Dynasty 43 + 41 + 84

Routinely underestimated, he struggles to live up to his father. He panders to the right and has a Machiavellian political strategist. Is he George H. W. Bush or George W. Bush? Talking to their inner circles, the author cuts through the conventional wisdom to show that the similarities between 43 and 41 are deeper than the differences—and hold a key to understanding their presidencies.

by Todd S. Purdum September 2006

Not quite 60 years ago, the young father who would one day become the 41st president of the United States watched the toddler who would follow him as the 43rd suffer the racking 104-degree fever of tonsillitis and the pain of a penicillin shot.

“His little face is bright red and he is so hot to the touch,” George Herbert Walker Bush wrote to his mother, Dorothy, about the boy he called his “poor little Googen.” “He just lies in bed next to us and sort of dozes off. Tonight I was playing his records for him (the girl next door is wonderfully generous with her vic). He sort of had his eyes half closed and then he looked up at me and said ‘No man hurt Georgie, No Man!’ Referring of course to the needle.… He is so wonderful, Mum, so cute and bright. Oh he has his mischievous and naughty spells, but I just can’t picture what we would do without him.”

Seven years later, in a letter to the father-in-law he still called “Mr. Pierce” after 10 years of marriage, the same father expressed his feelings for his now nearly 9-year-old first son: “Georgie aggravates the hell out of me at times (I am sure I do the same to him), but then at times I am so proud of him I could die.”

By all available evidence, the same thumbnail summary of one of the most consequential father-son relationships in American history could have been written last month.

Conventional Washington wisdom long ago congealed into the conviction that the dynamic between the two George Bushes has been one endless Oedipal struggle for pride of place, and that by invading Iraq “W. avenged his dad, replaced his dad, made his dad proud and rebelled against his dad, all with the same war,” in Maureen Dowd’s succinct and stinging analysis. In fact, some of the first President Bush’s most loyal lieutenants, from Brent Scowcroft to Colin Powell, have been not so secretly aghast at what they see as the mistakes of the second President Bush, just as the second and his lieutenants have sometimes seemed to sneer at what they see as the mistakes of the first.

From Washington to Houston to Kennebunkport and back, shaky second- and thirdhand reports of friction are not hard to find. There are the Texas hunting companions, friends of the father’s, who hint that he is heartbroken over Iraq; the Hollywood producer, another friend of the father’s, who pans the son’s performance; the Republican senator who says the father seems disappointed not to be consulted more by the son; the college classmates who suggest that the younger Bush felt closer to their fathers than to his own; the onetime jogging partner who says that, until his knees gave out, the current president bragged with an unnerving edge that he ran faster than his father ever did.

But ask the man who wrote those long- ago letters what his relationship is like today with a son enduring the fever of war and the pain of political stalemate, and the answer sounds familiar.

“As I have said over and over again, I support the policies of the President without question,” the elder Bush e-mails me from Kennebunkport, politely declining my request for an interview. “But, whenever I try to say that publicly, reporters look for even the hint of a nuance, for a way to drive a wedge between myself and the President. So I have decided, for now, it is better for me not to talk about it … not to you, not to anyone. It does amaze me that what no one seems to understand is that our relationship is about a loving relationship between a very proud father and his son.”

No man hurt Georgie. No man!

Through his spokesman, the incumbent president also declined to comment. But the intensity of feeling for his father rings just as clear, even in one of the most seemingly dismissive public comments the president has made about him since taking office. “I really don’t spend a lot of time hashing over policy with him,” 43 told Tom Brokaw just after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. “He knows that I am much better informed than he could possibly be.” Less well remembered is what the president said next: “He gives me—our relationship is more of, and our conversations are more along the line of a dad and a son, a dad conveying to his son how much he loves him. Which is important. Even at the age of 56 years old it’s important.”

When I ask FitzGerald Bemiss, one of 41’s oldest friends from childhood summers in Maine, about reports of disagreements, he allows, “I imagine there’s a little static now and then.” But, he adds, “the Bushes are loyal to each other to the hilt. You make one of them mad, you make all of them mad.” The president’s political adviser Karl Rove, who has known and worked with both 41 and 43 off and on for more than 30 years, is even more pointed. When I explain that I am writing about their relationship and would value his insights, he writes back, “You are an optimistic man. I will participate only if 84 tell me to.”

Without knowing it, Rove invoked the notion that had been growing in my own mind during several months of conversations with people close to both father and son—members of their personal and official families, longtime friends, current and former high government officers, and political aides (many of whom would speak only off the record, mindful of the Bush code of Wasp omertà). The notion is just a number: 84. That’s 41 plus 43. The whole that sums up the parts. The common characteristics that bind this father and this son, so different in so many ways. The shared traits and talents that helped take them both, by such apparently different approaches, to the pinnacle of power. And the shared shortcomings of substance and style—the stubbornness, the reticence, the ruthless expediency, qualities perhaps best summed up as Bushiness—that by this spring had helped bring the son to the same humiliating historical benchmarks of repudiation that the father had reached: a 31 percent approval rating and a public eager for leadership by anybody else.

