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 War II approached, luring George into the service just as he had his father.) Prescott, like his peers, sought a military role in the summer of his junior year, serving in the National Guard as it prepared to go to Mexico at President Wilson’s command. As soon as he graduated, Bush entered officers’ training school and went, newly commissioned, to France where he served, like Stimson, in the artillery.2

On his return to America, Bush felt he had to “go West” and prove himself, a part of the privileged class’s cursus honorum.3 The Harriman boys had worked, at the outset, as railway hands in the West. 4 Prescott heard of an opening, appropriately, at a Yale class reunion.5 Though he made a good reputation in Missouri, closing companies that were financially shaky, Prescott was often back in the East, where he stayed at the apartment of Ellery James (Yale ’17), which was “the old nest” for visiting Bones men of that era.6 Though Prescott is often said to have found his future wife in the West, she was the daughter of George Herbert Walker, the investment counselor chosen by the Harriman brothers—who were enormously rich but still in their early twenties—to be the esteemed elder executive of their first underwriting organization (W.A. Harriman & Co., founded in 1919). Their second operation, the bank called Harriman Brothers & Co., was not founded until 1926, and they were confident enough by that time to put a classmate in as president (Knight Woolley).

The Yalies who were clustered around Roland and Averell in the two Harriman firms had close personal and growing business ties with another band of Bonesmen from the 1917 era, who followed a Harriman friend, Robert Lovett, at the established banking firm called Brown Brothers. Lovett’s father had been the executor of E.H. Harriman’s will, after running the Union Pacific railroad for him. Robert Lovett grew up with the Harrimans—he impressed their father with his gymnastic abilities when the boys met in the gym of E.H. Harriman’s private railway car.7


Lovett had married into the Brown family after he joined their firm. Yale friends flocked to his side—Laurence Tighe, Charles Dickey, Ellery James, Robert Lovett. For all its ancient respectability, Brown Brothers was caught with too many failing projects in the wake of the Crash, and the Harrimans rescued the older firm, acquiring its many connections and surviving clients by a merger in 1929. The new firm, Brown Brothers Harriman, fused the two groups of Yalies from the preexisting companies, and Prescott joined them at this point. Almost all the significant figures in the new firm were coevals, classmates from Yale, comrades in war, brothers in Skull and Bones. The atmosphere was so chummy that no titles were given (everyone was simply “Partner”), no financial statement released, no votes taken. As Prescott later said: “I don’t recall we’ve ever had a show of hands or written vote or anything like that. You talk until the thing jells.”8

One of the strongest bonds in this tight little circle of male competitors was an interest in all the gentlemanly sports. The firm’s historian writes:

Anyone in 1920 who wanted to spot those who would be “coming men” at Brown Brothers in the years ahead could have done pretty well, it seems, just by picking the top men in the field of sports. When the firm opened its Chicago office on May 15, 1929, the resident manager was Charles S. Garland, who had been a member of the United States Davis Cup Team in 1920, and with R. Norris Williams won the world’s doubles championship that year at Wimbledon.9

The Harrimans were deeply involved in polo, horse racing, and rowing crew. Averell had coached the Yale crew (with Dean Acheson one of his rowers), and the firm recruited Harvard’s star, Louis Curtis, Jr., who had been on the American team that beat the British at the 1914 Henley Regatta.10

Prescott Bush fit into this locker-room atmosphere with ease. He had played first base on the Yale baseball team, and he was a superb golfer—a fit successor to his father-in-law as president of the United States Golf Association.11 Prescott served six years as secretary of the USGA, then two as vice-president, before becoming president in 1935. His prowess as a golfer was confirmed as late as 1951, when he shot 68 in the Senior Championship at Apawamis, setting a new course and tournament record.

Prescott Bush’s business and family life were both saturated with sports, and in interconnected ways. His father-in-law was Averell Harriman’s partner in the ownership of race horses. George Herbert Walker, who had been racing commissioner for New York State, promoted the rebuilding of Madison Square Garden in 1925. His own summer and winter lodges, in Maine and North Carolina, to which the Bushes sometimes traveled in his private railway cars, were centers of frenzied sports activity—riding, shooting, fishing, tennis, golf. Walker’s daughter, George Bush’s mother, was a fine sportswoman, the runner-up in the national girl’s tennis tournament of 1918.

