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Triumphs, troubles shape generations
Prescott Bush paved moderate path for son and grandson; wounded by friend's betrayal, he put high price on loyalty
By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 4/23/2001
Last of two parts
rescott Bush was surely aghast at a sensational article the New York Herald Tribune splashed on its front page in July 1942.
AN AMERICAN DYNASTY
• Read Part One
Prescott S. Bush and wife Dorothy arriving in San Francisco to attend the 1964 GOP convention.
''Hitler's Angel Has 3 Million in US Bank,'' read the headline
above a story reporting that Adolf Hitler's financier had stowed the
fortune in Union Banking Corp., possibly to be held for ''Nazi
Bush knew all about the New York bank: He was one of its seven
directors. If the Nazi tie became known, it would be a potential
''embarrassment,'' Bush and his partners at Brown Brothers Harriman
worried, explaining to government regulators that their position was
merely an unpaid courtesy for a client. The situation grew more serious
when the government seized Union's assets under the Trading with the
Enemy Act, the sort of action that could have ruined Bush's political
As it turned out, his involvement wasn't pursued by the press or
political opponents during his Senate campaigns a decade later. But the
episode may well have been one of the catalysts for a dramatic change
in his life. Just as the Union Banking story broke, Bush volunteered to
be chairman of United Service Organizations, putting himself on the
national stage for the first time. He traveled the country raising
millions of dollars to help boost the morale of US troops during World
War II, enhancing his stature in a way that helped him get elected US
senator. A son and grandson would become presidents.
Prescott Bush did not shape great legislation or mold public
policy in his modest 10-year career in the Senate. No Joseph Kennedy,
he didn't plot to elect his son and grandson president. But his
successes and failures shaped the character of the Bush political
His tumultuous campaigns, his fight against his own party, his
difficulty courting Catholic voters, his wrestling with the birth
control issue - all of these trials have been reflected in both Bush
Like Senator Bush, the Presidents Bush have attached great value
to civility and loyalty in politics. They too have made self-conscious
attempts to distance themselves from their patrician roots and have
seemed uncomfortable with the political extremes of their times, just
like a forebear who billed himself a ''moderate progressive.''
There was little about the family household in Greenwich, Conn.,
to suggest that Prescott Bush envisioned a life in politics for himself
or his family. Politics was rarely discussed at the dinner table,
according to the former president, his son George H.W. Bush. This was
not a household of rigid ideology. Instead, there was a presumption
that wealth begat a duty to serve, a ''noblesse oblige.''
''I think I was indoctrinated with the fact that public service
would be a wonderful thing to participate in,'' Prescott Bush said in
his oral history, referring to the influence of his own father, Samuel
P. Bush, an Ohio Democrat. ''In fact, I felt it was one's duty to
participate in it.''
Prescott Bush was a complex man, morally rigid but politically moderate and even liberal on some issues.
''He demanded very high morals of his family,'' said William
''Bucky'' Bush, another of his sons. ''You go down the Ten
Commandments. He lived that.''
As a partner of Brown Brothers Harriman, Prescott Bush was an
invaluable salesman, bringing in customers with his charm and Brahmin
sensibility more than his ability to pick stocks. He stood 6-foot-4 and
was movie-star handsome. Laurence Whittemore, who worked with Bush at
Brown Brothers Harriman, said Bush reminded him of ''Roman senator on a
A modest beginning
For 17 years, beginning in 1935, Prescott Bush was the moderator of the Town Meeting in
Greenwich, a modest job that hardly seemed a steppingstone for national
office. More important was Bush's post as finance chairman of the
Connecticut Republican Party. Republicans had grown to respect his
ability to raise huge amounts of money, which has become a family
tradition, and Bush began to set his sights on a US House seat. But his
banking partner Roland Harriman, the brother of company founder W.
Averell Harriman, dissuaded Bush.
''Don't do it,'' Roland Harriman told him. ''We need you more here than the House needs you.''
Bush agreed, partly because ''it would have been a big come-down for me, financially.''
Soon, however, Bush decided that he wanted to leap directly to
the Senate, and Bush's aspiration nearly was fulfilled in 1950. But on
the Sunday before Election Day, Bush was accused of being president of
the Birth Control Society. At the time, Connecticut was one of two
states to ban the use of birth control, including condoms. (The other
state was Massachusetts.)
Connecticut was then 55 percent Catholic, ''and the archbishop
was death on this birth control thing,'' Prescott Bush recalled. Many
voters phoned the Bush home, asking whether the story were true. Bush
denied it all, but it was too late. He lost the Senate race by 1,102
votes, setting the family standard for razor-thin elections until his
grandson, George Walker Bush, was elected president a half century
The controversy over birth control foreshadowed the way his son
and grandson have faced questions during their presidential campaigns
about the depth of their opposition to abortion.