For if the father and son’s private relationship with each other remains hard to penetrate, how father and son stand in relationship to each other seems increasingly apparent. They share one creed above all: Bushes know best. That faith has served them well when others doubted their ability, or their seriousness, or their determination. But it has also made for a crippling kind of brittleness in the face of challenge.

“If you’re so goddamned smart, how come you’re not the president?” the first Bush used to ask his longtime aide James A. Baker with asperity in those dark days of 1992, when everyone but the president himself thought he was headed to defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. “I’m the decider, and I decide what is best,” his son said this spring as his second term seemed to be entering free fall.

The son likes to say that he has his daddy’s eyes and his mother’s mouth, but the truth is more intriguing. “Forty-three is an absolute split of DNA between his mother and his father,” says Mark McKinnon, his veteran media adviser. “He gets his ‘pop’ from his mother, and his emotional core from his father.” In 1999, Jeb Bush told his brother’s biographer Bill Minutaglio that George W. “has my mom’s irreverence—he has a lot less of it than he used to. But I think he has a lot of my dad in him. I think he has a lot more than he might realize.” “I always thought it was largely psychobabble about how incredibly different they are,” says Torie Clarke, who went to work in the elder Bush’s vice-presidential press office in 1981, served the younger Bush as Pentagon spokeswoman at the height of the Iraq war, and admires them both. Doug Wead, an evangelical Christian who has worked for both 41 and 43, says, “When I first met George W. Bush, in March 1987, I was struck about how different he was from his father, then later saw how much alike they really are.” Ron Kaufman, a loyal 41 aide for many years, says simply, “The stock’s the same. The box is different.”


Why does this relationship matter? For one thing, it is all but unique in American history. John Adams, the only other presidential father to beget a presidential son, was succeeded by John Quincy Adams—not 8 years after leaving office but 28 years after, and in a world so slow that when John died, at 90, in Massachusetts, scarcely a year into his son’s presidency, his body was laid to rest before John Quincy even knew he was gone. Neither could have imagined the shared thrill, heartbreak, or revanche potential of watching father-son leadership play out on the world stage 24-7.

But, more important, understanding the ways in which the George Bushes are alike, rather than how they’re different, may be the key to understanding their presidencies. In Washington these days, people shake their heads over 43 as if to suggest that we’d have none of these troubles if only the sure hand of 41 were at the helm. But what if the man at the helm is 84—and what if he’s a big part of the problem?

Changing the Lens

Seen in the conventional way, the life of George Herbert Walker Bush is the story of a Golden Boy of the Greatest Generation. He was the youngest pilot in the navy when he received his wings, in World War II, the earnest young married father who earned a Phi Beta Kappa key at Yale. He broke away from his eastern Wasp family to start a successful oil-drilling business in Texas, then built the best résumé in Republican politics: two terms in Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican Party, ambassador to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president of the United States, and finally president, the man who presided over the end of the Cold War and over the Gulf War with serene confidence and consummate skill, only to be undone by his seeming inattention to domestic concerns and the conservative base of his own party.

Seen through the same conventional lens, the life of George Walker Bush is the story of a disappointing first son, “the biggest and most jagged chip off the old block,” as the writer Richard Ben Cramer once called him. He tried and failed for most of his life to follow in his father’s intimidating footsteps, paling by comparison with his brighter, more serious younger brother Jeb. He scoffed at the elite institutions his father had revered. Finally, after finding God and sobriety at 40, he bought into a baseball team and built a stadium. Only then, against the smart money and his own mother’s predictions, did he somehow become governor of Texas and the prohibitive favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. As candidate and president, he seemed to go out of his way to do whatever his father had not, from perfecting the ruthless art of modern campaigning to placating his most conservative supporters, to toppling Saddam Hussein, to winning a second term.

Now, stop. Rewind. If, as the cliché has it, the Bushes are the Corleones of American politics, there is another way to see these movies, not as Bush I and Bush II—an original story and its sequel—but as one interwoven, intergenerational director’s cut. And seen this way, the old familiar narrative takes on significant new shadings, and perhaps a deeper truth.

Consider this: George Herbert Walker Bush was his mother’s son, with all of Dorothy Walker’s warmth, competitiveness, and joie de vivre. He spent most of his public life trying to live up to the accomplishments of his father, the tall, silken Senator Prescott Bush, of Connecticut—one of the proud leaders of the liberal eastern wing of the Republican Party, who took on Joseph R. McCarthy, scared the four Bush boys, and told his grandchildren to call him “Senator” at Sunday lunch. One of George senior’s teachers at Andover had “very little respect” for his “mentality.” With the help of a rich uncle (his mother’s brother Herbie Walker) and friends, he was a success in business and became rich himself, though not by Texas standards, eventually selling his interest in an oil company in 1966 for $6 million (in today’s dollars).