But all this camaraderie would not have advanced Prescott at Brown Brothers Harriman unless he had produced as an investment analyst. He quickly became, with Knight Woolley, the principal expert on what projects to back. As he put it in his oral history interviews: “We [he and Woolley] were running the business, the day-to-day business, all the administrative decisions and the executive decisions. We were the ones that did it.”12

A typical example of his work was the way he saved and managed Dresser Industries, a manufacturer of mining equipment, which was in danger of failing:

In 1929 we bought Dresser Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania for four million dollars, and we sold securities against that company and refinanced it, you see, so that we retained a substantial measure of control.13

Bush, serving on the Dresser board, made his old Yale friend, Neil Mallon, the chief executive: “I was Neil Mallon’s chief adviser and consultant in connection with every move that he made with that business during that period of twenty years.” When George Bush went from Yale to Texas in 1948, he was hired by Neil Mallon to work for a Dresser subsidiary—a picture from the time shows Prescott Bush in Texas, where he was touring the companies in a Dresser airplane. George was really working for his father.

Prescott ended up on the boards of many firms he underwrote, including CBS:

Bill Paley came into our office with Herbert Swope, who brought him in, and he wanted to see Averell. Averell said, “Come on with me and hear what these people have got to say.” So I did, and the burden was this—that they wanted to buy for CBS a half interest in the CBS company, which was owned by the Paramount Company. Paramount was in receivership and had little to sell, and they’d agreed—Bill Paley had agreed—that the price was five million dollars for the half interest, but he could only put up half of it, he and his friends and associates, and would we put up the balance? Well, Averell put me on it, and I went out and got people interested in this thing and we raised our share, two and a half million dollars.14

This was in 1932, when raising that kind of money was no easy task. Prescott went onto the CBS board to watch what was being done with the investment.


Averell Harriman’s connection with the CBS transaction was typical. He had his father’s name, and his own dashing reputation, to draw business into the firm. But he quickly turned such matters over to Prescott, who minded the store while (as Prescott said) “Averell romped around the country and the world and did his stuff—very ably.”15

Prescott’s guilty little secret was that he wanted to get outside the firm and be more like Averell. That was the last thing the other partners desired. The establishment “wise men” took a certain pride in not running for office. Averell had to be indulged, since most of the money was his—but the conservative Republicans the firm dealt with were made uneasy by Averell’s close ties with Franklin Roosevelt. Roland made up for that by donating heavily to the Republicans, and Prescott raised funds for the party all through the Thirties (supporting Alf Landon against FDR).

Actually wooing the electorate, however, was a different matter. Roland firmly refused the first time Prescott asked permission to seek a seat in the House of Representatives. This was in 1946, when party leaders offered to put his name up to replace Clare Boothe Luce, who had left her congressional seat to write movies in Hollywood. Prescott was eager: “I said, that’s something I’ve always dreamed about, but let me talk to my partners about it.”16 Roland said that a race for the House of Representatives was beneath a Brown Brothers Harriman partner. It might be different if he were seeking the Senate.

Two years later, a run for the Senate did seem possible. Again, he was eager: “Well, I was just terribly excited by this. This seemed like a dream coming true, almost.”17 Bush would be running in a special election to fill the seat of Senator Raymond Baldwin, who had resigned to become Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Democratic candidate, appointed by Governor Chester Bowles to serve in the interim, was William Benton, the advertising executive who had served as assistant secretary of state from 1945 to 1947. There was one hitch. Congresswoman Luce’s husband, Henry, had expressed interest in running for that seat himself. Prescott said he would sound Luce out:

I talked to Harry Luce, who’s editor of Time magazine and a very old friend of mine from college days, and Harry expressed some interest in running for the Senate against Benton.18

In that case, Prescott said, he would yield. But after Luce decided not to run, Prescott sought Republican support for himself. He was stoutly opposed in his effort by a woman, Vivian Kellems, who ran her own business in Connecticut. Prescott Bush, member of so many exclusively male clubs, had his generation’s prejudice against women politicians. If his partners thought even gentlemen should be above pandering to voters, he could join them wholeheartedly in thinking that women should also be above all that. He had to be circumspect in expressing his views of Henry Luce’s wife; but his chivalry was severely strained in the 1950 primary contest with Vivian Kellems. He felt constrained not to retort in kind, which gave her an unfair advantage. Years later, in his oral history interview, he still felt resentful, calling her “a wicked little woman…and just difficult…the meanest.” When he reviewed the transcript, he crossed those words out. He blames his narrow defeat in the general election on the divisive nomination campaign she waged:

So, after a rather bitter campaign with her, I defeated her for the nomination and became the candidate and, in a very close election, after a hard summer and autumn campaign, I lost by a thousand votes to Bill Benton, when there were 862,000 votes cast.19

His investment partners must have hoped he had learned his lesson when, after the indignity of being insulted by a woman on the hustings, the prize still eluded his grasp. Perhaps now he would rest content with what he did best.