Two years later, Bush once again ran for the Senate, but this
time he didn't get the nomination. He was about to give up on public
life when the state's second senator, Brien McMahon, died. Bush got a
second chance to seek the nomination that year, and the party presented
it to him on the proverbial platter.
The party leaders came ''to beg me to stand for nomination,''
Bush recalled. He suddenly realized, ''Well, my God, maybe I will be a
US senator yet.''
But an unlikely obstacle stood in his way. It was W. Averell
Harriman, his former business partner and mentor, who had used his own
cash to save Bush from bankruptcy during the Depression.
The two men were now political enemies. Harriman, who in 1952
unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination, gave the
nominating speech for Bush's Democratic opponent, Abraham Ribicoff.
Bush, stung by what seemed like a friend's betrayal,
said: ''Harriman made a speech calling for my defeat. Why did he do
that? The answer, of course, is that he has become a captive of the
extreme left wing of the Democrat Party, which I have consistently
The Harriman-Bush episode, perhaps more than any other, marks
the birth of the Bush family's political soul. No more would there be
naive assumptions that all patricians and partners in business would
stand together. Over the years, the Bushes would be tagged as elitists.
They would often respond that the Democrats were the real elitists -
and cite Harriman as a bitter example. Similarly, the Bushes value
loyalty above all else, and once again Harriman helps explain why.
A new strategy, chance
Prescott Bush, like his son and grandson, struggled to distance
himself from his patrician roots. The result was sometimes comical in
''A big surprise of the Connecticut political campaign, now
getting under full steam, has been the unorthodox behavior of Prescott
S. Bush, of Greenwich, a Wall Street banker, who sings bass with a Yale
Whiffenpoof quartet at political rallies and has been accompanied at
some of his appearances by the Brooklyn Sym-Phoney Orchestra, the zany
Bush said he wanted voters to think, ''Pres Bush may be a New
York banker, but he's trying to give other people a little fun in
The strategy - aided by Dwight Eisenhower's coattails - worked.
Bush beat Ribicoff by 31,110 votes and gained his revenge against
Bush labeled himself a ''moderate progressive,'' foreshadowing
the way his son would run as the candidate for ''a kinder, gentler
nation'' and his grandson would portray himself as a ''compassionate
conservative.'' In fact, Prescott Bush was sometimes too liberal for
his party's conservative leaders, incurring no end of trouble within
the GOP. He was to the left of his party on numerous issues, supporting
civil rights legislation, larger immigration quotas, and higher taxes.
A typical story about him was headlined, ''Bush says tax burden
may have to be bigger.'' Bush was quoted as suggesting that the Senate
should ''have the courage to raise the required revenues by approving
whatever levels of taxation may be necessary'' to pay the nation's
bills for defense, science, and education. He would hardly find
agreement with his son, who made the vow of ''Read My Lips, No New
Taxes,'' later broken, and his grandson, who is pushing a huge tax cut.
In 1956, when Bush was running for reelection, he came to a
stunning conclusion: The leaders of his own party seemed to be working
against him, even hoping to defeat him.
''I was amazed ... that they would take as small a view as that
of a man who is trying to do his damnedest for the Republican Party,''
Bush recalled. ''It was almost inconceivable to me that they wouldn't
go all out.''
Bush asked the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign
Committee to allay his concerns by publicly stating Bush would win.
But, confirming Bush's worst fears, the chairman refused. Worse,
stories were leaked to the press saying Bush was the Republican most
likely to be defeated.
''It hurt like mad,'' Bush said. Again, just as in the Harriman
episode, loyalty meant nothing. In the end, Bush won reelection, but
the experience left a deep mark on him and his family.
Bush's son and grandson have taken the lessons of Prescott Bush
to heart. On issues such as taxes and abortion, they have tried to
swing just enough to the right to keep conservatives mollified, if not
Akin to the Kennedys
While Prescott Bush had his troubles with GOP leaders, he got
along especially well with John F. Kennedy. The New Englanders served
in the Senate together for eight years and continued to collaborate
during the first two years of Kennedy's presidency.
''There was a certain kind of bond,'' said Senator Edward M.
Kennedy. ''Prescott Bush was committed to civil rights. He cosponsored
the Peace Corps. They both came to the Senate together. My brother
thought Prescott Bush was a very principled person.''
