the choice 2000

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interview: john ellis
photo of john ellis

Ellis is George W. Bush's cousin and peer and provides insight into the Bush family dynamic, particularly George W.'s relationship with his father. He also speaks about the experiences that have shaped George W.'s political career.
If you could, define sort of George W. Bush's role within the family, within the Bush family, as elder son.

I think he was the rebel in the family, and he was the one willing to talk back to his parents and make fun of them, very high-spirited, and a lot of fun. And I think also he was a companion to his mother... after Robin died. He was certainly the lightning rod... Barbara's hair turned grey overnight and it was a terrible blow, but it bound them together, Bar and young, George W.--in a way that I think they have a very close relationship to this day...

There's a wonderful description of him in Richard Ben Cramer's book, What It Takes, of him being the sort of firecracker in the family. And he was--what's that expression? He was the spoon that stirred the soup... for the younger kids, for Jebby and Marvin and Neil, he absorbed a lot of the parental energy onto himself, and thus shielded them from their misdeeds...

Could you talk about his relationship with his dad, his feelings towards his dad, his similarities and how he's not so similar to his dad?

I think that George is very close to his father...I don't think it was easy to be the son of George Herbert Walker Bush because he was someone who was so well-liked, so well-respected, and so well-known--he seemed to know everybody--that it was like you were always in the shadow because--no matter who you dealt with in town--really, everywhere, as time went on, no matter where you went, it was always about the dad just being an extraordinary person... I think George W. Bush has much more natural people skills than his father does...George W. is more like his mother than he is like his father.

How did George W. of deal with that fame of his father?

He did many things that his father had done before him, in part, I think, because he was comfortable--in Texas, in those days, the oil business seemed like a really good bet after the OPEC shot ...But he followed his father's footsteps fairly exactly, with slight detours... And that was both good, in that he benefitted from ... the affection for his father everywhere he went, and that made life, I think, easier for him, certainly in business, but also in politics; and it was ... difficult because there was always the people measuring, even though no one ever said they were measuring, but of course, they were.

It's a common thing for sons of famous men to deal with. How well did he deal with that comparison?

His grandfather, our grandfather used to say that everything in life before the age of 30 was education, and after that you had to sort of figure out what you were going to do. And George sort of pushed that out to 40, I think, and learning an enormous amount, and then took off like a rocket, when he sort of set his course.

I think he's very tough once he's comfortable with a decision, then that's the decision. So I think he dealt with it very well. I think he just sort of extended that period that my grandfather used to call education. ...George sort of took ... a lot of right turns, a lot of left turns, maybe some wrong turns, and many detours. And got to some point, after his dad was elected, I guess, this is the point where you would begin to chart the true course, and once on the true course, he really burned up the trail.

Were his parents the type of parents who had certain goals and expectations for their children? Were they were sort of trying to guide him on the path where they saw the potential and where he might end up?

I think that they weren't like, if he's going to be president then he has to get this and this and this. I think it was, if he's going to do the best that he can do, then he needs the best possible education to do that, and in our view--I'm making this up completely--but in our view, Barbara Bush and George Bush, at their age of whatever they were at the time, 40 years old or 38 years old, that what they knew to be successful was Andover and Yale. So there he went.

Was there a feeling that he sort of took a little different track than his father had? He was less serious in a lot of ways than Jeb, for instance. Was there a sort of a feeling that Jeb was on a track maybe towards following the family business and that George would go off in other directions?

You know, there's a thing that's gone, that's come up, called the family business, which is politics, right? And growing up, the family business was finance, and in George Herbert Walker's case, the oil business and then he got into public service afterwards. So, within the broader context of the family, public service was something you did after you made a lot of money in finance or oil or whatever it was that you were doing, and that's the way [Prescot] Bush had done it, that's the way George Herbert Walker Bush had done it....There was not a sense then that Jebby was a good fit for politics and George wasn't because Jebby was serious and on track and whatever, and George was talking detours and left and right turns. So that was never in the conversation.

How does one learn the family tradition? How did one in the Bush family learn that? Or how would George W. have learned that? And did he learn that?

It's the old thing, it's not what you say, it's what you do, and that's what his grandfather did, that's what his father did. So that was a comfortable model for him. And he went into politics first, in the Congressional race, and said--and he won the nomination and lost the election. And what he ended up with was--I mean, he didn't have any money, and he was defeated. He did not have a job. So if he needed a lesson in why you need the fire wall, that was a pretty good lesson.

Why did he run, then? What was going on in his brain?

I think it was opportunity, there was--it was all part of the right turns, left turns, U-turns and detours that he was taking at the time, and that presented itself... I think it was that George was sort of finding blindly, not blindly, but sort of feeling his way to his future, and this was an opportunity that presented itself that looked like it had potential...But he ran a good race, and he ended up with no money and no job. And he sort of felt his way to the next opportunity. He did it on instinct. Here's a thing, this will work, whatever, and then, the oil business, OPEC--so the oil business he put together, gets these guys, gets money from the east, put it together... and that was soon dry holes and -- who could have guessed that in a time when the need for domestic oil had never been higher, that the domestic oil market would collapse? But that's what happened, in the eighties.