He won two terms in Congress from Houston and helped build the Texas Republican Party when it was so small, he said, that it could meet in a phone booth. But he lost two painful statewide Senate races, suffered a lingering reputation as a lightweight, and won consolation prizes that were hardly consoling: Republican national chairman at the height of Watergate and head of the C.I.A. at the height of the post-Watergate investigation into its past abuses. When Jimmy Carter took office, in 1977, Bush went home to Houston, ambitious but deeply uncertain about his future at age 52.

“I’ve been tense as a coiled spring hopefully not a shit about it, but up tight,” he wrote to a friend. “There is a missing of stimulating talk. I just get bored silly about whose daughter is a Pi Phi or even bored about who’s banging old Joe’s wife. I don’t want to slip into that 3 or 4 martini late late dinner rich social thing. There is too much to learn still. I think I want to run or at least be in a position to run in ’80—but it seems so overwhelmingly presumptuous and egotistical … “

Now consider this: George Walker Bush was his mother’s son, with all of Barbara Pierce Bush’s quick tongue, needling humor, and long memory for slights. For all the rebelliousness that earned him the youthful nickname “Bombastic Bushkin,” he did not so much run away from his father as run to keep up with him. He lost his first congressional race, in 1978, for many of the same reasons his father lost two Senate races, with his opponent pigeonholing him as effete. He did slip into a three or four (or more) bourbon thing for a time. Ultimately, with the help of a rich uncle (his father’s brother Jonathan) and even richer friends, he became a success in business and (at least for a time) richer than his father, receiving $17 million (also in today’s dollars) for his share of the Texas Rangers when it was sold, in 1998. He was twice elected governor of the nation’s second largest state, the second time at age 52. By that point, his presidential ambitions were obvious, but when he set out to write his autobiography, a year later, he confessed to an associate that he did not think he had yet done enough to write a book.

To be sure, there are important differences, as friends of both are quick to note. The father loves tactics and the gossip of who’s up and who’s down, while the son likes strategy and figuring out how to hammer home a theme. The father’s innate kindness sometimes makes him pull his punches out of empathy for the other guy; the son is remembered for his prep-school swagger and his put-downs of the uncool, and today is so brutally tough on himself that he can also be brutal to others. The father has a thousand friends and loves to keep up with them; the son has comparatively few real intimates.

But in their presidential political careers, both Bushes have professed allegiance to the highest principles of dignity and decency in public life, even as both resorted to some of the most destructive and dishonest campaign tactics of modern times. Both have cultivated—in varying degrees—warm relationships with individual reporters, but both have also come to nurse colossal and debilitating grudges against the press. And both have ultimately struggled to be seen by the public as they are by those closest to them, as men who felt the burdens of sending troops into battle and understood the pain of Americans whose lives are less privileged than their own.

Even George W. Bush, as reluctant as his father to be put on the couch—if not more so—suggested to the German newspaper Bild this spring that there was only one place to begin thinking about him. “If people want to get to know me better,” he said, “they’ve got to know my parents and the values my parents instilled in me, and the fact that I was raised in West Texas, in the middle of the desert, a long way away from anywhere, hardly. There’s a certain set of values you learn in that experience.”

The Blink Men

In character, background, and breeding, George the son shares far more with George the father than he has found it politically useful to acknowledge. In the late 1980s, when 43 began seriously exploring a run for governor of Texas, he had a ready answer when people asked him how he differed from his father: “He went to Greenwich Country Day School, and I went to San Jacinto Junior High.” It was a funny line, meant to imply an origin on different planets, but too facile by far.

The surface similarities are obvious. The early-to-bed, early-to-rise rhythms, the near-compulsive exercise and endless competitiveness, the relentless discipline. The killer memory for names, places, and faces, and the fondness for nicknames: “Charlie me-boy” and “Bemo,” “Spider” and “Weadie.” There is a wacky prankster streak: During the 1988 campaign, the father walked the aisles of his plane in a rubber mask of his own face, saying, “Read my lips!” The son did loopy imitations of Dr. Evil, the Austin Powers villain, during his 2000 campaign. The father’s schoolboy diplomatic French finds its bookend in the son’s so-so stump-speech Spanish. The father signs letters “Con Afecto”; the son greets supporters with “Dude!”