Indeed, when a young Edward Kennedy asked his brother in 1959 to
recommend a Republican to speak to law students, John F. Kennedy
Years later, Prescott Bush reflected on the difference between
the Bushes and the Kennedys. ''You take the Kennedys, it's quite
extraordinary, but they never were in business, the boys,'' Bush said.
''They came up through politics.''
Bush's son and grandson, of course, came up through both
business and politics, and the influence of business interests on the
Bushes remains at the heart of policy disputes between the two
Senator Kennedy, who knew Prescott and knows the two Bush
presidents fairly well, said the current president reminds him of the
way Prescott also sought to set a civil tone. But Kennedy rues the way
the Bushes have strayed from Prescott's relatively progressive roots in
order to adhere to ''modern Republican doctrine.''
Prescott Bush was not a party leader or the prime author of
well-known legislation, focusing mostly on local issues instead. His
most notable accomplishment may have been his denunciation of Senator
Initially, as a Senate candidate, Bush was reluctant to brush
off McCarthy. The Wisconsin senator's crusades against communists hit a
nerve with many people in Connecticut, which had thousands of
immigrants from countries that had been taken over by communists.
So in October 1952, just before Election Day, Bush agreed to appear at a rally with McCarthy in Connecticut.
''The place was packed ... I never saw such a wild bunch of
monkeys in any meeting that I've ever attended,'' Bush recalled. ''I
went out on stage with my knees shaking considerably to this podium,
and I said I was very glad to welcome this Republican senator to our
state and that we had many reasons to admire Joe McCarthy ... I said,
`But I must in all candor say that some of us, while we admire his
objectives in this fight against Communism, we have very considerable
reservations sometimes concerning the methods which he employs. And
with that the roof went off with boos and hisses and catcalls and
`Throw him out.'''
After the rally at Kline Memorial Hall in Bridgeport,
where McCarthy said he held in his hand the names of 100 communists in
the State Department, Bush accepted McCarthy's invitation to dinner.
''This was all very friendly,'' Bush said later. McCarthy asked
if Bush wanted a large campaign contribution, but Bush said he was in
Bush remained friends with McCarthy, but by 1953, Bush was
appalled at the way he was attacking fellow senators. After voting to
censure McCarthy, Bush sent a message to President Eisenhower. Bush
asked him to give a ''a good pat on the back'' publicly to another
senator, who had authored the censure report. Eisenhower immediately
took the suggestion, and within hours McCarthy was attacking more
senators, who in turn abandoned him.
''So this was the end of Joe McCarthy, when his own crowd left
him, do you see?'' Bush said later, giving himself credit for
McCarthy's demise. ''Joe never knew that I instigated this
A reluctant retirement
Near the end of his second term, Prescott Bush was urged by his doctor to retire at a time his reelection was not in doubt.
''He once told me the best job in the world was in the United
States Senate,'' said son Prescott Bush Jr. ''He could have been
reelected from his desk in the Senate.''
But Bush, exhausted and dreading the endless travel of the
campaign, and under some pressure from his concerned wife, stunned the
Connecticut political world by withdrawing.
Bush spent the last 10 years of life back working at Brown
Brothers Harriman, where he was no longer a top figure, and watching
his son George try to follow his path into politics. In 1966, George
Herbert Walker Bush was elected to the House. But four years later, he
failed to follow his father's path to the Senate.
When Prescott Bush died in 1972, his son was ambassador to the
United Nations, a job given to the younger Bush by President Nixon as a
consolation for losing the Senate race. Prescott Bush could hardly have
imagined his son and grandson would become presidents. ''I don't think
he would be shocked. He would be exhilarated,'' Prescott Bush Jr. said
of his father.
Prescott Bush left a deep impression on his children and
grandchildren. The family pattern is clear: Make an independent fortune
in business, then make your mark in politics.
Little wonder that when President George W. Bush talks about his
roots, he invariably cites his grandfather's public service, while most
other observers merely focus on his father.
For if there is one thing that Prescott Bush taught his family,
it is that politics is life itself. He appears to have been depressed
at his decision to leave the Senate in 1962.
''It was a mistake,'' Prescott Bush once said. ''As I look back
on it, having not been happy in retirement for four years ... I've been
awfully sorry, many times, that I made that decision. The only stress
and strain I'm under is inactivity.''
Savor the role, savor the power, savor the thrill - that is all
part of Prescott Bush's lesson to his children and grandchildren.
''Once you've had the exposure to politics,'' Prescott Bush
said, ''it gets in your blood, and then when you get out, nothing else
satisfies that in your blood.''
Michael Kranish can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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