Commentary: Bush forged his own path in politics

They used to be called the “eastern-establishment Republicans.” This breed doesn’t exist anymore.

George H.W. Bush was an eastern-establishment Republican, except that he was from Texas. When Bush went to Texas with Barbara and baby George W. after graduating Yale, he would be among the first of the newer type of Republican there. Until 1960, Texas had no, read that none, zero, Republicans who ever won elections, at least at the district and state level. Bush was one of those, though not without bumps in the road.

I knew George Bush in those days — and later, too.

Reid K. Beveridge

Bush was the son of eastern privilege. His father was a Wall Street banker, as was his older brother. His father also was a U.S. senator, Prescott Bush of Connecticut, another of those old eastern-establishment Republicans long gone.

But George eschewed a Wall Street career and headed to Texas to make his way in the oil business. He did the best when he connected with a friend to found the Zapata Offshore Oil Co., which perfected oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He moved from Midland, which is in the middle of the West Texas oil fields, to Houston.

And got involved in Texas Republican politics, heretofore usually labeled “country club politics.”

Bush was the sacrificial lamb in 1964 when he ran against the incumbent Democrat for the Senate in a year when Lyndon Johnson was going (and did) carry all before him, especially in Texas. Then in 1966, Bush ran for an open U.S. House seat in southwest Houston. The Democrats ran the Harris County district attorney, Frank Briscoe, assuming he’d win easily, as Democrats always had.

Nope. Bush won easily. And his rise began.

I got to know Bush well four years later when Bush again ran for the Senate, this time at President Nixon’s urging. It was not to be, of course. But we did forge a friendship of a sort, the kind an attractive political candidate can with a newspaper reporter. I traveled with the Bush campaign for weeks that fall. In due course, I met all the Bushes, although Barbara often campaigned separately. George W. was barely out of college. Dorothy “Doro” was a small child.

From Bush’s point of view, the juxtaposition of the campaign had been wrecked when the incumbent Democrat was defeated in the primary by Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., later a secretary of the treasury and candidate for vice president. Bentsen was from the Johnson-Connally wing of the Texas Democratic Party, quite unlike the liberal incumbent (even though Bentsen turned out to be pretty liberal himself).

Out of Congress after that defeat, Bush headed to Washington where Nixon made him chairman of the Republican National Committee. Then followed his ambassadorship to China and finally as director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Gerald R. Ford..

Out of office once Jimmy Carter became president, Bush undertook to run for president in 1980. He won the Iowa caucuses, lost the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan, won a handful of other primaries before Reagan overwhelmed him.

Throughout his career, Bush was much as portrayed in the eulogies. He was a kind and decent man. In fact, he was a much better office-holder than he was a campaigner. Though he was in fact pretty direct in 1988 when he ran the Willie Horton ad against then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Democrats continue to revile Bush to this day for that ad. Only trouble was, it was true. Dukakis had let Horton out of prison on a furlough even though he was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

I maintained contact with him from time to time over the years. One was a nearly morning-long breakfast in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was running in the presidential primary and I was a political reporter by then. While vice president under Ronald Reagan, I occasionally got one of his famous hand-written notes.

Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992 was far less effective, though to be sure, against a far more formidable opponent — Clinton. Clinton ignored Bush’s accomplishments in foreign realms and hammered him on the economy. The voters had forgotten Kuwait and the first Gulf War.

Sometime between early November 1992 and Jan. 20, 1993, I had lunch with a former graduate-school professor of mine. He was and is an internationally known expert on the Russia, Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. He was shaking his head at the prospect of a minor-state governor, Bill Clinton, defeating one of the best foreign-policy presidents in the 20th century, Bush. It was such a shame, he said.

Yes, it was.

Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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