First Father: Tough Times on Sidelines

Sheryl Gay Stolberg has a touching feature on the relationship between the men who answer to the name President Bush.

George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush Fishing Trip Photo Stephan Savoia/Associated Press The Bushes off the coast of Kennebunkport, Me., in June.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.”

Robert Stein correctly notes that this is fluff rather than news. Certainly, it would be more appropriate for the NYT Magazine or the soft news sections of the Sunday paper. Still, insights into the humanity of our leaders is worth having from time to time.

There was an exchange in Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica where Adama resumes command after having been incapacitated to find that Colonel Tigh had made a series of disastrous decisions while filling in. Tigh apologizes and admits he “frakked things up good” but Adama responds, “I never had much use for people that second-guessed my decisions, especially if they’ve never held a command. They don’t understand the pressure to make a call that affects the lives of thousands, and you have no one to turn to for backup.”

My guess is that Bush 41 has exactly that attitude about his son’s presidency, with the added emotional baggage of fatherhood.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. markm says:

    “There was an exchange in Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica”


  2. Brian J. says:

    The new Battlestar Galactica.

    There never was a second season of the real Battlestar Galactica.

  3. legion says:

    Since this is turning into nerdfest, lemme try to follow… If Bush senior is Adama, and W is Apollo, I think that makes Condi into Starbuck, Michelle Malkin is Boomer, and Dan Quayle’s the annoying little kid from the original series.

    On a more topic-oriented note, I think if 41 had criticised his son a bit more while he was growing up, the world would be in much better shape now. And does anyone have the balls to ask him about Neil?

  4. ATS says:

    O for the days when a great lord’s defective sons were tucked away safely in monasteries, not made President of the realm.