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The Roosevelts, Kennedys, and now the Bushes

George W. Bush's second presidential victory not only helped erase some of the sting from his father's failed re-election bid in 1992, it firmly  establishes  the Bushes among the top tier of political families in U.S. history.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Amid the celebration and crowds of Inauguration Day came a surprisingly intimate moment between father and son. As John F. Kennedy's parade passed the reviewing stand where Joseph P. Kennedy was watching, the new president looked up and tipped his hat -- a gesture of affection and gratitude to the patriarch who had dreamed for years of putting a son in the White House.

Forty-four years later, as President Bush prepares to launch his second term, it might be the father who should tip his hat to the son.

One of the 43rd president's achievements in winning reelection, according to Bush family friends and historians, is to ease the sting of the 41st president's failure to do so a dozen years earlier. The president's victory also establishes firmly a fact that earlier was open to dispute: The Bushes now belong in the top tier of political families in U.S. history.

There may not be a distinctive "Bush style" that other politicians try to mimic, as they did with JFK's appearance and wit. The family has yet to capture the romantic fancy of fiction writers and Hollywood producers. The incumbent is launching a second term, according to polls, with nearly as many Americans scornful of his presidency as supportive of it. No matter.

New historical plane
By any objective measure, political scholars say, Bush is a name that belongs next to Adams, Kennedy and Roosevelt as a force whose influence spans decades.

Robert Dallek, author of a recent book on JFK and of other presidential biographies, is not an admirer of Bush policies but acknowledged that Bush's victory vaults father and son to a new historical plane.

With a defeat last November, the Bush family legacy would have had a certain accidental quality: a father who reached the Oval Office via the vice presidency but could not win a second term, and a son who became president despite losing the popular vote. Instead, the president's close but unmistakable victory shines a new light on the family's formidable accomplishments. By the end of the 43rd president's term, Bushes will have occupied the White House for 12 of the previous 20 years — "a match for Franklin D. Roosevelt in terms of time in office," Dallek noted. "And it gives the father more of a place in history than he might otherwise have had."

An unusual trajectory
The Bush political dynasty has some distinctive features. Most notable is its clear upward trajectory, each generation exceeding the political success of the one before it. Prescott S. Bush, the 43rd's grandfather, was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 57 in 1952, serving two terms before his retirement. George Herbert Walker Bush went from two terms in the U.S. House through a succession of presidential appointments before his single term as president — losing to Democrat Bill Clinton in a contest that family friends say left a bitter residue that George W. Bush was determined not to taste for himself.

Most political dynasties, at least in the past century, have had a downward momentum. Some of Franklin D. Roosevelt's four sons who survived to adulthood were politically ambitious, but none managed to leverage a famous name into a historically consequential career. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. came the closest, becoming a New York congressman but losing a race for governor. And while the Kennedy family for years was virtually synonymous with political charisma and ambition, no family member after JFK reached the presidency, and no one in the generation after him and his famous brothers, Robert and Edward, both U.S. senators, has approximated their political achievements.

'Middlebrow family'
The Bush family's success is all the more remarkable for another reason: Even many admirers regard the Bushes as distinctly life-sized characters and have been surprised to witness how the current president's policies have reshaped American politics and the world at large.

"The Bushes are not a very charismatic family," said Victor Gold, a veteran political hand who has been friendly with the family for three decades and helped the 41st president write his memoirs. "When you are around them, you don't get the feeling of a political family the way you do with the Kennedys. ... There's no glamour, and they do not market themselves that way."

The result is that this president, while inspiring enormous devotion among his supporters, has not transcended politics and infused a certain image and style into the culture in the way that predecessors such as Kennedy or Ronald Reagan managed to do. "His cult of personality is his plainness," said Bert A. Rockman, a political scientist at Ohio State University who has edited an academic book about the Bush presidency. Although the Bushes are a wealthy family, the image they project is that of a "middlebrow family — this may be a big part of the appeal."

Celebrities do not for the most part gravitate to Bush, nor he to them. Moreover, Rockman asserted, many writers and intellectuals, who can help set a president's reputation in elite circles, are in the main hostile toward Bush, and in some cases disdainful of his qualifications. "They relate to him by making fun of him."

"It's not their crowd," agreed Mary Matalin, a former political aide to the 41st president who also served in the current president's White House as an aide to Vice President Cheney. She believes that George W. Bush wants and expects to be judged well for his decisions decades from now but is indifferent about whether he is regarded as charismatic or wins favorable notices from contemporary journalistic and cultural tastemakers.

"The cult of personality thing does not happen by accident," she said, noting that Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton all knew and cultivated famous people, and paid close attention to the public staging of the presidency. "His view is, I am who I am."

Scores to settle
This is not to say that the Bushes do not keep score. In a December interview with Time magazine, the president's father made plain that he does — and that his son's victories can help settle some of his own accounts. The elder Bush recalled a nasty remark that Ann Richards, later the governor of Texas, made about him at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988.

"Remember when Ann Richards said George Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth?" he asked writer Hugh Sidey. "And then when George beat her in his first run for governor, I must say I felt a certain sense of joy that he finally had kind of taken her down, I could go around saying, 'We showed her what she could do with that silver foot, where she could stick that now.' "

At the same time, he said his interest in his son's career was simply "pride of a father in a son, and it transcends or avoids the issues," adding, "you know, the idea that George wanted to redeem me after my loss, all this crazy stuff like that, it has nothing to do with that."

The 41st president was following his son's reelection with intense interest, urgently hoping that he would avoid a repeat of 1992. "It was really, really teeth-gnashing and ulcer-producing," said Matalin, who exchanged e-mails regularly with the former president, who also kept in constant contact with White House strategist Karl Rove. The elder Bush "knew what the message was, he knew what the strategy was, he knew what was going on in all the states."

"The victory was more than a vindication, it was a great satisfaction," said Gold, who likened the former president to a parent in the stands at an athletic contest. "You don't want your child — and no matter how old someone is, he's still your child — to lose."

A father's pride
In the Time interview, the former president said he bridles at periodic speculation that he is at odds with his son on policies — speculation that was fueled anew this month when his former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, with whom the 41st president remains close, struck a pessimistic note about the course of events in Iraq. The senior Bush also said "perhaps the most hurtful" aspect of having his son in the White House is commentary suggesting "he's dumb, that he's some know-nothing cowboy from Texas."

Having seen his son in intelligence briefings, "talking about the world and asking the appropriate questions," the elder Bush said, "I was surprised at how broad the vision and grasp are. But he gets no credit for that."

Ultimately, the family's historical reputation may hinge on whether the current president gets credit, or blame, for policies that have sharply divided the country for most of his four years. More immediately, there is the question of what comes next for the Bush family.

His younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has said he does not intend to seek the presidency. In an interview with ABC News last week, the president said he believes that: "He's a wonderful guy. ... I don't think he's interested in running." But these disavowals are not likely to smother speculation. Gold recently wrote in Washingtonian that he thinks the governor's son, George P. Bush, a 28-year-old Dallas lawyer, is the most likely to carry the family political torch.

Dallek said he believes the electorate, which historically has been ambivalent about the notion of dynasties, would probably be wary of another Bush presidency. "I don't think the country's going to want a kingship," he said, adding that the long-term value of the Bush name will be determined over the next four years. "So much of how he and the family will be regarded by history depends on how the second term turns out."