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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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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

AN AMERICAN DYNASTY
Read Part One


Prescott S. Bush and wife Dorothy arriving in San Francisco to attend the 1964 GOP convention.
(UPI Photo)


rescott Bush was surely aghast at a sensational article the New York Herald Tribune splashed on its front page in July 1942.

''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 bigwigs.''

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 dreams.

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 dynasty.

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 presidencies.

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 hill.''

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 later.

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 attacked.''

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 the 1950s.

''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 musical outfit.''

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 life.''

The strategy - aided by Dwight Eisenhower's coattails - worked. Bush beat Ribicoff by 31,110 votes and gained his revenge against Harriman.

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 entirely happy.

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 suggested Bush.

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 political families.

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 Joseph McCarthy.

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 good shape.

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 congratulatory meeting.''

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 kranish@globe.com

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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