But Bush could not wait to run again; and, by a fluke, he conducted two Senate races—one for each of the state’s seats—in 1952. Benton, his victor two years earlier, was again up for election, since he was only completing Raymond Baldwin’s unexpired term. Bush felt that, if he avoided another rancorous primary, he could erase the small margin by which Benton had beat him last time. He intended to make heavy use of new television techniques. But this time he did not even get to the primary—William Purtell defeated him at the Republican nominating convention. After two losses, his political career seemed ended. The second one was not even a close call against the Democrat, as was the first.

But in July of that year, just as his campaign apparatus was being disassembled, the state’s senior senator, the Democrat Brien McMahon, died, making another special election necessary. Bush had a head start on all other candidates, since he had been running for the first primary. At last, it looked as if he would get past the nominating convention without a wrangle. But then another pesky woman stood in his way—this time the redoubtable Clare Luce herself. When McMahon died, Mrs. Luce called the governor from California, angling for an interim appointment to his seat. Governor John Lodge dodged the need for choosing between Bush and Luce by letting Purtell, the nominee for seat A, serve as interim holder of seat B, till another Republican nominee could be chosen. Mrs. Luce flew back from Hollywood to compete with Bush.

He had deferred to her husband two years earlier; but he did not mean to back off in her favor.

Immediately that McMahon died, Clare Luce barged into the picture. She was out in California someplace, and all of a sudden she appeared, and came back to Connecticut, and made a terrific effort to get that nomination.20

Mrs. Luce ran a lavishly catered hospitality suite at the nominating convention, but was not able, by her sudden swoop, to catch up with the Bush campaign already in place. “Clare Luce was very much disappointed by that event.”21 When Bush’s four-year first term ended, Mrs. Luce tried to face him again, testing her strength but then withdrawing.22 Bush, while professing his friendship for both the Luces, husband and wife, clearly felt uncomfortable that a woman could be so sharp-edged and assertive:

Clare—I’ve always been a little frightened of her, because I don’t deal easily with women who are severe or terribly determined…I’ve always been afraid of women who are pithy and sharp and sarcastic.23

Once the Luce threat was surmounted, Bush had to face the hastily chosen Democratic candidate, Abe Ribicoff, a respected state legislator and former judge. Ribicoff lost as narrowly to Bush as Bush had, two years before, to Benton; Ribicoff had been given little time to mobilize his forces for the unexpected special election, and he had the disadvantage of running against a Republican ticket with the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower at the top. This would be the last, as well as the first, election Ribicoff ever lost.

Though George Bush thought his father brought strength to a failing Republican Party, it is clear that he was having trouble with Connecticut voters. His WASP bearing and background made him suspect to Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their children. His trouble with Jews was brought on by his wife, a woman as competitive as Vivian Kellems or Clare Luce—but, Prescott surely felt, more ladylike. In response to the Democratic slogan, “You’re Better Off With Ribicoff,” Dorothy Bush suggested an ad responding: “You’re in a Jam With Abraham.” There was an instant outcry about a slur on the Jewish name.24 Mrs. Bush’s reply was the same one that would later be offered by her son’s press secretary when Dan Quayle called Governor Cuomo “Mario,” lingering on the syllables. “But that’s his name.”

The opposition of Catholics was a more serious matter. Late in the campaign, Drew Pearson wrote a column saying that Bush was a president of the Birth Control League. Actually, though he supported Planned Parenthood, Bush was not an officer of the Birth Control League. To counter this threat, Bush bought special broadcast time, and alerted its target audience by distributing fliers after Mass asking Catholics to tune in.25

The main lines of Bush’s 1952 campaign were established by the Eisenhower team’s attack on the Truman administration’s responsibility for “Communism, Corruption, and Korea.” Since, as a senator, Bush would vote to censure Joseph McCarthy, he has been considered a Republican “moderate,” keeping a careful distance from the far right. In fact, he appeared on the platform with McCarthy when the senator from Wisconsin campaigned in Connecticut, and when he voiced some misgivings about the methods of ferreting out Communists—drawing boos from the crowd—McCarthy came and shook his hand.26 Senator Benton had made so strong an assault on McCarthy that Connecticut Republicans—especially the Catholics Bush did not want to alienate—had rallied round McCarthy. Certainly Bush did everything he could to emphasize his own anti-communism in 1952:

