Father Knows Best

Prescott Bush
Prescott Bush; drawing by David Levine

Some Bushologists tell us there is a Good George and a Bad George. Bad George reluctantly lets slip such hounds of war as Ailes and Atwater. But Good George yearns to fill the shoes of his revered father, Prescott Bush, the senator from Connecticut (1952–1963). Prescott Bush is more often invoked than analyzed in this connection, and his son’s idealized picture of the man is readily accepted. When I asked Bush in 1988 if he had ever, in his life, differed with his father, he answered: “It never occurred to me to differ. I mean, he was up here [lifting his right hand up to the length of his arm] and I was the little guy down here.”

Asked what he learned from him, Bush answers, vaguely, “Service.” His father was so disinterested a public servant, Bush has claimed, that he only went into politics, after Truman’s 1948 victory, because the Democrats’ twenty-year hold on the White House made him fear for the two-party system. Bush pictures him as riding to the rescue of the Republican Party. Actually, he had tried to get into electoral politics earlier and been rebuffed—and he only squeaked through to his 1952 election on the coattails of Dwight Eisenhower, who ran well ahead of him in Connecticut.

The party did not need him. He needed it—which is the surprising thing about this patrician investment counselor who seemed to have everything. He had given long public service as the head of the Greenwich town meeting. He was active in his church, a power in the international financial community, a famously skilled golfer (president of the USGA), a model paterfamilias. But he itched for public performance on the hustings. The secret of this dignified banker is that he was really a ham. He loved performing with Whiffenpoof groups—which campaigned with him. As senator, he was one of the first officeholders to report back to his constituents on kinescopes for local TV. He had to fight his own firm to run for public office, almost like a young English heir going onstage at a music hall.

Yale was the key to everything Prescott later did.1 He was in a class (1917) that went to war together, celebrated the early Twenties together, and—speaking for the Skull and Bones members among them—rapidly became rich men together. Unlike some of his classmates, he weathered the Crash because a group of his fellow Bones members had clustered around their wealthy young leader, Roland Harriman (Yale ’17), in a network of banking and investing operations made invulnerable to the market’s collapse by the Harriman millions.

First, the war. Henry Stimson (Skull and Bones, Class of 1888) beat the drums for America’s entry into World War I. He promoted the informal training camp for Ivy Leaguers created at Plattsburg, New York, by General Leonard Wood. (Stimson would play exactly the same role as World…

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