When Gerry Bemiss describes his old friend 41’s approach to problem solving to me over lunch, it sounds so much like that of the son that I assume he is referring to 43, until he corrects me. “I think one of the most interesting things about George, it’s just so different from my approach,” he says. “What’s the name of that book? He’s a Blink man. He sees a situation and sizes it up. If he wants to think about Iraq, he’s not going to be reading Gertrude Bell. He knows what he thinks.” Family dynamics have left an indelible imprint on both 41 and 43. “It’s all family—everything,” the elder Bush once told Frank Bruni, of The New York Times, referring to the bustle of their summer compound at Kennebunkport, but also to the intense connectedness of the clan. In his 1980 presidential campaign, the father was asked what he was proudest of and answered, “The fact that our children still come home.” He once confided to his diary how stunned he was that Ronald Reagan’s dysfunctional family left him “short on love and what we take for granted in our family.”

Bush-family dynamics come with their own complications. If the second President Bush grew up in the overpowering shadow of a successful, famous father, so did the first. Prescott Bush, a partner in the Wall Street firm of Brown Brothers Harriman, won a Senate seat from Connecticut on his third try, in 1952, and promptly became a golfing companion of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s. His record was respectable, though hardly stellar, but his son worshipped him. “To this day, it upsets him if anybody tries to compare him to his father,” says Mickey Herskowitz, the Texas journalist and sportswriter who has been a Bush-family friend and wrote a book about Prescott Bush. “He’ll say, ‘My father was a great man.’ Even being president, he never felt he topped what his father had.”

A man of starchy rectitude, Prescott once turned in a boss for skimming profits. “I never heard him fart,” his third son, Jonathan, would recall. He was a Whiffenpoof at Yale and loved singing close harmony all his life, but he was also the sort of man who walked out of a room if anyone told a dirty joke. He condemned his friend Nelson Rockefeller’s scandalous divorce and remarriage in unsparing terms. His second son, George, would come to delight in dirty jokes (in the 1988 campaign, one of his favorites was “What’s 14 inches long and hangs in front of an asshole?” Answer: “Dukakis’s tie!”), and his grandson George took pleasure in shocking his parents’ friends (in his drinking days, he once asked Gerry Bemiss’s wife, Margaret, “So, what’s sex like after 50 anyway?”).

But Bushes are raised to know the rules, and a big streak of starchiness remains in both 41 and 43. In the middle of World War II, the elder George wrote a detailed and intimate letter to his mother, deploring the navy fliers who had “intercourse before marriage.” More than 40 years later, in the middle of the 1988 presidential campaign, it was 43 who took it upon himself to ask his father about the long-standing rumors that he’d had an affair with an aide, and who delivered this verdict: “The answer to the Big A. question is ‘N.O.’?” In that same campaign, 43 shocked some colleagues by publicly dressing down a female co-worker who was flirting with him. “Good, I hope she feels bad,” he said when told that he had hurt her.

As a young congressman, 41 once rushed home before a White House appointment with Richard Nixon to trade his slip-on loafers for wing tips. As president, 43 once went all the way to the White House living quarters from the family theater, in the East Wing, to change out of a sweater and into a suit and tie before retrieving something from the Oval Office, which he regards as hallowed ground.

Much has been made of 43’s intense midlife embrace of Christianity, and its supposed contrast to his father’s reserved Episcopalian mien. “There is a higher father I appeal to,” 43 told Bob Woodward, when asked if he had discussed developments in Iraq with 41. The religious intensity is real, but it misses a larger continuity: Prescott Bush instructed his family in Bible lessons at the breakfast table, and he and his wife prayed daily before he went off to the Senate. In the mid-1980s, Newsweek reported that George and Barbara Bush prayed aloud each night. The Reverend Billy Graham may have planted the “mustard seed” of awakening that led 43 to stop drinking, but 43 came to know him only because Graham had been a Bush-family friend and frequent houseguest for years, close enough that 41 once lent him a bathing suit when they and their wives ran into one another at a Mexican resort.

Graham was in the White House the night the Gulf War began, in 1991, and the night before the Bushes surrendered the mansion to Bill Clinton. This spring, when 41 presented his old, now ailing friend with the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, at the Bush Presidential Library, in College Station, Texas, he was so overcome with emotion that he was barely able to speak.

Rough and Tough

Through the years, 41 and 43 have battled remarkably similar political problems and perceptions. There is virtually no slight that one has experienced that wouldn’t feel familiar to the other. Both have been, in the son’s famous coinage, misunderestimated. At one time or another, each has faced charges that he was not qualified for the job he sought, that he was in contention for it only because of his father’s backing, and that he was not conservative enough for the voters whose support he needed.

Those who marveled at the son’s seemingly sudden, unexpected success had forgotten the days when the father’s rise looked equally improbable. In 1968, as a freshman congressman, 41 was briefly in contention to be Nixon’s running mate (largely on the strength of support from old family friends such as Thomas E. Dewey). Six years later, in 1974, he was in contention to be named Gerald Ford’s vice president, after Nixon’s resignation, but Ford’s adviser Bryce Harlow warned that “many top leaders” saw Bush as “intellectually light,” and that selecting him would be seen as “a weak and depressingly conventional act.” Nixon himself believed that 41 was not a “nutcutter,” the kind of campaign attack dog needed in a vice president.