The Truman administration, after failing miserably in meeting the menace of Communists in our own government, has sought to lull the people into a false sense of security…. General Eisenhower has made it clear that he recognizes Communist infiltration from within, as well as Communist aggression from without, as one of our greatest dangers.27

Prescott Bush appeared with Nixon while the vice-presidential candidate laid the deaths of Americans in Korea at the door of the Truman government “from Dean Acheson down.”28 Bush did not use Nixon’s phrase about “twenty years of treason” under Democrats, but he had his own politer version of the charge: “a twenty-year period of debasement of public honor.”29 This member of the Yale Corporation forfeited many votes at his alma mater—including President Whitney Griswold’s—because he supported campus loyalty oaths.30

He was just as strong on the “Korean” theme: “The Truman crowd dropped the match that lit the fires of war in Korea.”31 Unlike Eisenhower, Bush demanded what conservatives referred to as the “unleashing” of Taiwan’s army: “I am for the use of Chinese Nationalist troops in the Korean War.”32

When Ribicoff made the shrewd remark that Bush’s own banking partners, Averell Harriman and Robert Lovett, had been advising the Truman administration during the period of alleged catastrophe, Bush showed how far he was willing to go in burning his bridges with the firm to win an election. While minimizing Lovett’s actions as those of an independent “mugwump,” he went on the attack against Harriman, who endorsed his fellow Democrats:

[Averell’s] political thinking and judgment have been completely changed since he ceased active participation in our firm years ago to enter government. It is Abraham Ribicoff [ex-assistant secretary of state] and Averell Harriman who have become partners. At the Democrat state convention which nominated Ribicoff, 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. Harriman, of course, applauded Ribicoff’s nomination, which is all the evidence needed to show that they both represent the extreme left-wingers who have taken control of the Democrat party away from the true old-line Democrats. So it is Abraham Ribicoff and Averell Harriman who are partners—in politics, that is. When did either of them speak out against the corruption of the Truman administration? When did either of them protest against its soft attitude toward Communism? When did either raise his voice against the reckless policy that landed us in the Soviet trap in Korea?33

That speech, if nothing else, would have justified the partners’ aversion to electoral politics.

Though Bush just squeaked by in Connecticut, he was off to a roaring start in Washington. Since he was technically just filling out the term of McMahon, he was sworn in right away, making him the senior senator from Connecticut. Purtell, elected to a full term, had to wait until January, when the whole Senate was sworn in. As the dean of the “freshman class” of Republican senators, Bush organized a dinner to honor the new Republican president. He was sure of his access to Eisenhower since “I cultivated the friendship of Sherman Adams,”34 the special assistant to the President. Adams, who understood Eisenhower’s passion for golf, knew the President would be flattered to play with the former president of the USGA, and quickly arranged the first of many matches. Bush would use his closeness to the President to increase his influence in Washington and Connecticut.

But it was his very club mentality that caused Bush more problems from an “uppity” woman. The dinner he arranged in Eisenhower’s honor was to take place at Washington’s favorite country club, Burning Tree. It never occurred to him that the club’s exclusion of women was objectionable. Yet one of the new senators was Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. After she angrily criticized the dinner, Bush persuaded the club to make a one-time exception for Senator Smith. Even in his later oral history interview, he does not understand why she resented a “privilege” that sanctioned the general exclusion of other women. 35

The disastrous Connecticut floods of 1955 gave Bush the opportunity to use his influence in Washington to get immediate aid and longer-term flood control measures. This helped Bush’s re-election for a full Senate term the following year. But he was also blessed to be running in another Eisenhower year, since his replacement term was for four years. Even then, his margin of victory over Thomas Dodd was only a third of the margin Ike won over Stevenson. In Washington, Bush was, understandably, an Eisenhower loyalist. Though he had opposed his fellow Yale trustee, Robert Taft, by joining the 1952 move for Ike’s nomination, he tried to mend party fences by having Sherman Adams get an ambassador’s job for Taft’s son. For the dinner in the younger Taft’s honor, Bush brought the Whiffenpoofs to Washington. His son Jonathan, then singing bass in the group, got along well with the President, who regularly asked Bush after that, “How’s Johnny?”36 (Jonathan, unlike George, inherited his father’s musical gift and theatricality—he tried to reach Broadway after years of acting in summer stock companies.)