In the election, when he's sort of going at it, does he go to the family for advice or help in raising money? Does he do it on his own? What's his mind set when he says, "Okay, I'm following the path of the family but this is how I'm going to do it?"

Well, '78 is, you know, you're doing it for the first time, you're enthusiastic, so you have your base of local support, and then you go to the family supporters. There's a funny story about George... George is in candidate school with this guy, and he said, I got a great idea. What you do is you get your mother's Christmas card list and you mail that, and I got $100,000, or whatever it was, from it, and of course nobody has a Christmas card [list like] George and Barbara Bush. But that's all hands on deck. You're just trying to raise as much money as you can, so you do whatever you can to raise the money. So yeah, would he turn to his parents? Absolutely.

So, in other words, how does he view the benefits, then, of the Bush name and the Bush connections?

The advantages are so overwhelming that they can clear a field. I mean, George does all of the work that he needs to do, and he works very hard at it and he's very disciplined at it, to make sure that the path for him is as clear and as straight as it can be. But he's well aware, obviously, that a lot of the cutting out of the underbrush is simply a function of the family name.

Is it the name? Are things being handed to him on a silver platter because of the Bush name?

I don't know if opportunities handed on the silver platter There's the view that he was born on third base and he thought he had a triple, or whatever. He has certainly had tremendous advantages because his father is the most admired and respected and honored person in the state of Texas; he's one of the most admired and honored people in the United States; and he has an enormous political network, and has an even more enormous financial network. So you put all those together, and it's a huge strategic advantage. The thing that George does very well is he says, Okay, I have this strategic advantage, how do I maximize it? Starting with this, what do I need to do to fill in the profile so that it works? You can draw a straight line from '89 to now, in which George took the advantage that he had going in and built upon it, to the point that he's now the nominee for president...The thing about George is, I don't think he wakes up and thinks, God, they're just hammering me in the press because I'm Daddy's little boy, or something like that. I think George wakes up in the morning and says, Thank God I am the son of George and Barbara Bush.

Let's talk about George H. W. Bush's 1970 campaign. G. W.'s involved; it's his first taste of real politics. Do you know how he dealt with the loss?

I think that the first taste of politics--Prescott Bush had chosen not to seek reelection in '62, and then George had run in '64... It was probably the first time he'd seen his father fail, and it was probably the first time that it ever occurred to him that people--whatever the percentages were, 58% or 56% of the larger population would prefer Ralph Yarborough over somebody named George Bush... I think, George learned one very good lesson, in 1970, which was, if you're going to be the challenger, don't be the challenger in a mid-term election, as, if you're a Republican, there should be a democrat in the White House, and if you're a democrat, there should be a republican in the White House. George learned the mid-term rule, which is that the party out of power in the White House does better in the mid-term elections. He learned that first-hand.

Where did he use that afterwards?

He used it in 1994, after Bill Clinton was elected, when he ran against Ann Richards. And the strategy was basically get even [and use the mid-term rule] to take us over the top, and they stayed even with Ann Richards from August 1st to November whatever it was, 2nd or 3rd, and sure enough the tide, the anti-White House, anti-Clinton tide brought them in by 8 points... Anti-Clinton and mid-term elections. George understood it from the get-go, he understood it immediately. And it was why he didn't run. He was thinking about running in 1990. And he was talked out of that, rightly, and his dad was defeated, and that really opened up the possibility for him to make the move. And he understand the mid-term rule.

What drives him towards politics?

I think it's something that he's good at. I think that he believes that he can--I mean, I think George thinks... I'm good at it, I can get things done, I can leave the place better than I found it, and I don't expect a win on everything, I don't--I'm not naive about the process, but I like it, I like the energy, I like the feel of it, and there are some things that I can get done that other people can't get done. So--I mean, there are a lot of reasons why people get involved in politics. One is sort of ego gratification, and one is, again, you look at the field and you say, Well, if Steve Forbes can be the Republican nominee, I can be God.... George is in politics because he likes the competition, he likes the action, he likes the team part of it. He has sort of definite ideas about what he thinks the country needs to do to be a better place. And he likes the attention, as we all do.

The '88 election, Dad's election/campaign. What was George's role and why was he sort of perfect for that role?

I think his role was to be sort of a family enforcer, look after the family. There were a lot of people in the campaign that were sort of new to the family, and so George was eyes and ears for that, but he was also good at translating for them how to deal with the family. So he was sort of a good go-between person. And then, of course, he developed a very strong relationship with Atwater, and he learned--I mean, Atwater benefitted from the relationship because he understood the family much better. George benefitted from the relationship because Atwater gave him the basic tutorial on Republican and national politics.

Define the importance of loyalty to the Bush family and, specifically, to George Bush.

I think that it's sort of a family, Three Musketeers, one for all, all for one kind of ethos. It's particularly intense for George W., I think, because he saw the loyalty work for his father's advantage, and then he saw the disloyalty that was ramped up in the Bush White House campaign of '92, and he loves his dad, and he couldn't believe that people would do that to his father.

