Dad, the Bottle, Vietnam
By Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist
I see Bush’s behavior as the result of three major forces: the dad, the bottle, and the Vietnam War. For most of his life, Bush tried and failed to follow in his absent father’s footsteps. His father was a war hero; Bush a no-show Guardsman dodging Vietnam. His father did well in the oil business; Bush struck dry holes. His father got elected to Congress; Bush was defeated in 1978. A collection of Bush Sr.’s letters contains far more to Jeb than George W. Finally, in 1994, Bush was elected governor of Texas, but George and Bar were so upset that their anointed son, Jeb, lost the election that night for the governorship of Florida that they barely seemed to notice. You don’t have to be Freud to see that Bush has snubbed his father’s closest advisers (who turned out to be right) and hired men who held his father in contempt, like Don Rumsfeld (who turned out to be wrong). It was no big surprise that he rejected the Baker-Hamilton report. As with many former substance abusers, he became fanatically disciplined—maybe the most disciplined man to hold the office. But with discipline came rigidity. Former drunks sometimes fear that if they change their lives too abruptly after straightening out, they’ll pull a thread on their recovery and sink back into chaos. They never admit their helplessness, so when they succeed in staying sober anyway, it helps their confidence. It’s a reflection of their will to stay the course. This is too simple an explanation for Bush’s failures as president, but it helps illuminate his mind-set. Finally, Bush is a baby-boomer, but with a twist. He was rebelling against the reigning liberal orthodoxy of the sixties. He and other Vietnam War hawks believe that we lost simply because we quit. To give in to the Establishment view of his father and the Democrats now would be to repudiate his whole political sense of self. One thing has changed: Now he meets the families of the dead. It has wiped the smirk off his face—but it’s actually reinforced his determination that they must not die in vain.