Earlier, in 1964, the elder George Bush embarked on his political career with a losing race for the United States Senate from Texas, and he did so in that year of Barry Goldwater by running hard to the right, opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and proposing to arm Cuban exiles to go after Fidel Castro. At a time when Prescott Bush was hoping some moderate could keep Goldwater from winning the presidential nomination, his son begged him not to utter a word on the subject in public.

Bush lost to the fiery populist Democrat Ralph Yarborough, and afterward told his Episcopal minister in Houston, “I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it.” In 1987, preparing for the presidential race, Bush refused to attend the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Fuck ’em,” he reportedly told aides at the time. “I ain’t going. You can’t satisfy those people.” But his occasional resolve never really took hold. He would again (and again) tack to the right, struggling to accommodate his instinctual moderation within the increasingly militant conservatism of a Republican Party that was fast becoming Ronald Reagan’s.

His son, in contrast, is often portrayed as a political natural, who went to school on his father’s painful experience and became an easygoing ideological heir to the Gipper himself. That is as much strategic packaging as it is reality. George W. Bush made his first losing run for public office in 1978, when he was barely 32, running for Congress from the West Texas district that includes Midland, where he had grown up. But for all his undeniable Texas upbringing he, too, had to work to fit in, and not just because of his strange East Coast habit of wearing loafers with no socks. Ronald Reagan, two years away from his bitter presidential-primary contest against the elder Bush, endorsed the younger Bush’s Republican-primary opponent.

George urged his father not to make campaign appearances, and began pulling out his birth certificate at speeches, to prove that his full name was different from his dad’s. And W.’s good-ol’-boy Democrat opponent, Kent Hance, mocked him mercilessly, saying, “I don’t think he’s ever been in the back of a pool hall in Dimmit, Texas.” At one point, Bush demanded, “Would you like me to run as Sam Smith? I can’t abandon my background.”

He couldn’t abandon it, but he could and would suppress it, in an effort to make sure no one would ever again out-Texas him, or outflank him on the right. And years later, after 41 committed the pardonable parental sin of referring to him as a “boy” in the middle of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, the father would again be asked to refrain from public appearances on the son’s behalf.

Both 41 and 43 made bipartisan friendships in their early careers (the elder Bush with congressional Democrats such as Dan Rostenkowski, the younger with Texas state officials such as his avuncular mentor, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock), and both have sought to style themselves as a synthesis of traditional conservatism and a “kinder, gentler” brand of compassion (that very shorthand “compassionate conservative”—which came to such prominence in W.’s 2000 presidential race—actually made its debut in 1986, in the run-up to the father’s 1988 presidential campaign). But neither made much of an effort, as president, to govern with a genuine bipartisan approach—not 41 in the months of good feeling that followed Operation Desert Storm, nor 43 in the moment of striking national unity that followed September 11, 2001. Instead, they relied on a brace of Machiavellian political operators—the father on Lee Atwater, the son on Karl Rove—who had grown up together in the tight world of Nixon-era College Republican dirty tricks. In 1992 the father told David Frost, “I’m certainly going into this as a dog-eat-dog fight and I will do what I have to do to be re-elected.” And in 2000, W. told Doug Wead (who was secretly taping his conversations in the expectation of writing a book), “I may have to get a little rough for a while, but that is what the old man had to do with Dukakis, remember?”

In every moment of political peril for father or son, the public would be treated to one version or another of this nut-cutter approach, be it 41’s palpably tactical outrage in 1988 over flag desecration and the Pledge of Allegiance (which even his adviser Roger Ailes ultimately thought went “a flag too far”) or 43’s palpably tactical support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (which his own vice president opposes and which his wife publicly warns should not be “used as a campaign tool, obviously”).

The first Bush was doubtless sincere in his views about the sanctity of the flag, just as the second is surely sincere about preserving what his conservative supporters see as the sanctity of marriage. But 43’s live-and-let-live heart seems no more in this fight than 41’s Planned Parenthood heart was in overturning Roe v. Wade. When 43 greeted his Yale classmates for their 35th reunion at the White House a few years ago, one of them, born Peter Akwai, was unsure just how to tell Bush that he had had a sex-change operation and was now named Leilani.

“I guess the last time we spoke to each other I was still living as a man,” Akwai told the president, who smiled, shook his hand, and said, “And now you’re you!”

“I’m Not Changing”

But who are George?