How did he take the loss of his dad in '92?

Well, George is very clear-eyed about what was going to happen in '92. I think he understood early on that his father was in political trouble. I think he understood that the campaign was a mess, early on. And I think he tried to fix it in the spring, or the latter part of the winter in '91, and then the spring, and found that he was unable to do so. And rather than be the son and bang his head against the walls in Washington, and so on and so forth, he did what he could do, which was, to help out as much as he could in Texas.

George really confined himself, in the summer and fall of '92, to Texas politics, and they won Texas, and it was the beginning of this getting around to know everybody in the Republican party in Texas, not that he didn't, but now he really got to know every one of them. And so he did a good job for his dad in Texas, and also helped himself.

Let's switch gears a bit, and talk about what was going on with him personally. Why does he decide to stop drinking at 40?

I think George got to the point in life--and I've talked to him a fair amount about it, because I also quit drinking, when I was 35. And I think he got to the point where it wasn't working in any part of his life. It's the old thing, if you pound your head against the door--if you walk through a door and somebody hits you and keep walking through the door and you keep getting hit, eventually you either are a complete alcoholic or incredibly stupid. And George was sort of walking through that door and getting hit over and over again, and finally said to himself, I don't want to get hit. I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to lose what I'm losing to this. And so he quit... I mean, anybody who drank too much in their life knows that you end up not feeling good about yourself, and you grow sick and tired of being sick and tired, and George, I think, grew sick and tired of being sick and tired.

When he talks about the young and irresponsible days a lot of his friends will sort of say, "You know, he says that, but I think he's overstating it a bit." How irresponsible was he, and what does he mean by that?

I think by George's own admission he drank too much. I don't think he was an every night drinker, but I think he probably partied too hard. I think he probably said things to people that he wished he hadn't said. I think he feels, now, that he was young and irresponsible. And, you know, that's--I mean, I'm of the view of the friends who say, "Hey, that was [just him being young.]" But George, he's a very sensitive guy, and I think he feels like he hurt some people along the way and he feels bad about it.

Drugs. Did he do them?

I have no idea. I certainly never saw him use any drugs.

Why did he leave it an open story?

There's a thing in '94, I guess, where we were talking about how to handle questions about drinking and stuff, and my view was that there'll always be somebody who will come forward who will have the story even if the story is not true. And so that it is inevitable, it seems to me, that George Bush was at a party where he was drinking but where other people were using drugs, and I can't imagine that that's not the case. So someone could credibly come forward and say to the Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle or whatever, "I was at a party where drugs were used and George Bush was there." So the question was, in planning, in talking through what--how do you deal with that? And the response was, you don't, you just leave it flat and let it die. So that's what he did in '94.

Turning to George W.'s own political campaign, let's talk about Karl Rove. How important is Karl Rove?

I think Karl's very important, because, you know, George really likes the plan. George wants to know what the deal is, what the drill is, and he wants to know that at both the macro-level and--It's like Windows, there's the full screen Windows, there's the three-quarter screen. George wants to know what all the windows are. And that's what Karl does. And Karl, I think, meshes very well with George because all of George's charm and discipline is married to the intellectual framework and the shrewdness that Karl brings, on the political side. So it's a very good fit. They work very, very well together.

How important is it that he keeps on being underestimated?

There are certain things that are, quote, true about George Bush. One is that he's anti-intellectual. George W. Bush has assembled the most intellectually powerful group of advisors I've ever seen in my life, and I've been covering politics since 1978. I mean, no one has the intellectual firepower behind him that George W. Bush has. But we all know that George W. Bush is an intellectual lightweight.

And so "George Bush is a poor debater" is harshly based on the early performances in the primaries, partially the Bush campaign saying he's a poor debater, partially people think, "Hey, he's an intellectual lightweight, therefore he must be a poor debater." So he will always be underestimated, therefore he will always be better, because he's disciplined in debate, he's much smarter than he gets credit for, and he's really, really good at the politics business, he's as good as it gets at the politics business. But if those three things are true, and I think they are true, then he'll always exceed expectations.

Is he better in politics than his dad?

I think, in some ways, he's much better than his father, and I think in other ways his father was probably --I mean, we don't know, but he was probably better. But I think George is--he's much more naturally outgoing, he's much easier, he's much more comfortable in the political process. His personal touch is better. That's not to say that President Bush has no personal touch, he has a great personal touch, but he's a more reserved person, he's more of an older generation, the Second World War generation, less comfortable in the openness of modern politics. George is very comfortable and he's very good at it.

[And] I think he's very tough. I mean, I think once he makes up his mind, once he's comfortable with a decision, then that's the decision. And I think he has --George has the benefit of having been up the mountain with his father, and having been down the mountain with his father, so he understands the emotional range of politics, probably better than anyone other than his father and Bill Clinton. And he's disciplined himself, and he's gotten to the point where he does what he has to do to get the job done.

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