The Kennedy family has been famously known over the years as the family of long memories, but the Bushes may have an even sharper recollection over past slights.
Stories are legendary of George H.W. Bush bearing grudges over offenses, even against his father years after he was in the Senate.
Robert F. Kennedy was often the chief inquisitor against those who spoke out against the family, including Ronald Reagan, who lost his General Electric career because, as son Mike Reagan believes, The Gipper had criticized the Tennessee Valley Authority, a favorite liberal boondoggle left over from the New Deal, as well as the Kennedy administration itself.
Stories are thick of Barbara Bush bearing grudges against Nancy Reagan. In Jon Meacham’s new book, "Destiny and Power," she complains often over real or imagined slights. Until this book came out, many had no idea Barbara Bush had such thin skin.
Truth be told, however, Nancy also bore some grudges, as I wrote in my new book, "Last Act, The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." In the 1980 GOP primaries, George H.W. Bush had waged an often mean-spirited and personal campaign against Reagan, centering on Reagan’s age and Bush’s relative youth.
Bush once went to the Concord, N.H., YMCA to do jumping jacks and later jog for the benefit of the TV cameras, to which Reagan, in a nice redirect, replied, “We don’t elect presidents to run foot races — we elect them to show judgment and maturity.”
Longtime Reagan aide Marty Anderson said that Reagan was “warmly ruthless” and in this dismissive rejoinder, he showed his toughness.
Over the years, the Bush family and key aides have cold-shouldered critics, taking them off of Christmas cards list, shutting them out of Bush political inner circles, cutting them off from RNC contracts, and more.
To insiders, there is no greater sentence than to be cast in the Bush’s “phantom zone” as it was known, as a nonperson. The Bushes over the years tossed many fair-weather friends into the phantom zone. To the outsiders, they wore such derision as a badge of honor.
The Bush family took losing personally, never blaming themselves. Bush 41 famously blamed his “no new taxes” pledge as to why he lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton, and not that he actually raised taxes including on beer and cigarettes, but not on white wine. Or that he rejected Reaganism, meanly, saying he would run a “kinder and gentler” administration.
Bush 43 and loyalist Karl Rove blamed the peccadilloes of Mark Foley, congressman from Florida, on the entire loss of the congress in 2006 and not on their widespread abandonment of conservatism.
But they were also a family of loyalists, so it seemed strange that 41 so personally attacked Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in Meacham’s new book. Or is it? One must go back to the early 1970s for the key to this lifetime fracas.
In 1970, a group of Texas oilmen, close to the Nixon administration, set up a Republican slush fund to help GOP candidates running for the House and Senate. It is not clear that the fund was illegal given the Wild West nature of campaign financing in those days, but the Republicans certainly acted as if it was.
George H.W. Bush ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas in 1970 and though he waged a spirited campaign against Lloyd Bentsen, he lost. Nixon went into campaign for him and Bush benefited from over $100,000 from "Townhouse Operation," a secretive fundraising operation.
Nixon liked Bush, and afterwards rewarded him with administration posts, first as ambassador to the U.N., and later as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But in the fall of 1973, Bush was vying with several other Republicans for the unfinished term of Spiro Agnew, who resigned ostensibly over taking bribes from a contractor while still VP, but who in fact was blackmailed by Nixon White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who threatened to expose Agnew’s mistress, who was on the vice presidential staff in 1973.
Nixon was desperate to pick someone both clean and non-threatening, a tall order for the mostly dirty and corrupt GOP of the era. Others in the running were Donald Rumsfeld, John Connally, Gerald Ford, and George Bush. Connally was quickly eliminated. Too Texan, too corrupt, too Democratic. It came down to the remaining three, plus the dark horse Nelson Rockefeller.
Rumsfeld, of course, knew all about Townhouse Operation and was accused of leaking information about Townhouse to the media, eliminating Bush from consideration by Nixon, earning the lifetime enmity of the elder Bush. Rumsfeld longtime deputy, Dick Cheney, also came in for much Bush derision.
The news eradicated Bush from contention and Nixon ended up choosing Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan. Around the time, journalist Jules Witcover wrote that everybody in national politics “knew George Bush was unqualified” to be president of the United States.
Thus, Rumsfeld earned a lifetime enemy in the elder Bush.
The Bushes, over the years, have often used shady tactics to take on political opponents, from Ronald Reagan to Michael Dukakis. When they did it, it was always with a sort of noblesse oblige nonchalance
But the Bush family never liked it when their own tactics were used against them. Sauce for the goose.
Craig Shirley is the author of "Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America," "Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All," and "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World." He is the founder of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, and has been named the first Reagan scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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