The ties with Sherman Adams deepened. When Bush was tempted to join those trying to “dump Nixon” as the vice-presidential nominee in 1956, a word from Adams warned him off from the endeavor.37 On the other hand, when the committee headed by Senator Arthur Watkins of Utah recommended the censuring of Joe McCarthy, Bush called Adams and suggested Eisenhower put his imprimatur on the matter by inviting Watkins to dinner at the White House.38

When Adams was forced to resign over an industrialist’s gifts (of a freezer and a vicuña coat), Bush remained loyal to his friend—and chose to emphasize the loyalty that made Eisenhower retain him so long, against all criticism, rather than the President’s final submission to demands for Adams’s resignation.39 One of the few really heartfelt passages in Bush’s oral history interviews concerns the sad departure of Sherman Adams from Washington.

On Sunday, when he was under most severe attack, he and Mrs. Adams came to our house for supper Sunday night. I said to Mrs. Bush, “Let’s ask them over. They’re in terrible trouble.” He came in and sat down at the piano, before he even spoke to us, and played. He played beautifully. He was a very musical fellow. Then we sat down and talked and had supper, and never referred to this whole thing, you see—never did. He appreciated that whole thing very much, and it made us very close together. As he left the house, he simply said to me: “You are a Christian gentleman.”40

Prescott Bush served the Eisenhower White House loyally and well.

George Bush resisted for a long time the critics of John Sununu, no doubt with memories of his father’s sympathy for an earlier governor of New Hampshire who became the White House Chief of Staff. (Sununu always flaunted the comparison with Adams, though some thought he should be embarrassed by it.)

Prescott’s financial expertise, applied on the Banking and Currency Committee, was put behind Eisenhower’s efforts to balance the budget. He was chosen to chair the platform subcommittee on labor in 1960. He voted for off-shore drilling, but opposed a depletion allowance his son quietly lobbied for.41 He favored presidential power—including the right to impose wage and price controls in an emergency. He was a strong backer of the CIA, of its covert operations, and of its director, Allen Dulles. His only criticism of the Bay of Pigs was that Kennedy did not “go through with that enterprise” when it bogged down.42 On the other hand, he cited Eisenhower’s warnings against an Asian war to voice dissent on Vietnam (after he left office in 1963).43

Though Prescott Bush was a “moderate” in the Republican spectrum, his conservative temperament made him favor censorship, loyalty oaths, and the removal of “dirty” artifacts from the cultural exchange.44 Despite his good record on civil rights—he was the Connecticut chairman of the United Negro College Fund in 1951—he deplored the militancy of blacks in the Sixties: “The colored people and their leaders have gone much too far in promoting disorder and rioting and this sort of thing.”45 When Bush completed his only full term, polls indicated that Abraham Ribicoff, bolstered by his association with the Kennedy administration, would avenge his earlier defeat at Bush’s hands. Running for the first time without Eisenhower at the top of the ticket, Bush was given little chance of winning, so he used fatigue as an excuse to resign his seat. His investment firm took him back.

It is an honorable record, though perhaps not quite as stellar as his son believes. Ironically, that son’s critics have conspired with him to idealize Prescott Bush, to make him shine as a foil, a principled model, setting off his son’s alleged lapses from principle. But Prescott Bush’s ideal of service was not, fundamentally, more connected to specific goals than his son’s. Prescott felt that belonging to the managerial elite, whether at Yale, at Brown Brothers Harriman, or in the Senate, was the main thing. Given that congenial company, with its basic standards, any problem brought before the team of wise men could be handled for the rest of the country. The wars against fascism and communism, which were approximated to each other, supplied the main problems. Defense of free enterprise was the proper response.

Given the demise of the cold war, of the Eastern Establishment branch of the Republican Party, and of the bipartisan wise men of the foreign policy establishment, the arena for Prescott Bush’s kind of politics has been dismantled. George Bush’s New World Order is the Old Order in a world where it has become irrelevant. Even for the managerial skills that make up his class’s one real claim to preeminence, he must turn to another—to Jim Baker. George Bush cannot imitate his father, not (as he seems to feel) because he is a lesser man, but because his father’s world has essentially disappeared. Stranded, now, in a harsher environment, George can do little to call up Prescott’s time except to engage in the frenzied round of games and exercise that sets the tone of a gentleman’s club. But the Harrimans and Walkers played polo or golf partly to relieve the even severer competitive pressures of their real business. To George, desperate bouts of tennis and jogging have become a substitute for the real world, not a supplement to it. And age and the doctors are taking even these tokens of the past out of his reach.

This Issue

November 5, 1992