Distill 41 and 43 into 84 and you get an awkward amalgam of unblushing private enthusiasms and suppressed public impulses. Eighty-four’s code of the road is not so different from Dorothy Walker’s: Never let ’em see you sweat; never show how much it hurts; never tell ’em what you really think, except in elliptical ways; remember that your mother raised you right; never give up; never give in.

Eighty-four is private. Revelation comes hard for both father and son. Neither is comfortable with public professions of tenderness, though each is clearly tenderhearted. The father found himself unable to make toasts at any of his children’s weddings, but wrote them all touching letters later. After the death of his only daughter, Robin, from leukemia at age three, he wrote a wrenching letter to his mother about what his family of four boisterous boys was missing. “We need someone to cry when I get mad—not argue. We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl.” (The next year, his last child and second daughter, Doro, was born.) The son’s public posture toward his twin daughters is one of bemused sufferance, but when Jenna told him he had done a good job in a campaign debate in 2000, he broke down and cried.

This reticence can have politically damaging results. Aides who accompanied 41 to the scene of the Los Angeles riots and of Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, say that he seemed shaken, even devastated, by the damage and destruction. His public utterances conveyed little sense of that. Much the same could be said for 43’s “heckuva job” response to Hurricane Katrina last fall. To read newspaper accounts of the two events 13 years apart is to realize how interchangeable they could be.

Eighty-four would rather not talk. “Leading up to the 1980 campaign, George Bush had a relationship with the media not that different than [John] McCain’s has been until recently,” says Torie Clarke. “They really liked him. They really, really liked him.” But then their shining hero signed up with Reagan and became the most loyal, closemouthed vice president of modern times, never dishing, never trashing, and once proclaiming, “I’m for Mr. Reagan, blindly.” His reward for doing what he’d been raised to see as the right thing: dismissal as a “lapdog” by George F. Will and, in a Newsweek cover story that appeared the day he announced his own candidacy for president, questions about whether he was a “wimp.” As president, he would enjoy a brief revival with reporters, who were stunned by his accessibility after Reagan’s “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” press strategy. But by the time of the 1992 campaign, he relished a button that said, annoy the media. re-elect george bush, and he obsessed over slights like the New York Times story that portrayed him as marveling at an ordinary supermarket scanner, when in fact it had been a super-sophisticated model that could read torn or jumbled bar codes.

His eldest son took all this in and began his own run for the presidency with surface bonhomie but no illusions. He once told Alexandra Pelosi, the young documentary-film maker who rankled some of her colleagues on the plane with her efforts to chronicle their “journeys with George” (which became the film’s title), that “those people are not your friends.” “The father agonized over inaccurate press accounts,” Doug Wead says. “The son fosters them. When Bill Minutaglio called to ask if G.W.B. had been born in a hospital or at home—there were conflicting stories—G.W.B. laughed and said to me, ‘Don’t tell him.’ I think he had genuine contempt for the press and how they hurt his father. He knew their names and their stories and their editors and their careers and sometimes their father’s careers, and he loved for them to get it wrong and then discover that later and be humbled by that fact.”

Eighty-four digs in his heels. Both men have run second-rate communications operations, in part because they view that as a secondary skill set. Both assume that since they have done X there’s no reason to explain X, since the merit of X exists in their having decided to do it. A dominant 84 characteristic is the conviction of both father and son that they are singularly qualified to lead, in large measure because of a kind of superior personal decency. This feeling flashed in 41’s flailing, eleventh-hour attacks on Bill Clinton’s character in 1992, and in 43’s post-Monica pledge to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office by rescuing it from Al Gore. The conviction descends straight from Prescott Bush’s rectitude. And it contributes to the Bushiest quality of all: stubbornness in the face of facts that argue otherwise.

At the end of the 1988 Republican convention, in New Orleans, 41 reflected on one of the most consequential, and controversial, decisions he would ever make: his selection, on his own, without the approval of key advisers, of the underqualified Dan Quayle as his running mate. “It was my decision,” he wrote in his diary, “and I blew it, but I’m not about to say that I blew it.”

If the son keeps a diary, no one has yet seen it, but the public indication is that he is every bit as stubborn. “The interesting thing about Washington is that they want me to change … and I’m not changing, you know,” 43 told the Bild interviewer this spring. “You can’t make decisions if you don’t know who you are, and you flip around with the politics. You’ve got to stay strong in what you believe, and optimistic that you’ll get good results.”

Such willingness to stick with gut instincts—to “stay the course,” as 41 used to say—is evident in many aspects of the two Bushes’ presidencies. The elder Bush stuck to his guns when the chattering classes and his own top aides told him he should replace the bumptious John Sununu as White House chief of staff. He went with his own instincts when others warned him that he needed to rev up his re-election campaign early, in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge from Bill Clinton and the wild card Ross Perot. And the younger Bush stuck to his guns when the chattering classes and Republicans in Congress warned him that he should replace the kindly Andy Card as White House chief of staff. Until very recently he resisted all calls to recalibrate the tone or substance of his approach to Iraq, or to gas prices, or to the economy, dismissing such demands as the capital’s conventional periodic insistence on change for change’s sake.

