as the White House would have people believe.

They talk almost every morning by phone, and Mr. Bush studiously avoids saying anything critical of his son, close associates say. But he has privately expressed irritation with some of his son’s aides. At times, he has urged White House officials to seek outside advice, and he has passed on his own foreign policy wisdom to the president, even as he makes a point of saying his son’s administration is not his.

He views himself, in Mrs. Koch’s words, as “a loving father, first and foremost,” but as he himself suggested to a group of insurance agents at a recent dinner in Minneapolis, loving fathers find it tough to stay away.

“Any parent in this audience knows exactly how I feel,” Mr. Bush said in response to a question about what it was like to have a son as president. “It’s no different. You’ve got to look at it strictly as family — not that anyone is a big shot, even though he’s president of the United States. It’s family. It’s the pride of a father in his son.”

This weekend, the elder Mr. Bush will preside over his clan’s annual summer gathering at Walker’s Point, their grand seaside spread in Kennebunkport. There will be the usual horseshoe games, fishing trips and speedboat rides, plus a visit from the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy — a classic Bush family tableau, but one that does not capture the delicate course the elder Mr. Bush has charted in playing the roles of father and former president at the same time.

It is a balancing act. The former president keeps up his contacts with world leaders — last year, for instance, he invited President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to spend a night at Kennebunkport — but is discreet. Once, during an intimate dinner with the king of Morocco, he called the White House and got the president on the phone.

“He put the king on, just like that,” one startled guest recalled. “No national security advisers, no nothing, just the president talking with the king of Morocco.”

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He is a frequent visitor to the White House. He still loves eating at the White House mess and has breakfast or coffee with Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist, whenever he comes, mostly to chew over political gossip. From time to time, he picks up the phone to talk policy with Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff. He called Mr. Bolten’s predecessor, Mr. Card, about every other week.

Mostly, said Mr. Card, who was transportation secretary to the elder Mr. Bush and views himself as “a bridge” between the generations, the father was simply checking on his son. But sometimes the ex-president would raise a foreign policy question, or suggest the White House reach out to those “in his circle,” like James A. Baker, the former secretary of state, or Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, who has been openly critical of the war in Iraq.

“He made sure that I knew there were experts around that we should be reaching out to or listening to,” Mr. Card said, adding: “I never felt that the former president was trying to meddle in the responsibilities that the president had. But he cares deeply about his son.”

Recently, the White House has cast the elder Mr. Bush in a new role as foreign policy facilitator. In addition to the coming Sarkozy visit, the former president was host to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at Kennebunkport for a White House summit meeting in June. It was the current president’s idea, but the father was happy to return Mr. Putin’s hospitality; a few years ago, when he and his wife, Barbara, were traveling in Russia, the Putins met them at the airport and invited them to their country retreat.

In a sense, the elder Mr. Bush is traversing uncharted territory. The first President Adams died 18 months after John Quincy Adams was inaugurated, and 28 years separated their administrations. By contrast, just eight years separate the Bush administrations, and the men themselves are only 22 years apart in age.

Their relationship is undoubtedly the most scrutinized father-son bond in Washington, especially given the well-publicized foreign policy rifts between their two camps.

Tensions between aides to 41 and 43 ran especially high when Mr. Baker was co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. When President Bush rejected the group’s recommendations, some in the 41 camp viewed it as an outright rejection of the father. When Mr. Scowcroft spoke out against the war, some thought the father was sending a message to the son.

Some authors have asserted that there is rivalry between the two; the journalist Bob Woodward, for instance, reported in his book “Plan of Attack” that when asked if he sought his father’s advice before going to war, the president said: “You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”

The rivalry theory flared up again last year, at the christening of the Navy’s newest Nimitz aircraft carrier, the George H. W. Bush. The president joked that given the ship’s qualities — “she is unrelenting, she is unshakeable, she is unyielding” — it should have been named for his mother. The line brought a laugh, but some close to the elder Mr. Bush winced at what seemed a subtle dig.

Despite the armchair psychologists who speculate about Oedipal complexes and prodigal sons, father and son are described as extremely close. When the clan is in Kennebunkport, all the Bush children, the president included, stream into their parents’ bedroom at the crack of dawn for coffee. When the president is not there, the other Bushes call.

Bob Strauss, the onetime chairman of the Democratic National Committee and close friend of the elder Mr. Bush from their days in Texas, was recently invited to dinner with both men at the White House. He says he worried in advance that there might be tension, or that they might talk politics, creating discomfort for a Democrat like himself.

But, he said, there was none of that. “They talked about West Texas, they talked about family,” he said. “It couldn’t have been more relaxed.”

As to what is said in private conversations between father and son, no one can be certain. When phone calls come in from Houston or Kennebunkport, White House aides make themselves scarce. But Mr. Card says it is clear to him that family talks were not always confined to family matters.

“It was relatively easy for me to read the sitting president’s body language after he had talked to his mother or father,” Mr. Card said. “Sometimes he’d ask me a probing question. And I’d think, Hmm, I don’t think that question came from him.”

The former president is often asked how he steers clear of second-guessing his son, and his answer is always the same: that he is not qualified to second-guess because only the occupant of the Oval Office has complete access to the kind of intelligence reports that inform presidential decisions.

Even so, those close to the former president say it is clear that the father has been dissatisfied with the performance of some of his son’s aides, notably Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense.

“I think it is accurate to say that there’s a feeling that a lot of the aides around him have not served the president well — Rumsfeld is one,” said one person close to the elder Mr. Bush who, like all interviewed on this topic, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Nearly 15 years have passed since the first President Bush left the White House, and though he remains vigorous — he jumped out of an airplane on his 80th birthday and is promising another jump when he turns 85 — he has also slowed down. After two hip replacements, his gait is a little unsteady. He does not wade in streams anymore, and in Kennebunkport, he now uses a ramp to get on his boat.

His children worry about him. Last December, at an event honoring his son Jeb in his last days as Florida’s governor, the elder Mr. Bush broke down crying at the memory of Jeb’s bitter defeat in 1994. Mrs. Koch says her father is growing more emotional as he ages — “he has a tender heart that is getting tenderer” — which makes criticism of his eldest son that much harder to take.

Late last year, at the aircraft carrier christening, he grew emotional again, this time with President Bush in his presence. Before a crowd that included political luminaries from both administrations, as well as dozens of family members and friends, the father made a point of saying he supports his son “in every single way with every fiber of my body.”

The words were intentional, said his longtime speechwriter, Jim McGrath, who wrote them.

“I think he understood he was going to have a national audience, and I think he wanted to send an unmistakable signal,” Mr. McGrath said. “There had been a couple of these kind of pop psychology pieces — you know, the father, is he trying to send a message? I think he wanted to say none of that malarkey matters. I just want to support my son.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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