Each has been captive to stubborn, defining decisions made early in his tenure. As Hugh Heclo, a professor at George Mason University, has noted, the standard view is that 41’s signature political mistake was reneging on his 1988 pledge of “no new taxes”—enraging his right flank, inspiring Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge, and fueling the deficit-cutting fire of Ross Perot. But the real mistake, says Heclo, lay in forswearing tax increases in the first place.

The second Bush vowed never to face a similar problem, and made huge tax cuts the signature issue of his first year in office. But “by presenting tax cuts as the one and only way to think about the nation’s economic and fiscal problems,” Heclo argues, the younger Bush “has tended to foreclose future choices for governing.” Time (and the costs of the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and stepped-up border security) has more than proved that true. Now, just as his father did, Bush faces fire on his right for letting government grow, for spending too much, and for paying too little attention to hot-button issues such as immigration and gay marriage. Throughout the 2004 re-election campaign, and for months afterward, his poll ratings were saved from collapse only by the fealty of his most conservative supporters, something that—as of this summer—he can no longer take for granted. Now he faces repudiation by economic conservatives, who worry about his spending, and by civil-libertarian conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, who is a supporter of the Iraq war but is appalled by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. On his Web site Sullivan laments, “This shallow, monstrous, weak and petty man is still the president. God help us.”

Clouds of War

I do believe the people around the president in some respects are driven by demons of the one-term father,” a longtime 41 associate tells me. “And I think that, in a weird sort of way, it’s like any Shakespearean play, the demons end up recurring.” This sort of “demon” talk is psychobabble—something else that 84 can’t stand. If it were up to him, you’d probably get some pained reference to “the relationship thing.”

On the afternoon of his first inauguration, in 2001, George W. Bush walked into the Oval Office for the first time as president. It was a room he had already seen on many occasions in a way unlike any other man who has become president in modern times, but now it was his, and he looked it up and down. He stopped silently behind the big desk. Suddenly he heard footsteps in the hall outside, and his father entered the room. Andy Card, the new chief of staff, told the Bush-family biographers Peter and Rochelle Schweizer what happened next.

“Mr. President,” the father said, his voice cracking.

“Mr. President,” the son replied as both began to cry.

Eighty-four can mist up pretty easily. That teary greeting in the Oval Office was the joyous counterpoint to the moment eight years earlier, on the eve of 41’s loss to Bill Clinton, when father and son had cried together as they listened to the Oak Ridge Boys sing “Amazing Grace” in the presidential cabin on Air Force One, “so moving, so close, so warm, so strong,” 41 wrote in his diary. “I thought of Dad and I told George, ‘Boy, would my father ever have loved to have been here hearing these guys sing.”’

Whatever the two George Bushes had been to each other in all the years before, in that Oval Office moment they became brothers in a society far more select than Skull and Bones. “It’s a small club,” 41’s adviser, Ron Kaufman, remarks. “We’re not invited.”

In a little-noticed, hour-long public appearance with an old friend, former senator Alan Simpson, at the University of Wyoming last fall, the elder Bush twice went out of his way, unbidden, to address the issue of being one part of a presidential pair.

“Can I answer a question you haven’t asked?” he said at one point. “People always ask me, ‘What’s it like to have your son be president of the United States of America?’ And to every parent here I would say, ‘It’s exactly like how you feel about your sons or your daughter. Exactly.’ If your kid hits a triple in Little League, you’re there for them, with ’em, feeling high. If something goes wrong, if they’re about to throw your daughter out of school, you’re on her side, you’re lifting her up, trying to help. This is what it’s like to have your son be president It’s exactly like any other parent would feel about a child.”

But the Bushes’ experience is not universal. It is singular. Sons of famous fathers have endured famously tortured lives. Henry Ford’s withholding perfectionism drove his only son, Edsel, to ulcers and a premature death at 49. John D. Rockefeller drove his namesake to depression, nervous exhaustion, shingles, insomnia, and an overcompensating sense of guilt that led the family to storied heights of philanthropy but took a terrible toll on Junior. By comparison, the Bushes’ paternal-filial tango has been tame. When 43 once worried about the effect on his daughters of his seeking the presidency, Doug Wead asked him if his father’s running had ruined his life. “Ruin my life?” he answered. “Heck, it made my life.”

But there have been real tensions. Throughout 43’s childhood, his father was so busy building his business and political career that he was often a distant presence. He spent only two hours at 43’s Yale graduation, leaving his son to say to one Yale friend, “My father doesn’t have a normal life. I don’t have a normal father.” During the Christmas holidays of 1972, when 43 and his younger brother Marvin went out on the town, then drove home so drunk they caught a neighbor’s garbage can on their car and dragged it clanging down the street, 41 confronted his son. “You want to go mano a mano right here?,” 43 demanded. Jeb defused the moment by disclosing that young George had been accepted to Harvard Business School. “Oh, I’m not going,” W. said. “I just wanted to let you know I could get into it.” In 1994, when the family had expected that W. would lose his race for governor of Texas and Jeb would win his for governor of Florida but the reverse happened, W. got an Election Night telephone call from his father. “It sounds like dad’s only heard that Jeb lost,” he told his aunt Nancy Ellis. “Not that I’ve won.”

Forty-three once said to a campaign crowd, “Can you imagine how much it hurt to know that Dad’s idea of the perfect son was Al Gore?”

Even 43’s election has not entirely eliminated the static. In the summer of 2001, 41 made a great show of surrendering his seat at the head of the family’s summertime table in Kennebunkport to the new president, only to be casually rebuffed by 43, who seemed to think it was no big deal. Some family members worried that the old man had been hurt. (“Georgie aggravates the hell out of me at times.”)

People close to 41 say there is no doubt that he has worried deeply about the Iraq war, the paucity of international support for it, the shortage of American troops, and the feasibility of remaking the Middle East into a cradle of democracy. In his book A World Transformed, written with his former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, 41 explained his decision to limit the Gulf War, in terms that now seem prophetic: “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different—and perhaps barren—outcome.” It is not clear whether 43’s actual father was as much in the loop in the run-up to the Iraq war as his “higher father” was, or whether he was briefed in advance (as Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar was). Nevertheless, some say 41 has been impressed by 43’s argument that half a century of “realist” thinking about the Middle East led to the rise of Osama bin Laden and global jihad in the first place, and that it is time to try a new approach.

It is no secret that there is 30 years of bad blood between 41 and his onetime rival Donald Rumsfeld, who helped sideline Bush from politics in the Ford administration by engineering his appointment to the C.I.A., but friends dismiss as ludicrous recent reports that 41 secretly sounded out the possibility of ousting Rumsfeld this spring. One after another, associates of 41’s, speaking off the record, deny that people such as Brent Scowcroft are criticizing this administration with 41’s approval. And, to a person, these associates say that anyone who purports to know what the two Georges talk about privately, which they do often, is lying. Even some family members say they never ask.

History’s Verdict

The achievements of the first President Bush are starting to look better in hindsight—the coolness with which he managed the end of the Cold War; the deficit-cutting compromise that helped get the economy back on track (if too late to help him); the discretion that made him stop short of the gates of Baghdad in 1991—even as the glare of the spotlight in real time makes the second President Bush seem smaller and smaller. The swiftness with which he pushed through his huge tax cuts, the invincible air that surrounded him for months after September 11—all that is obviously less impressive now, and indeed almost forgotten. The president himself professes not to be bothered. He told his German interviewer this spring, “No matter how pressurized it may seem, I’m not changing what I believe,” and he added, “I don’t care whether they like me at the cocktail parties, or not.” He said he had read three or four biographies of George Washington over the last year. “People say, ‘So what?”’ he said. “Well, here’s the ‘so what.’ You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you’re gone.”

That is such a truism as to be trite. But George W. Bush really seems to believe it. That’s another thing about 84: the utter faith in ultimate vindication, a quality that instills great resolve but also erects an impregnable defense against criticism. Forty-three certainly has grounds for such faith. What journalist, what historian, would have predicted his rise in the first place? If it’s true that W. has brought his deep troubles on himself in some surprising part because of traits he shares with his father—if the Bush DNA has been his destiny in both a positive and negative sense—then it would be a mistake to count him out quite yet. He has shown himself to be, like his father, a man with limitations of vision, personality, and adaptability, but he has also shown himself to be, like his father, a man who is determined to prevail, to prove the smart money wrong. Bushes are bred to the task. Analyzing W.’s surprising rise in 2000, Frank Bruni wrote that the son “was trying to clear the highest bar that his father ever had, a higher bar than Jeb probably ever would, and he was up there, with his chin just over it, because his family members had taught him that he had a right and claim to such a place, even as they perhaps failed to communicate any expectation that he, among all the Bushes, would reach it.”

Doug Wead says, “In fact, G.W.B. is an evolved family member. He is the extreme manifestation of his father and grandfather, the latest species. More advanced.”

He’s not just 84, in other words—he’s 84.1: funnier, looser, but also more stubborn, more righteous, more ruthless, more closed-off, and more certain of the wisdom of his course, because it is the course he has chosen. The saga of evolution is filled with examples of advanced species that evolved past the point of successful adaptation. The question for history is whether 84.1 is a Bush too far.

Todd S. Purdum is Vanity Fair’s national editor.